Speculation about who will replace venerated fake newsman Jon Stewart is running wild. Understandably, after seeing many late night spots go to white men, there’s been a lot of discussion about women who could take over The Daily Show. Also understandably, many of those discussions have centered around Jessica Williams, a correspondent who has put out many brilliant and feminist comic pieces for the show. Williams graciously accepted the compliment and demurred, and that’s when things took a turn, as Katie McDonough wrote at Salon:
Many a crying emoji was shared in response, but Williams made it clear that she was good with where she’s at and with everything that’s still ahead of her, tweeting, “I’m not like, dead. This is the beginning of my career.” A little while later, a writer for the Billfoldresponded to Williams’ announcement with a piece that claimed she was a “victim” of impostor syndrome, and that she needed to “lean in.”
Williams swiftly defended herself against the accusation:
Are you unaware, how insulting that can be for a fully functioning person to hear that her choices are invalid? Because you have personally decided, that I DON’T know myself- as a WOMAN you are saying that I need to lean in. Because of my choice, you have diagnosed me with something without knowing me at all. For the world to see.
And this is the problem with “lean in” applied as a universal feminist ethos. Like most supposedly universal narratives, it’s incredibly limiting. Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged in the book that she didn’t believe that women “should all have the same objectives” or face the same obstacles, but much of the advice is still presented as inclusive when it’s actually narrowly tailored to a certain kind of woman (namely, white, upwardly mobile and married to, or interested in marrying, a man who is likely the same), working to achieve a certain kind of power while maintaining a certain kind of family life. The book is undoubtedly useful and resonates for some, but, as Roxane Gay pointed out in her thoughtful review, a lot of Sandberg’s wisdom reads something like, “If you want to succeed, be an asshole.”
I’d also say that “lean in,” particularly as it’s often rendered in media shorthand, has come to mean that women should ignore their instincts in favor of aggressively pursuing a specific career goal or opportunity at all costs. In a culture that already serially doubts women, this is, in its own way, just another way we doubt women. As though we can’t be trusted to narrate our own experiences, or as if making a choice that doesn’t match narrowly defined or hyper-specific expectations means we are somehow weak or self-defeating. (This is precisely what Williams called out in her response to the Billfold. There is quite a difference between encouraging and supporting women as they pursue their goals and calling out and shaming women when their goals don’t match your expectations.)
I understand the impulse. We’ve all seen so many women in our lives doubt themselves in ways a man rarely would. It holds a lot women back. I get the instinct to cringe when a talented woman describes herself as “under-qualified.” There’s a hunger to see more women, especially women of color, represented in the media. But we also can’t assume that we know what’s best for women better than they know themselves. With the right relationship and trust, there’s a time and a place to have a discussion with a woman and encourage her to question her lack of ambition if it seems truly grounded in self-doubt. I’ve surely tried myself. But we also have to check the expectations we’re putting on women that create even more burdens than they already struggle with.
Williams summed it up perfectly:
I am a black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I am truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours.
— Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) February 17, 2015
I’m sure she has a great career ahead of her, and I look forward to seeing what she continues to do at The Daily Show. And as the speculation continues and we sit in utter panic at the idea of surviving the 2016 election without Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, we can at least thank the TV gods that John Oliver’s witty, incisive investigative show has been renewed for two more seasons.