The Daily Show Crosses An Intersection

image via I couldn't find one with the whole cast!

(Sorry about the title.)

This essay started out as a way to explain why The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was breaking my heart. However, thanks to recent events, it…evolved.

It happened one day when I was shifting through the archives on The Daily Show website and their page on Wikipedia; on a whim, I began trying to find the Daily Show correspondents who were women of color.

Well guess what?

They’ve never had one!

It’s not as if the people on the Daily Show—both the correspondents and the writing staff—aren’t amazing now; there’s a reason I love this show so much. They might be somewhat problematic, but ultimately I really like this show. The criticisms about government and media are usually very well placed and the reactions are real and cathartic in their emotion (Jon Stewart gets really angry sometimes, and it’s awesome).

So why did this hurt so much? It’s not so much what they’re doing, but more so what they aren’t and who they’re leaving out. It’s not so noticeable when Aasif Mandvi does a story on a toy factory, or when Samantha Bee does one on the “socialist implications” of Christmas ornaments. I don’t know how they choose those correspondents for each story, but the results are quite hilarious.

Certain stories are highlighted by correspondents based on who they are: sometimes it’ll be a joke, like when Wyatt Cenac goes to Arizona without his papers, but it can also be related to their actual beliefs, like when a panel of correspondents talked about their religious beliefs and stereotypes in reaction to Brit Hume’s ignorant and privileged statements about religion.

It is most noticeable when that is one of the main points of the joke, like when Larry Wilmore, as the “senior black correspondent,” does a bit that alludes to fashion industry’s use of blackface, or when Kristen Schaal, the “senior women’s correspondent,” talks about the burka ban in France. These reports were relatively well done, but it’s not the quality of the material that I am critiquing, but the absence of a certain depth and examination. It’s frustrating because while I do like these pieces, there will be moments when I feel like a connection isn’t being made, or an important distinction is being missed, like when Larry Wilmore suggests that there is a “pretty girl exception” or Kristen Schaal conflates the religious accessory the burka with the cultural fashion of the high heel.

What’s missing, I feel, is intersectionality. Intersectionality is a theory that elucidates on the subject of various sections of discrimination cross over one another and act in tandem and contributes to systematic social inequality. It notes that oppression models (like racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) do not work independent of one another but combine and mesh to create compound forms of “intersectional” discrimination. For example, women of color like myself do not experience race and gender issues independent of one another but concurrently. For example, I’ve been told that I fit the “quiet Indian girl” trope (no), which is a racial and gender stereotype. Check the wiki for an overall guide and more texts on the issue.

But then, part of the joke is that Larry Wilmore is an expert in “black matters,” and Kristen Schaal is (was?) an expert in “women’s matters.” There’re no experts in “women of color’s matters.”

One thing I’ve realized is that while the Daily Show delves into issues of racism and sexism, they rarely go into gendered racism / racialized sexism. Perhaps this has to do with the make up of their staff. They have had about seven women correspondents overall, and the writing staff only recently (within the last year) added two women to their all white (except for Wyatt Cenac) all male writing staff. It’s hard to complain about something that is so replete across all television shows and the entertainment industry in general. However, that does not exempt them, and the fact that the Daily Show was a victim of this hurt a lot more, especially since they actually address issues of racism and homophobia and sexism and the usual general stupidity and silliness.

So what should they do? Hiring a woman of color would be a good start. And lo and behold: when I was thinking of writing this essay a couple of days ago, the Daily Show added a new correspondent: Olivia Munn.

Within the piece, Olivia is said to be of Vietnamese descent and acts as a “senior Asian correspondent.” Interestingly, all the other constant correspondents (in order of appearance: Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, Wyatt Cenac, and Aasif Mandvi’s torso) come out on the defensive against her. Olivia then asserts, “I’m not the new always pregnant lady, I’m definitely not the guy that smells like Bacardi and corn dogs, and, no one’s forgetting about the blacks.” She’s the new Asian correspondent, although Aasif Mandvi has something to say about that…but I digress.

I was surprised to see Olivia Munn, because I didn’t know her for her comedy. She is also a bit younger and I would say less experienced (maybe differently experienced? Has she done stand-up?) than most of the other correspondents. There are plenty of female comedians of colorincludingAsian” (rather than “Asian-y“) ones that could’ve been introduced within the show. Olivia Munn is also biracial, which is a significantly different experience from monoracial individuals (that is not to say that her experience is invalid but it is different).

However! Olivia Munn is the first woman of color correspondent (who knows Vietnamese and studied and lived in Japan), and she has only been on the show for all of about six minutes. I hope that the show’s staff realizes Olivia’s potential, both as an individual and within the context of the show—and I hope it’s funny, too.


7 Responses to “The Daily Show Crosses An Intersection”

  1. If The Daily Show would stop shouting “tranny!” as though it was a punchline & not a hate-slur, I’d be a lot happier.

    Author Edit: Mordicai, while this comment may be a legitimate opinion, it has little to do with my post. Please comment on the actual content of the post next time. Thank you.

  2. This is one of the best explanations (ugh, not the word I want but forgive me, I have no brain today) of intersectionality I’ve read, plus an excellent critical analysis of TDS to boot.

  3. katiechasm Says:

    I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t think you can expect each group (monoracial women of colour, Indian women, etc.) to be represented on the show. There are only so many correspondents, and I’d rather see them chosen based on talent than as token representatives of various groups.

    • No, I totally understand this. I struggled with that when writing this. However, I do think they choose them based on talent and identity. And the fact that the correspondents’ identities are valued within the show means that both are considered. Samantha Bee even mentioned that she auditioned because they were looking for a woman (,14320/). And my solution of hiring a woman of color is more to alleviate the current designation of “all women are white and all people of color are men”–which obviously isn’t their intention, but it’s the lack of intersectionality that I feel is suggesting this.

  4. Poultrygeist Says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us. Your examples of those particular segments with Larry Wilmore and Kristen Schaal really drive home the point that approaching identity as a unidimensional thing and failing to include the experience and voices of those who are considered “Other” in multiple ways leads to gaps in perspective.
    This piece also strikes me as a great example of how we can be critical and conscientious consumers of even the media and cultural artifacts we find most enjoyable and savvy.
    I’m looking forward to seeing Munn in action, as I’ve never encountered her work before.

  5. wondering Says:

    Your comments re: intersectionality are totally on point…

    One question – why do you refer to Vijai Nathan as “asian-y”?

    • Thanks! Anyway, that’s what Olivia Munn said in the sketch to Aasif Mandvi–that he wasn’t Asian, he was Asian-y. Actually I think she might’ve said Asian-ish, but I’m not sure.

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