How Stephen Colbert Can Bring Feminism to ‘The Late Show’


“It has been pointed out to me that I, like other late-night TV hosts, am a man,” Stephen Colbert wrote in a silly but revealing Glamour op-ed that is making the Internet rounds this week. “And while I’m happy to have a job, I am surprised that the world of late-night TV lacks a female presence, unlike sitcoms, which are packed with smoking-hot wives who teach their doughy husband a valuable lesson when he slips on a pizza and falls headfirst into a porta-potty full of beer.”

It’s a promising move that he decided to write this. In his op-ed, Colbert drew attention to several facets of sexism at once: overlooked accomplishments by women; serious disparities that persist, like the pay gap; and awful media pandering to female demographics — juxtaposing the serious and the ridiculous in a patently Colbert-ian way. “I love all the things women love: exfoliating microbeads, period costume dramas, Joe Manganiello’s second row of abs, pay commensurate with my skill set,” he wrote. Later, he asked:

Did you know that the first computer, ENIAC, was programmed by six female mathematicians? If it weren’t for those pioneering women, we might not have computers at all. And then how would people read empowering listicles like “20 Hot Actresses Without Makeup! (#5 Will Make You Question God!)”?

His piece continues along in that vein, mixing sheer silliness with the occasional barbed point about sexism. It’s a promising op-ed and gives me hope for his Late Show.

I’ve long been part of the chorus that calls Colbert a not-so-stealth feminist. He even shook hands with Anita Sarkeesian on the matter.

Colbert can build on the feminist building blocks of his Comedy Central show and this op-ed, and bring more great gender analysis to a primetime spot, if he keeps inviting feminist guests and goes beyond the usual Hollywood and DC late-night suspects. For instance, one of my favorite Colbert Report moments was the early segment where he convinced Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem to come into the kitchen and bake with him. I’m not sure how he managed a skit where he asked prominent feminists to get in his kitchen and then convincingly promoted their ideals, but he did it.

And it’s that kind of humor that will sell his feminist message to his new, broader audience.

As Late Show host, he should keep chatting and goofing around with feminist guests who aren’t exactly staples of primetime TV, but also bring in a less obvious cast of characters, including artists, performers, and thinkers who aren’t coming from a white, straight, cisgender perspective.

I know he knows who these folks are, as his fascinating, Piers Morgan-destroying interview with Janet Mock demonstrates:

Colbert’s interview with Mock exemplifies the slightly less aggressive tone he often used with feminist interview subjects, trading his bellicose O’Reilly interpretation for an impression of a total dimwit — and thereby giving his interview subjects airtime to clearly, slowly, and positively explain their ideas in a way that was palatable to a mainstream audience. I’ve always felt his typically hands-off approach to his feminist guests demonstrated that he cared a lot more about gender issues than Jon Stewart, for instance. He also has had writers like Toni Morrison on the show for illuminating chats you wouldn’t find anywhere else except on C-SPAN’s Book TV.

Politically speaking, I also appreciated the way Colbert occasionally directly took on “controversial” women’s issues like the GOP-led assault on birth control access, simultaneously mocking reactionary views…

… and explaining the actual science behind reproductive health care:

These old Colbert traditions — having fun and lively spots with diverse feminist thinkers, and foraying into gender politics with a good sense of humor — could be easily updated for his new show.

To keep the momentum rolling further, it would be great if Colbert started to hire even more diverse writers. I find it very sweet and charming that Colbert is taking his Comedy Central staff with him as he moves, as it reaffirms my belief that the “real” Stephen is loyal and awesome. But with that CBS money, he can presumably add a few more people who could give the show an even more diverse outlook, as he promises in the Glamour op-ed:

But I’m going to make a show that truly respects women, because I know that there’s more than one way to be one. Maybe you’re a woman who likes women. Maybe you like women and men. Maybe you’re a woman who’s recently transitioned… Whoever you are, I promise: I’m going to lean in on this.

Bring together diverse guests, diverse writers, and the same feminist traditions Colbert has already established, and you have the most exciting prospect for a network late-night show that feminists have ever seen.