"Gay for Rachel Maddow": What a Hot, Smart, Lesbian Pundit Means for an Uneasy America
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When the Rachel Maddow Show debuted on MSNBC back in September 2008, not many people knew her now-famous story. They were not aware that this impish, handsome figure with a sideways grin, a scholar's brain, and a lawyer's logic was a Rhodes scholar, former activist, and open lesbian. It was fun, that first week, watching as she nimbly dismantled right-wing arguments without raising her voice. Maddow's affable goofy-geek persona, her ability to skewer other pundits' arguments without coming off like an asshole, and her genius flair for translating policy arguments into interesting, digestible bites charmed the pants off a lefty populace that had been lusting for a cable-news rock star all its own since ... well, since the invention of cable news. It was a good debut.
Then, all of a sudden, that shit blew up. Maddow started whipping Larry King's anorexic tail in the ratings. She more than doubled MSNBC's viewership for her time slot, from 800,000 to about 1.7 million. She almost single-handedly made MSNBC -- for years the loser third wheel of the cable-news party -- a player. And, best of all, she started handing Pat Buchanan his ass almost every night. Suddenly, the nation couldn't get enough of this 6-foot-tall dyke who put douchey white men in their place on a regular basis.
It was not the most probable moment in the history of tv and America's relationship to it. Cable news isn't the most female-friendly place, much less the most queer-friendly: Its biggest female star to date has been Ann Coulter, who trades openly on her short skirts and Breck-Girl hair and throws the word "faggot" around like confetti. By contrast, the butch Maddow is a natural in front of the camera, but her androgynous features are incongruent with the ample slathering of makeup tv requires. Cable news, as a whole, is Middle America; Maddow is more Middlesex.
Yet, the minute we met Maddow, the country went gaga for her. Actually, it's more like the country went gay for her. As Rebecca Traister wrote in a July 2008 Nation profile:
Love is too weak a word to describe how some people feel about Rachel Maddow. They lurve her, loave her, luff her. New York magazine's online Intelligencer column recently ran an item headlined 'Why We're Gay for Rachel Maddow,' and the blogosphere is dotted with posts like 'I'm totally gay for Rachel Maddow.'
Indeed, for Maddow, the blogosphere has been turning cartwheels, batting its eyelashes, and collectively giggling like a hormonal schoolgirl at her first dance. "I know I'm probably breaking some kind of gay male covenant," said blogger Japhy Grant of Popnography, kicking off an April 4, 2008 post about her. "But I have the world's biggest crush on Rachel Maddow." The responses to Grant's post were equally starry-eyed, though oddly speckled with disclaimers. "Rachel is smart, funny, no nonsense, and absolutely adorable. I totally have a girl crush on her (tho' I'm a happily married woman.)..." wrote CouldIBe?; another poster gushed, "I thought I was alone in my unfitting crush (straight woman!). She can switch from being really witty and funny to speaking really eloquently about important issues, without losing a bit of her credibility! Plus she's just lovely to look at and listen to!" A third enthused that he was "Hetero, married to the sweetest thing for 25+ years, and I can't stop watching Rachel."
A couple of posts even raved about the loveliness of Maddow's neck. You get the idea.
The demographic most aflutter over Maddow is the one MSNBC covets more than any: young people. It makes sense -- she's instantly relatable to us: We, too, wear funky glasses and t-shirts and have iPod wires dangling from our ears. Politically, we share Maddow's freedom from the encumbrances of Vietnam and Watergate and their legacies. Those of us 30ish and younger never endured the collective fall of innocence of earlier generations who underwent those milestones -- our cynicism is already built in, our optimism already guarded, and our politics less directly entrenched in the context of their effects.