There's Something About Rachel

There was something that bugged me about Daphne Merkin's "Butch Fatale" piece in T Style this weekend that I've only just figured out. It's what bugs me about most pieces about Rachel Maddow.

It's that most of these paeans to Maddow's looks inevitably come back to the fact that she is a lesbian. Can you stand to say it again? Daphne Merkin thinks you can. Judy Berman at Salon thinks you can. Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian! It's like Rachel Maddow wouldn't be considered attractive or pretty or cute if she wasn't a lesbian. (Did someone mention she's a lesbian? Because she's a lesbian. She has a girlfriend and they have sex with each other and then go to the market together and they're lesbians. Look at her in all her cute dyke-y-ness!)

I mean, enough already. No profiles of Campbell Brown or Katie Couric dwell obsessively on their heterosexuality, and to do so about Maddow's sexuality serves only to emphasize her "otherness." I think it's great to have a non-plastic, non-blonde, short-haired, smart woman in a cable news chair, serving up important information in a way that is accessible to a variety of people and with a touch of humor. I think the admiration of her vaguely androgynous looks are, frankly, in keeping with a trend toward admiring androgyny generally rather than adulating hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine forms that were more in vogue when I was younger. She's a former Rhodes scholar, has a doctorate, worked on HIV/AIDS issues and prison reform and bummed around Massachusetts doing odd jobs to figure out what she wanted to do with her life when she was done with all that. Her partner is a respected artist, they live in a tiny town in Western Massachusetts rather than in Manhattan and she is really, really into old school cocktails to the point that she gets invited to teach Martha Stewart how to make them. The fact that she is a lesbian is probably the least interesting thing about her, and yet it seems to be quite a lot of what most people focus on.

Merkin is, of course, a case in point. Some highlights below (emphasis mine):

LESBIANISM has finally come into a glamour of its own, an appeal that goes beyond BUTCH and FEMME archetypes into a more universal seduction. Her name is Rachel Maddow, the polished-looking, self-declared GAY newscaster who stares out from the MSNBC studio every weekday night and MAKES LOVE to her audience. She may not be one of Hefner's Girls Next Door, exactly, but she is no bare-faced, unstylish DYKE either, however she chooses to characterize herself. Although she insists that she has no interest in the issue of physical appearance - her own or anyone else's - Maddow's ambition has allowed her to play the mediagenic game: to be carefully made up, her brown eyes given depth with flattering eye shadow, her short (but not too short) haircut artfully coiffed. With her Poindexter glasses, Jil Sander pantsuits and Converse sneakers, she's not trying to PASS, but she's willing to prettify her image sufficiently to endear her to male viewers.

I mean, come on! Maddow wears make-up on TV because everyone wears make-up on TV, including Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, but that doesn't mean they're bending gender lines by doing so. She's not doing it to appeal to men, or to try to subvert her sexual identity or be a more "passable" lesbian. She's doing it because, like the suits she wears on the air and eschews off the air, that's what you wear to work — a nurse isn't trying to be a "sexy nurse" by wearing a uniform any more than Maddow is trying to be sexy by dressing in the uniform of her profession.

And there's more:

Sally Hershberger, the celebrity hairstylist reputed to be the model for the Donna Juan character of Shane in ‘‘The L Word,'' believes that Maddow is ‘‘so charismatic that it doesn't really matter whether she's GAY.'' Well, yes and no. It would matter if Maddow were genuinely androgynous-looking, like a real-life version of the neutered Pat from ‘‘Saturday Night Live.'' Or if she were hard-edged in her style, acting combative instead of charming. But as it turns out, the only real giveaway is, in fact, her haircut. ‘‘Most women,'' Hershberger points out, ‘‘don't get their hair cut that short.'' (The exceptions, of course, present themselves the minute one makes this distinction, the extravagantly feminine women who wore their hair cropped boyishly short and looked all the more beautiful for it - Audrey Hepburn, Jean Seberg, Mia Farrow, Twiggy.) Hershberger deems Maddow's most recent haircut ‘‘too short,'' but that might just be the competition talking. In any case, hair grows in, and Maddow's star shows every sign of further ascending. Welcome to the brave new world of LESBIAN glamour.

I love that having short hair is a dead giveaway that a woman is a lesbian (someone should tell my mom), except when the woman is straight and attractive. I also think the connotation is that Maddow would look better with long hair but is only wearing it short to denote that she's GAY. I actually think Maddow's haircut suits her face because, like the other women listed, she has great bone structure. It's probably also way easier to take care of than my hair, which makes me slightly jealous but I don't have the face for short hair.

The real question is: why does being a lesbian make Maddow more attractive? Why is her sexual identity so much a part of how people perceive her physically? It seems to me that it plays to the stereotype that gay people in general are somehow more sexually available, and to the even worse stereotype that lesbians are secretly all a little bisexual. It makes what is attractive about Maddow her "otherness," it makes her sexuality something exotic rather than something she (like most everyone else) just takes for granted, and it marks her with a big pink "L." Either you think Rachel Maddow is attractive, or you don't, but it shouldn't be because of who she loves.

Butch Fatale [T Style]
Rachel Maddow, Reluctant Sex Symbol [Salon]