More on Rachel Maddow

The media can’t get enough about America’s new butch sweetheart, Rachel Maddow.
I can’t say I blame them, but this week’s piece on Maddow entitled Butch Fatale maybe takes it a bit too far.
Author Daphne Merkin writes an overly poetic piece about the role of lesbians in fashion–the forgotten wallflowers, she calls us. She relies on a lot of played out tropes (battle of the sexes, lipstick lesbians, etc) and makes the claim that Maddow marks the beginning of a new era for lesbian glamour.

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.

While I agree that Rachel Maddow’s existence and popularity definitely say something about the openness of the mainstream media, I can’t help but think Merkin is making a mountain out of a molehill. Maddow hasn’t changed the lesbian community as a whole, and despite whatever the mainstream population does or doesn’t think about lesbians, there is a subculture which promotes and fosters all sorts of fashions and gender presentations. It’s a subculture that has been thriving for a long time now, with or without media representation.
Maddow may be making love to some of her audience (like the Feministing crew) but she’s also walking the fine line between androgyny and acceptability. She’s got the necessary feminine touches to make her palatable (coiffed hair, pink lipstick, eyeshadow) and not too butch for TV. I wouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking she has changed the fundamental meaning of sex icon.
I heart Maddow just like the rest of us but let’s not pretend she’s some sort of lesbian savior.

Join the Conversation

  • ann bran

    I think the main reason we all love Rachel is because she’s smart, witty, and gives us a bit of humor as she delivers the news. The looks and that smile are a plus.
    Oh that smile…

  • EmilyBrook

    I was even more infuriated by Merkin’s piece than you were, Miriam. That she quotes a “young gay friend” who says (paraphrasing) “nobody talks about lesbians. who cares?” (Why should someone so uninformed about the issue the article is all about be considered worth quoting?) That she assumes RM is dressing up for male viewers, when the whole piece is about an emerging lesbian aesthetic that lesbians themselves might appreciate? She dangled homophobic comments in an effort to make her piece seem relevant/justified, but in the end seemed thrall to them herself. It seemed like Merkin was trying to play the cool insider about something she knows nothing about.

  • mk

    Is there anywhere else a person might find the full-text of the article? For totally inexplicable reasons, the post itself is blocked for me at work (despite the fact that I can search for the title and find it).
    The section you quoted might be enough for me anyway, though. I love the bit about “polished-looking,” as if that’s something new either for lesbians or lesbian celebrities.

  • Rachel_Setzer

    I wrote about this over at Art of the Possible after I read the article on Broadsheet that discussed this piece. My personal conclusion is that Rachel Maddow is sexy because of her intelligence. We had George “I put the DUH in Dubya” Bush as president for 8 years, and Sean “More hair than brains” Hannity is still on the airwaves. Rachel Maddow isn’t a media savior because she’s an attractive lesbian who identifies as butch, she’s a media savior because wherever she goes she’s the smartest person in the room.
    There is some amount of novelty about her because she is a lesbian who appears not to hate men (OMG! how revolutionary!), but that doesn’t really enter into the (read: my) equation regarding her sex-appeal, (although, I’m not really sure I want to use that term). She’s a welcome breath of fresh air in the media because she’s a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD from Oxford, but also because her ego is firmly in check unlike the equally sexy Keith Olbermann (whom I hear is a real bastard in person).
    I’ve been listening to Maddow since she start on Air America, and she was always my favorite host because her show had substance and she talked about things like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan like the were real things affecting the lives of real people. (I also got to be on her show once when she had people call in and answer questions on the Citizenship test — I got the most answers right and she praised me for it… *sigh*) I really think that those of us who consume news media are so enamored with Maddow because she provides us with actual information, serious discussions, and not unlike President Obama, she talks to her audience like we’re adults.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    I second ann bran’s point that we like her (or in some cases have a giant girl-crush on her) because she’s incredibly smart and witty. I would also add that I’ve always thought of the hair style and makeup as the concession she has to make to appear in the MSM. I think it’s telling that she ditches the hairstyle and makeup the second she’s off the air, and actually think she’s more attractive in the more natural look she appears in on late night tv.

  • j-doug

    I like Maddow. I listened to her radio show until I found out she was a Red Sox fan, and now I watch her on TV. Ever since Olbermann went from being Edward R. Murrow to O’Reilly with a Liberal bent, I find her approach very refreshing. As for sex appeal and as a straight male, I don’t find her particularly attractive, and that’s fine. I didn’t find Keith Olbermann very attractive either.
    I do believe her success is playing a role in the mainstreaming of lesbianism; and I don’t mean the sexualized bisexual “lesbian” that pervades our mainstream pop culture. I’m not saying that her only value is one that applies to mainstream hetero culture, but I do think she may be breaking some stereotypes. And that’s always good.
    Whether or not you agree with my sentiment, I think she’s a kickass journalist.

  • LindseyLou

    One of my favorite things about her (other than what is related to her show) is that she will go on the Today Show without a bit of makeup on. I love that she is confident/comfortable enough to do that.
    As an additional note, I am not only annoyed by that article’s position, I also think the author is assuming too much in order to fit her idea for an article into these facts. I know a man who doesn’t like Rachel, and even though he is a Republican, the reason he gives for why is that she’s “mannish.” ??? It just goes to show that there are probably a lot more people out there who are turned off by her sexual orientation than attracted to it. In my opinion, both are stupid positions. I couldn’t care less who she’s sleeping with.
    I love her because she’s smart and funny. And I’d posit that any “novelty” she provides has more to do with her representation of smart, funny women (or just smart funny people, really) in cable news more that her representation of lesbians.

  • m. leblanc

    God, that article was annoying. Not only was it totally heterocentrist (a whole article about how she’s a lesbian, which EVERYBODY ALREADY KNOWS) it was totally sexist as well. She “makes love to her audience”? Give me a fucking break. Just because she’s a woman–oh and she’s a lesbian so whenever we talk about her we must talk about SEX!–she’s “making love” when she’s delivering a fucking newscast?
    No one would write that about a male newscaster. And if you wrote that about a (straight) female newscaster you’d look like a jackass, too. But no, since she’s a sexxxay lesbian it’s all sex all the time for Maddow.
    It was hard to finish the article after that.

  • j-doug

    I agree with this generally, but I still think she’s changing some minds. Some people are harder to convince than others.

  • Thomas

    Replace Maddow with k.d. lang and it’s 1992 all over again. Have I gotten old enough for pop culture to recycle its silly tropes?
    (Hey — 1992 was good to me IIRC. And it started eight years of peace and prosperity. Perhaps this is a good omen.)

  • norbizness

    The New York Times Style section is neither stylish nor timely. Discuss.
    M. LeBlanc: They realize that if they used the “makes love with the audience” line with Chris Matthews, 99.45% of the audience would immediately throw up.

  • AlexMc

    This is such a special line from the article: “Lesbianism has finally come into a glamour of its own, an appeal that goes beyond butch and femme archetypes into a more universal seduction.”
    Too bad Maddow only gained ‘appeal’ to the mass media and general public by wearing make-up. By this standard, now the butch IS the femme with the make-up on. The ‘universal seduction’ IS by way of TRADITIONAL gender tropes.
    This is not progress, folks.

  • anteup
    Just set it to from english to english.

  • anteup

    OOPS! It isn’t babel that will let you do that. Any web translater that lets you set them seperately will though

  • hoolissa

    rachel is sexy in every way, and she’s nothing less than my lesbian hero.


    Forget being a feminist or a lesbian, Rachel Maddow is hands-down the most intelligent person on cable news. Olbermann is smart, but he makes me want to bang my head against the wall every so often. Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper are occasionally worth watching, but everyone else on TV sucks! When we figure out how to clone humans, I hope she’s first in line!

  • meeneecat

    To be fair, it’s not like she really has much of a choice about being “made up”. They told her for example that she couldn’t wear her trademark thick rimmed glasses…if it were up to her, I’m positive that she would choose not to wear the makeup, she was very resistant to it at first, and it was basically forced on her…The pressure from above makes it so even butch lesbians must cover up their true identity, getting coiffed and made up in order to be acceptable to the rest of society.
    I think it’s unfair to push a sort of “savior” role on Maddow – she didn’t ask for it…and I’m sure she herself would deny being any sort of “lesbian savior” (whatever that means).

  • meeneecat

    She does in fact identify as butch dykebutch, butch, butch! I love butches! (although I don’t ID as femme, i just love all types of lesbians) And I’ve always preferred her “non TV look”, but I realize she did have to make certain concessions in order to “make it” in the MSM…however, I think she did quite well at not giving up too much of herself – it is telling as to how she looked everywhere else besides her 9 o’clock show…just look at how she appears on just about any other TV outlet and interview (Leno, Daily Show, etc.) you won’t see no “made-up lesbian” there!

  • Tsunade

    If she looked more like her real self (a la the feature photo here) than her glamor self on the show, then maybe I’d have an easier time believing her as a LESBIAN icon, per se. As of now I see her as an icon, and an out lesbian, and a fantastic political pundit.

  • pinko

    {first of all, mirkin? that has to be a pseudonym. do we all know what a merkin is? (google it). too funny- and speaking of lesbian culture, anyone who watches the L-word may remember the reporter played by heather matarazzo, who jenny hated? her name was merkin. and it was funny then, too.}
    on the serious tip, though, remember what rachel maddow really looks like. i consider myself a rachel maddow expert, as i have been listening to her for years on air america (and swooning even then), and was REALLY freaked out when i saw her on the TV machine (as she would say). so much so that i wrote endless emails to air america and msnbc and blog comments about the de-butching of rachel. it has actually improved a thousand percent since the first week, if you can believe it.
    i am disappointed that she has consented to blue eyeshadow, lipgloss, and an overall watering down of her politics and her personality (and frankly, her talent), but even sadder that she might not be allowed on TV otherwise. still, it’s good to have some representation out there (even though it’s not real butch representation). i dig it when she goes on talk shows b/c she actually dresses normally (read: butch), with those hot ira glass type glasses.

  • Hollywood Marie

    If Merkin knew anything about lesbians, lesbian fashion, or shows full of lesbian fashion, she’d know that her name (Merkin) means, “VAGINA WIG.” Right Jenny Schecter? “F*** you, Merkin!”

  • Hollywood Marie

    oops, pinko beat me to it.

  • Bosworth_Focke

    I had absolutely no reaction to the story. Before this story I read an article on the Navier-Stokes equations, and after it I read an article on the Chronological Bibliography of Banaba. Of the three, the Maddow story was the least interesting.

  • etherspirit

    Rachel Maddow is absolutely adorable. She’s anything but butch, in my opinion. She has her own female style of whipping people with kind remarks and sarcasm that makes even the most hateful person smile at her cute intellect.

  • mandoir
  • Rachel_in_WY

    You would think the producers would get it when she goes on late-night tv looking exactly the way she would prefer to look, and the audience loves her.
    And, the glasses and the shoes (she’s always wearing great shoes) kick ass. It’s just great to see any woman who has her own sense of style that doesn’t mesh with the mainstream ideal make it work in an absolutely un-self-conscious way. And be super smart and funny and not all stuck on herself or obsessed with appearances…

  • Napalm Nacey

    I gotta say, make-up is sort of a necessity when doing TV. The bright studio lights and the way the camera picks up the details tends to leave a person washed out if they don’t wear at least foundation and blush or powder. It would look jarring next to all the other female presenters, and tv stations, as we know, are all about smooth appearances. I don’t think it’s anything against her butch looks, just a standard they enforce across the board.

  • MissKittyFantastico

    Don’t they make men wear makeup for the cameras, too?