Norm MacDonald created a stir on Twitter this week with a series of out-of-touch comments he made to the Hollywood Reporter. While promoting his spectacularly lazily titled Netflix series, Norm MacDonald Has a Show, the 58-year-old comedian expressed relief that #MeToo has “slowed down.” He also mulled over his doubts on whether Nanette—a critically acclaimed special starring female stand up Hannah Gadsby—indeed counts as stand up, regardless of the fact that he admittedly has never seen it.
But it was MacDonald’s empathy for friends Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr that drew his critics’ greatest ire, and on Wednesday, the former Weekend Update host issued an apology that stated his regret over his words. To be clear, MacDonald wants everyone to know that he’s sorry “if” his comments “sounded” like an attempt to minimize the pain of the victims.
Roseanne and Louis have both been very good friends of mine for many years. They both made terrible mistakes and I would never defend their actions. If my words sounded like I was minimizing the pain that their victims feel to this day, I am deeply sorry.— Norm Macdonald (@normmacdonald) September 11, 2018
While his remarks are disappointing at best, MacDonald has never been a champion of women’s rights or diversity. It’s no surprise that his take did nothing to advocate for victims or inspire dialogue about how we can amplify diverse female voices in the entertainment industry. But his comments, and the uproar they inspired, speak to a growing tension that’s worth inspecting more closely.
As Hollywood’s content machines reorganize themselves in the wake of #TimesUp and #MeToo, and powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves are finally held accountable for their actions, will men be punished so harshly that it finally tips the scales of power? Will women’s voices actually be amplified? Are we seeing a true reversal of privilege?
If you look at the world of Netflix comedy specials and talk shows, where MacDonald is among a number of aging male comedians who are being handed back the mic, the numbers say no. It’s true that female comedians like Maria Bamford, Ali Wong, and Hannah Gadsby have had Netflix specials that aired to adoration from fans and much critical success. But in terms of sheer volume, they are, sadly, exceptions to the rule. Of Netflix’s 167 stand-up specials, only 27 star female comics, and of the 17 currently slated for production, only four are set to star female comics.
And the numbers grow even slimmer when it comes to women of color. Tiffany Haddish and Wanda Sykes have specials lined up for 2019, but past reports reveal that Netflix has low-balled female comedians of color. Mo’nique revealed in January that the content giant offered her $500,000 for her special. That may seem like a good deal on first glance, but it pales in comparison to the reported $11 million deal they gave Amy Schumer, which she negotiated after seeing the $20 million-per-special deals they offered Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.
So why is Netflix canceling female-helmed series like The Break With Michelle Wolf and handing deals to out-of-touch white men whose careers peaked in the ’90s like David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, and MacDonald? If the rules have changed as MacDonald suggested they have, why aren’t more women, especially women of color and lesser-known new talents, being catapulted into the spotlight?
The ugly truth is that dismantling privilege is a slow and messy process. So while it may look like content giants like Netflix are making room for women’s voices, their patterned, long-term decisions are guided by the fear that if we truly treat women as equals, men will be forgotten.
In many ways, that fear is warranted. Because balancing things out does mean drawing focus away from the privileged. If white men once held every seat at the table and we want to make room for women we will, in fact, sacrifice some seats that men, particularly no-longer-deserving men, have held.
For many, especially men in power, that’s an uncomfortable truth. As comedian John Early once joked, no one likes to admit how good privilege tastes. As Early sees it, it’s like ordering a delicious dessert when dining out with friends and then immediately hiding your reaction so that you won’t have to share.
These men don’t want to share. And so, instead of asking how we can empower those who haven’t been given a fair share, they redirect our attention to the potential harm that could come to the privileged. They ask, how can the system be balanced if men are losing seats? If I once had everything and I suddenly have less, is the work that’s being done fair? What if I don’t like it?
The answer is a system can never achieve balance if you aren’t willing to tip the scales in a new direction. The answer is yes, it’s fair. The answer is it doesn’t matter if you don’t like it, Norm, now pass the cake.
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t a “Norm” problem, it’s a systemic problem. MacDonald certainly isn’t the first man who has urged the public to be “more forgiving” of men in the wake of #MeToo. Michael Ian Black came to C.K.’s defense, when he did a surprise set at New York comedy mainstay the Comedy Cellar, as did current Update host Michael Che.
What these men don’t realize is the empathy they’re so eager to show their male peers only serves to re-privilege the privileged. We are stuck in a cycle where diverse female voices who are finally daring to speak up are drowned out by a chorus of men who speak even louder. Every time we take a mic away from a man, his buddy steps in to say, “Aren’t we being a bit hasty?”
MacDonald is one of several aging male comedians with a Netflix deal; the pushback against his comments isn’t so much about him or what he owes to the public, as it is evidence of the systemic trend of handing washed-up men a platform. If you have qualms about #MeToo or diversity, if you’ve spent the past dozen years holed up in your Southern California or Upper West Side mansion, it’s safe to say you might not have a pulse on the current culture, which inherently makes you not the most astute comedian. The inability of MacDonald or Seinfeld or even Chappelle, who attacked trans people in his Netflix special, to reflect on experiences outside what’s in their immediate orbit highlights the underlying belief of these men: The privilege of the voice they’ve been given isn’t a privilege at all; it’s a right.
When threatened with the prospect of the slightest shift in power, they will do everything they can to cling to it. Lucky for them, Netflix still has their back.