Feminism in the time of leaning in

Among the big news stories breaking last week was the announcement that Jon Stewart is leaving his post at The Daily Show. Bummer news for a lot of reasons, the least of which being that it’s one of my favorite shows. The intersection of politics, pop culture and comedy where TDS resides is a kind of personal, nightly geekfest and selfishly, I’m sad to see it go. The media essentially went two ways with the story: 1) Praising Stewart’s influence on up and coming comics – The New York Times tweeted this male-centric list (see below) and 2) Speculating who will take his place.

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For a little background, The Daily Show was created back in 1996 by two women: Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead. It was originally hosted by Craig Kilborn before Jon Stewart took over in 1999. The men included on The New York Times‘ list is accurate (and for the sake of saying so, incomplete – C’mon, how do you not include Aasif Mandvi?), as is the neglected list of female comics also featured and bumped by the show including Kristen Schaal, Samantha Bee, Olivia Munn, Rachael Harris, Beth Littleford, Nancy Walls, Lauren Weedman, and Jessica Williams.*

On social media, many speculated seemingly anyone who had ever been on the show including current correspondent (and full disclosure, personal favorite) Jessica Williams. On the show since 2012, Williams is the youngest cast member ever hired at 22 and appears frequently in such capacities as “Senior Youth Correspondent” and “Senior Beyoncé Correspondent” among many others. As proof: this piece, this piece and this piece, etc. I love the attitude, intelligence and spirit Williams brings to the show as a feminist, a millennial and a woman of color – she’s bad-ass and I want to see more of her.

On Sunday, Williams’ name became a trending topic when she announced the following:

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Williams’ tweets are clear, humble and imbued with a level of honesty many people her age simply can’t manage, nor do many have the growing platform and talent on which to warrant such an announcement. Sadly, she could not have been more misunderstood. Within minutes, a fury launched all its own, as mere tweets evolved into revelatory personal statements indicating Williams’ apparent low self-confidence and worth.

The tipping point came when Ester Bloom, a reporter for The Billfold called Williams “the latest [victim] of impostor syndrome” a theory espoused in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as “[the] phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt.” Williams’ responded to Bloom (@shorterstory):

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Then, Time.com took her responses out of context and posted that she was “[firing] back at fans who want her to replace Jon Stewart.”

In short, a clusterfuck was born.

The exchanges took place over a brief period of time (less than a day) wherein Williams essentially laid Bloom out for the accusation*** (Bloom has since publicly apologized). While Bloom was one of the first to post, she was hardly the only one making the comment. Adding insult to injury, many of the responses were from white women waving their proverbial and well-meaning Lean In bibles, while ignoring the fact that leaning in for women of color is an area in which they have no experience. It’s true, we do not all lean in the same way.

But, this isn’t about leaning in.

This is about the point at which a woman can make a decision concerning her life without the expectation of justification. When will yes mean yes and no mean no? Do we make these same assumptions about men?

Like I said, I’m a fan. I follow Williams on Twitter and Instagram, which means I know she has a life outside The Daily Show. She performs regularly with the Upright Citizens Brigade, co-hosts a monthly live-show (w/ Phoebe Robinson) called BLARIA, and was recently at the Sundance Film Festival promoting her new film “People, Places, Things.” Jessica Williams is killing it right now and she’s not afraid to admit it.

We should all be so lucky to be as confident, articulate and ambitious concerning our careers. I can’t imagine what Williams is thinking right now – certainly the mixture of feedback from fans and digital finger-waggers was unexpected and the latter, flatly rejected. We seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again, but feminism is about equality; it’s about the lifting up of women not the judgmental and accusatory finger-pointing that seems so prevalent, especially on social media. Jessica, I love your work and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

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* This is in no way an exhaustive list of the women who have appeared on The Daily Show.
** For the record, Fact #2 was confirming she does not have dreads but Marley twists.
*** I’ve re-posted Williams’ tweets, in the order they appeared, in an effort to show context. See her timeline for the full exchange.

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