Tube Tied: Stephen Colbert Asks About Women, and Maybe that's All I Need

Michelle Dean
View profile »

I spend a lot of time blogging complaints. Not enough women, too many but too insubstantial, why do they only talk to each other about men, etc., etc. This is a complaint commonly made about bloggers, and, hell, feminists, that they are too critical and don't ever seem to see any good in anything.

But today I've something positive for you. The other night I was watching the Colbert Report and a small, good thing happened. Colbert was interviewing Aaron Sorkin, who, if you've been living in media blackout for the last six weeks, has out a new movie about Facebook called The Social Network. The movie being essentially about a tech startup, not a form of human organization known for its devotion to vagina-ocracy, there aren't exactly strong female roles in it. This is not something I expect to be a common observation about the film, because at least as regards the gender of the main movers and shakers, the film is merely reporting the facts: they were men. So imagine my surprise when the one major issue Colbert stated about the movie was that its portrayal of women seemed flat. "The other ladies in the movie don't have as much to say because they're high or drunk or [beep]ing guys in the bathroom. Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?" And then when Sorkin admits this is a fair question and terms the women "prizes," Colbert asks, "Are women at Harvard like that? I'm trying to figure out if I missed out on the college experience."

Readers, I cheered. Sadly, only my cat was there to hear me.

As coincidence would have it, during the summer I waded into a discussion about the Daily Show and women. If you missed that particular foofaraw, here is a short recap: Jezebel notes Daily Show seems to have a paucity of women staffers, Jon Stewart pouts about it on-air, Daily Show women staffers write back and let the internet know there's tons of women working there and their boss is really nice. (Note: I'm sure he is, but if you read my old piece you'll see I'm not sure it's the point.) The controversy died down relatively quickly and at least from all outward appearances the show did not really treat the criticism as more than the regular kind of poo flung by internet monkeys. Well, except that these particular internet monkeys got mentioned on a nationally-broadcast, critically-adored political television show.

But at the time, a lot of people, in discussing the issue, were asking what it was that feminists thought might remedy this situation. Some kind of idiotic quota system, either for staffers or for jokes or both, perhaps? Usually these sort of crass policy proposals were advanced by people who thought Jezebel was out of line, or who generally had a beef with what they saw as feminist "complaining." But the questioners had a point: what can you do to show you do, actually, care about these issues?

The other night, you see, Colbert reminded me of what it is that I'd want, if I were calling all of these shots. Different show, I know. But personally, I just want people to be interested in the question of why we make movies about Harvard, or hell, anywhere, in which characterization as drunk, stoned, ridiculous "prizes" suffices as a picture of female humanity. I'd just want to be reminded of that, from time to time, by them throwing questions about it in the middle of an interview about something else. That's really all I'd like to see: the interest. The rest will come afterwards, I think. Or at least, I hope.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

7 Comments Have Been Posted

The movie being essentially

<i>The movie being essentially about a tech startup, not a form of human organization known for its devotion to vagina-ocracy, there aren’t exactly strong female roles in it.</i>

Vaginas =/= women, please watch your cissexism.


Thanks for your comment, riotgrrlisinyou! While it's true of course that not all women have vaginas, in this context Michelle was (in my opinion) being a bit flip in order to point out that there isn't a lot of gender diversity in the tech industry, not stating that one must have a vagina in order to be a woman. I am sorry if the phrase read as cissexist, since I know that was not her intention.

- Kelsey

I've been watching The

I've been watching The Colbert Report since its first episode, and Stephen Colbert is actually one of the more vocal feminists on TV, for my money. He's consistently using his very large platform to ask the feminist questions I would ask about a variety of issues and stories; he gets away with it more than most because, like the rest of his show, the points are often made somewhat obliquely or as hidden barbs inside a joke. I've occasionally been floored to see him make feminist points I haven't seen anywhere else, at least in the media. Unfortunately, he also doesn't get the credit for it, for the same reasons.

Another example: The Word from 9/29 (Original Spin)

He went after Scalia and the equal protection clause from a very feminist angle - completely unexpected and completely hilarious. It wasn't some special separate segment about women's rights, either. I love this man.

Featuring guests such as ...

Jessica Valenti, Ariel Levy, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem (twice!) ... to name a few ... has also been a plus. We don't see the likes of them on mainstream cable TV often enough.

why we make these movies

"I just want people to be interested in the question of why we make movies about Harvard, or hell, anywhere, in which characterization as drunk, stoned, ridiculous “prizes” suffices as a picture of female humanity."

Because that is too often how female humans are thought of--at Harvard, or anywhere.

The Social Network is about the world we live in, a world in which women are put in little boxes--even at Harvard, where one might think their brains and talents would be a little more valued than in other parts of the world.

Our world is also one in which men are put in little boxes. This movie was more about the boxes men are put in--about how their brains and talents are not valued either, unless it is in service to being cool, rich, or powerful.

The message of this movie is that this kind of world does not serve men (just as it doesn't serve women.) One woman in the movie knows this and wants no part of this world. Thus, her role in the movie is small, even though she delivers a big message (as does a respectfully portrayed intelligent woman in a business suit near the end of the movie).

The Social Network is not a movie about the founding of Facebook as much as it is about social networks being poor substitutes for genuine relationships--for men as well as women.

Why we make movies like this is because sometimes we get so caught up in the world in which we live that we can't see it for what it is. The Social Network makes us look at our world in a way that I found deeply disturbing. That's what art should be.

True, that was very nice to

True, that was very nice to see. I haven't gone to the movie, but everyone I know who has thought it was great--including the people who were disturbed by its portrayal of women. I'm thinking I might skip seeing it, though. I'm one of those people who really can't "see past" problems when they're that obvious and I doubt I'd enjoy it.

Also, I didn't comment on your piece at The Awl, but it was fantastic. Definitely the best analysis of the whole situation, in my opinion.

Add new comment