Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, “So About What I Said,” and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Are women finally cracking the glass ceiling of late-night television? If you ask YouTube phenomenon Lilly Singh, who just became the first woman in decades tapped to host a late-night television show on one of the big four networks, the answer is a resounding yes. This September, Singh’s new show – “A Little Late with Lilly Singh” – will replace Carson Daly’s “Last Call with Carson Daly” on NBC.
Singh’s hiring is not just significant because of her gender. What makes her move especially historic is that she identifies as a bisexual woman of color and has used her popular YouTube channel IISuperwomanII to tackle tough issues, including her mental health struggles and challenges facing the LGBTQ community. Plus, as a millennial, she is uniquely in touch with the pulse of a young and robust generation and can speak directly to the issues facing them – something we don’t have among the current roster of late-night hosts, save for Trevor Noah on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
It’s no secret that the world of late night has long been a boys’ club, from the heyday of Johnny Carson in the 1970s to David Letterman and Jay Leno in the 1990s. While women such as Samantha Bee have found success on cable networks like TBS, a woman in a prime late-night spot on one of the major networks has largely seemed like an elusive dream – one within sight, but never quite reachable. (Joan Rivers hosted “The Late Show” in 1986, but was ousted only a year later.)
With such an absence of women at the forefront of late night, the hot topics covered were and continue to be almost exclusively presented from a male perspective, effectively ignoring the lived reality of half of the American population.
And the writer’s rooms on these shows only exacerbate the problem. Take, for instance, the makeup of the writing staff on the “Late Show,” when Stephen Colbert took over as host in 2015. Just two out of the 19 staffers were women. In his attempts to diversify his writing staff, Colbert told The New York Times: “We had to take an extraordinary step to get an extraordinary room.” Now, Colbert says, his room is half white men and “half either women or writers of color.”
And while Colbert’s steps at diversification are commendable, considering what some recent news stories have been – think the #MeToo movement and the backlash against sexual harassment – it might be helpful to have a woman’s perspective presented both on camera and behind the camera. (Of note, Singh will also be an executive producer of the show, which will air at 1:35 a.m. ET, and she’ll take a role in shaping content off screen as well.)
But even more than simply a boys’ club, the landscape of late night has remained a white boys’ club – in much the same way American political leadership has for over 200 years. Yet this model is hardly representative of the United States, which is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and voices. And Singh is perhaps the best example of that as a queer woman of color and child of immigrants: Singh’s parents are from India, and she was born and raised in Canada.
Still, just recently, Leno criticized the current late show climate as being too political. “You know, everything now is, if people don’t like your politics, they – everyone has to know your politics,” Leno said on the “Today” show.
It’s easy for someone like Leno, an older white male, to say that late-night comics should stay out of politics, but the fact is it’s 2019 – and it would be tone deaf to ignore the political and social challenges facing Americans. In fact, I would argue that it’s even more critical that Singh have a show, so she can start national conversations around marginalized communities.
Just as she used to call out racism and homophobia on her YouTube channel, Singh can do so on late-night television. And perhaps that kind of candor – on that kind of scale – can help bring positive changes to our culture.
Late-night television often provides the fodder for the water cooler (or Slack thread) conversations the next morning. So, Singh will soon have a powerful platform to kickstart a conversation on a host of issues, especially as we near the 2020 presidential election.
And there is every reason to believe Singh will be a successful host. Her popularity on YouTube has largely been attributed to how down-to-earth and relatable she is. And it’s this very relatability – coupled with her prominence on a powerful internet platform – that may also help Singh draw in younger viewers, who have not comprised a significant portion of the traditional late-night demographic. At least, that’s what Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and the author of the book “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” told The New York Times.
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She added, “Having a South Asian woman be that is huge, because we’re not used to seeing women of color in that role,” she said. “Having her sit with really big stars shows that we have a place in society. That’ll be really exciting and really invigorate late night.”
As Singh herself says, “An Indian-Canadian woman with her own late-night show? Now that is a dream come true,” Singh said. “I’m thrilled to bring it to life on NBC, and I hope my parents consider this to be as exciting as a grandchild.”
Yes, it may be a dream come true for us all.