It's pretty much standard operating procedure for male talk show hosts to compliment female guests on their looks. But in his interview with Sarah Vowell last night, Jon Stewart took another tack — and it was pretty adorable.
It's not that there's anything inappropriate about the little flirtatious compliments hosts pay to the women — especially actresses — who appear on their shows. And Letterman certainly isn't the only one to talk up his guests' beauty — Stewart's been known to do it too. but it does give the impression that the female guests are there as eye candy, even if they just, say, directed a film or completed a serious role. That's why it's so refreshing when, in the clip above, Jon Stewart jumps in after her hyperarticulate monologue about the history of Rhode Island to say, with obvious admiration, "you're very smart."
Given everything I've written about Letterman in the last couple days, you're probably expecting me to applaud the asexuality of the whole exchange. But it actually made me blush a little, because while all the "you're beautiful" comments are standard boilerplate for a celebrity interview, telling someone she's smart in a way seemed like actual flirting — or least, the kind of flirting I actually respond to. Calling a woman pretty is, while sometimes welcome, pretty much a Standard All-Purpose Compliment, while calling her smart (and meaning it) shows you're actually paying attention. So while I don't think Stewart's really hitting on Vowell here, I did find the whole thing kind of hot.
But that's just me. In a larger sense, it is nice to see a female guest treated like an actual author rather than a sex object. Of course, Vowell's whole persona — her clothes, her bowl haircut, her constant assertions of her own nerdiness — downplays sexuality in favor of intellect, and I wonder if this is a conscious choice. While Billy Parker's recent Gothamist interview with Vowell veers once into the semi-suggestive ("Have you always clicked with jokey fellas?"), Parker largely sticks with serious questions like, "What's the youngest reader that you're aware that you've had?" and, "Was Roger Williams a slight man?" Singers with sexy images, or writers un/fortunate enough to be tarred with the "hot writer" brush often end up getting asked a lot more about their looks and relationships, and a lot less about their work.
Vowell has a pretty funny This American Life piece about dressing as a goth, in part as a response to people assuming she's sweet all the time. So she's clearly aware of the power of appearance and its influence on social interaction. Most likely her personal style is just what makes her comfortable and happy, but her conservative outfits and simple hair also give her a certain freedom — the freedom to talk about what she wants to talk about, without participating in a played-out sexual script. It's a freedom some actresses might well envy.