In her editorial "No One Puts Baby in Parentheses," which ran on the Huffington Post on Friday, Chelsea Handler took issue with the fact that she was mentioned in parentheses in Bill Carter's New York Times article "Bullish on Boyish." To provide some context, Carter was discussing other late-night hosts who could compete for Jimmy Fallon's Tonight viewers. He dropped the names Colbert, Stewart, and Kimmel, while he sandwiched Handler in her own parenthetical aside, citing her presence as the only female host of a late-night show.
Before you write this off as "petty," allow me to wave Strunk and White's Elements of Style in defense of both the English language and Handler's choice to pick a battle. Language matters. The way we write, who we write about, and how much we write about them says volumes about the way our culture views the subject. In the case of Carter and Handler, he mentions her in a paragraph addressing the demographic challenges facing the Tonight show. In a field of male contenders for the Millennial generation's viewership, Handler doesn't even register. Instead, when she appears, it is as an afterthought, an olive branch to any potential readers who could say, "but what about women?" Carter writes:
Even with potent competition for younger viewers all over cable, from the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central and Mr. O’Brien on TBS, the host NBC is clearly most concerned about is Mr. Kimmel, who is 46. (The only female host in late-night is Chelsea Handler, 38, on E!)
In this context, it seems as though Carter is saying, "Don't worry about female competitors, they're lightyears behind!" The intent may not have been to marginalize Handler, but she did the right thing in addressing this mention. In response, she writes:
Depending upon whose research you look at, I share the distinction of having the youngest average viewership with Colbert, The Daily Show and Conan. So from a purely statistical standpoint how, in this paragraph, could I only be mentioned as an aside? Was it because I'm a woman?
And just as I don't want to be inconsequential in any late-night discourse, I also don't want to be singled-out and lauded merely because I am successful "for a woman." I only want to be acknowledged for having worked hard to build an equally significant audience and fan base to those of my peers. I believe the success of any woman should never be qualified by her gender.
Yes, Handler. Exactly. Rather than simply point out the fact that she was relegated to "incidental" status through use of parentheses, Handler attacks the whole problem, which involves having a distinct status because she is a woman. Even if the parenthetical sentence had broken through its curving bounds and entered the main body of the article, she still didn't need to be referenced as the only woman with her own late-night show. She can hold her ground as a late-night host, full stop.
This is a lesson for anyone who is tempted to use, in conversation or print, the qualification "for a ________." No matter what identifying trait you plug into the blank, it is offensive. While the individual is elevated, the group is still judged and declared unworthy.
Ultimately, we should thank Handler for not letting this one go. This is an important lesson. She is willing to fight for the rhetorical significance of her job and identity, and for the importance of divorcing her gender from her intrinsic worth as an individual.
And that's pretty profound, for anyone.