NOTE: This post first appeared at my Medium page. Go here to read the original version, and go here to see all of my posts on Medium.
As soon as Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show, people started crossing their fingers and hoping the new face of the show might be a little different, maybe not as white and not as male. I was one of those people. But like it was playing a giant game of Guess Who? (“is your host a woman?” “is your host black?”), a big dumb internet machine finished its calculations and landed on a name for a maximally diverse host: Jessica Williams.
It would obviously be great to see someone with a more diverse background take over the position occupied by a white man since the very beginning ofThe Daily Show. But then Jessica Williams, like a person who makes decisions, made a decision: she’s honored, but not interested. She felt under-qualified and would rather leave the job to someone who fit it better.
The dumb internet machine, unsatisfied, churned out a few responses to her decision. You can google around for them if you’re interested. But the one I’m interested in here was by Ester Bloom in The Billfold. Feel free to read it, though I’d caution that there’s a better than even chance it’ll keep changing, judging by the “ETA” apology at the bottom.
Here’s the short version: when Williams said she felt under-qualified for the job of Daily Show host, Bloom felt Williams was conforming to a white male narrative of female inferiority. Bloom felt that Williams needed a Lean In circle (This term is new to me! It’s nice, but could also be problematic!) to help her realize her true worth, to rescue her from the marginalization being perpetrated on her by old white people.
So sayeth Ester Bloom, an older white person. And while I wouldn’t call her “old,” she is apparently older than me, and I can already feel myself becoming a crusty old idiot, despite my best efforts to keep snapchatting till I die.
Bloom’s comments come from an apparent assumption that she’s qualified to criticize someone else’s decisions, or maybe worse, to criticize somebody else’s feminism. Her comments imply that she thinks she’s somehow a better decision-maker, or even a better feminist, than Williams, and she needed to tell Williams so. But also her comments were certainly well-meaning, coming from her deep desire that Williams, and women like her, buck entrenched garbage narratives and soar. She’s apologized both in the story itself and on twitter.
Now, I know that it is no one’s job to tell anyone else how to be themselves. It is no one’s right to criticize someone else’s feminism. It is certainly not my right to interrogate either Williams’s or Bloom’s visions of themselves.
So: Bearing in mind that Bloom’s take-down had its roots in a noble place, and how it only became something misshapen and damaging after the fact: I don’t want this bit of writing to suffer the same fate, a well-meaning feminist diatribe emerging from my skull into the harsh light of a real and complicated world where it is subsequently, and justifiably, killed by people who recognize how stupid it is.
Instead of wading into the ugly waters of telling other people how to be feminists, here’s a weird little ramble about how celebrity and media criticism work now.
In recent times, the divide between media performers and media critics has gotten a little muddy. When Jon Stewart, for instance, is interrogated about his role as either a political jokester or as a political actor, he dodges and shrugs pretty hard. And that’s because the distinction between critic and criticized is becoming more and more of a false distinction.
Take our popular vision of the criticism process: a critic gleefully clacks away on a typewriter, churning out a massacre of a review utterly destroying the one-woman-show she saw last week. Soon, the subject of the review sits alone in a darkened bar. She furrows her brow, the newspaper clutched crumpling into her hands. Her demeanor sinks as she trudges through the critic’s ugly words. She finishes, her anger rising, and she flings the paper into the waste-basket. She shakes her fists in the air. “I’ll show her! I’m a genius,” she cries, and the bar patrons all make shocked faces, having been audience to only one half of the criticism process.
This is a very old-timey scene in a lot of ways (typewriter? newspaper?), yet it’s still how a lot of people imagine criticism works. In fact, it feels so iconic that it actually formed the basis of a pivotal scene in a best-picture-nominated film this year.
But it just plain isn’t how things work anymore. Criticism happens online. The criticized respond to it online. Celebrities read the mean things people say about them. They can respond. They’re humans, not monolithic symbols or brands.
This is not the dynamic Ester Bloom imagined when she wrote her piece about Jessica Williams. This older-media writer, albeit writing in what is ostensibly a newer-media publication, wrote in an older-media style: as if the only result she could expect was Jessica WIlliams shaking her fist in the air in a darkened bar. As if her subjects were subjects and could never be critics themselves. And also as if she couldn’t imagine the subject of her comments turning her into the subject of criticism.
The media landscape now means that even apparently-non-peers are peers. An angry subject can become the critic, and the critic can become the subject. Critics have lost their monopoly on criticism. And, when the subject can tweet to thousands of people about how invalid the criticisms against them are, the critics have also lost their monopoly on the audience.
The darkened bar is now a crowded ballroom. And the criticizer and the criticized both have bullhorns.
Or, more accurately and also more interestingly, the criticized in this case, Jessica Williams, has a MUCH LOUDER bullhorn than the critic: under 500 people retweeted Bloom’s story from The Billfold, but six times as many retweeted this from Jessica Williams:
(To say nothing of how the demographic slices work in this example, a question that deeply interests me and will come up some other time, I am sure.)
We no longer live in a world where you can directly criticize a person’s decision making or feminism without the person speaking back, loudly and directly. And if your vision, like mine, is a world where everyone has a voice and can speak for themselves, this is a very good thing.