"Gay for Rachel Maddow": What a Hot, Smart, Lesbian Pundit Means for an Uneasy America

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.

We also worry less about gender constructs. It's not that Maddow's sexuality is not a big deal to us -- quite the contrary. It is a huge deal, but not for the reasons that you'd think. Maddow's queerness, her androgyny, is actually comforting. It's not that we are able to "see past" Maddow's queerness; it's that she looks like someone we might already know.

That relatability may explain Maddow's appeal to the Twitter generation and denizens of Manhattan and Chicago and San Francisco, but what about the soccer moms and dads, the ones who post those disclaimer- laden blog comments? Judging from them, the sexuality bit is an issue, and Maddow's unmistakable, well, gayness doesn't exactly ease those less comfortable with the concept into it.

The key to Maddow's popularity with the straights, in fact, may lie in her similarity to, of all people, Sarah Palin. Bear with me for a moment on this one: Sure, they stand at opposite poles of the gender spectrum as well as the political one, but Palin and Maddow share more than you'd think, and combined they speak to a certain kind of rare star power. Both hail from snowy, slightly off-the-grid places (Maddow lives with her partner of 10 years in the hilly outskirts of Northampton, Mass., where even getting cable tv can be a hassle). Both wear signature glasses (though Maddow never wears hers when she hosts her show). Both are lusted over by their respective ideological blocs. Both were plucked from relative obscurity by a gray-haired man (in Maddow's case, sometimes-lovable MSNBC crank Keith Olbermann). Both like to wink at the camera. And both had rises to fame that were spun into creation myths that belied each one's fierce ambition.

It's well documented that Palin, despite her "What does the Vice President do?" act, lobbied hard for the position. As for Maddow, a November 2008 Newsweek profile noted that "The greatest media-created cliché about Maddow has been that her 'meteoric rise' has been almost accidental, that the truck-driving, yard- clearing, erstwhile activist became an 'unlikely' star once the MSNBC heads recognized her potential. That's clearly a fiction." Indeed, Maddow vigorously pushed for her own show, even hiring Olbermann's agent along the way. The Newsweek story was one of the few news outlets to try to dismantle the myth -- the rest played up Maddow's story with as much enthusiasm as they did Palin's, thereby portraying both women as passive players in their own fate.

But as the 2008 election came and went, Maddow- lovers ramped up their devotion, while among all but the most hard-core, Palin's cachet dropped like an airless basketball. It's tempting to wonder whether the ongoing love- fest indicates that this election propelled us not only past race and gender, but also past the boundaries of sexual orientation. As the Nation article put it:

The "gay for Rachel" meme appears to transcend gender and sexuality. Women, men, straight and not straight: they're all gay for her. In a year in which we have decided to become postracial and postgender, Maddow may embody a media in which adoring fandom is postgay.

That Maddow's appeal has reached into the land of strip malls and split-level ranch homes lends credence to the postgay theory -- because once you're okay in the 'burbs, you know you've made it to "post-" level. Except, of course, it's not that easy. The election no more proved we're postgay than it proved we're post- feminist (just ask Hillary Clinton) or postrace (just ask the security team at the inauguration). Maddow is more genuine, smart, and substantive than Palin, to be sure, and that might contribute to her long-term success, but they share the same media-driven, aw-shucks fable. When it comes to Maddow, this is dangerous: The troublesome evolution of her mythology combined with how the media has treated her indicates that, while we've come a long way as far as the treatment of queers and women, we've still got a long and bumpy road ahead.  

First, the queer stuff. As Maddow's star has risen, so has the number of editorial inches dedicated to her story. While they don't exactly gloss over her sexuality, most treat it as a sort of incidental factoid, akin to, say, her love of classic cocktails. It's as if we've skipped straight to postgay, without the benefit of the attendant political and social gains, which doesn't make any sense. How can we be postgay, for instance, in a society where Prop 8 passes? How can we be postgay when Rick Warren gives the invocation to an inauguration that's supposed to be about "change"? How can we be postgay in a world where Ann Coulter even exists? But there's a subtler bit to explore. If we're so very post- gay, why does delving into some of the gayer aspects of Maddow's life seem, on the part of mainstream media, verboten? Even after months of coverage, for instance, no one had even published Maddow's coming-out story until Baird recounted it in her Newsweek piece. (Maddow came out her first year at Stanford -- a place she describes as, according to the article, "surprisingly homophobic" -- by putting up announcement posters in the bathroom of her dorm. Her parents were not exactly pleased. Nor were many of her classmates.)

By contrast, the stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the L.A. Times have been clear about Maddow's sexuality, but they never dig into it. It's not so much what they've said as what they haven't. The paucity of coverage about Maddow's sexuality stands out sharply when compared with the barrage of references to a second characteristic: namely, how nice she is. It's true that much of Maddow's appeal lies in her natural ease, her politeness, and her refusal to engage in the pile-ons so beloved by the dudes of cable news, in which the winner is the one who can shout down the rest. When it comes to dismantling her opponents, Maddow uses a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. But much of the media's treatment of her niceness borders on fetishization, in a way that speaks to how capable women are often represented in the media.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Richard Corliss's September 2008 story in Time. In it, Corliss accurately notes that the boys at MSNBC certainly have some mommy issues, and erroneously points to Maddow as some sort of caretaker: "Her new job comes at a time when MSNBC could use a referee -- or a nanny…. Now that the mood in the boys' locker room has sharpened from towel-snapping to punch-throwing, Maddow might be just the sweet sister the place needs."

A sister? A nanny? You'd think that, as a lesbian, Maddow might enjoy the luxury of not automatically being expected to clean up men's messes. Maddow's pleasant manner, furthermore, should not be confused with passiveness or rote people-pleasing. Her niceness seems to stem from an internal comfort, a confidence, and that forms a base of strength. She doesn't need to engage in the verbal battering of her male cohorts, because her bad-ass brain already knows 10 other ways to win the argument. Just because she's nice doesn't mean she's interested in playing mommy. She could set an example, perhaps, or put those man-boys in their place, but make no mistake, Mr. Corliss -- Maddow's not MSNBC'S sweetie-pie conciliator, she's the place's freakin' savior.

Corliss et al may play a huge role in (mis)shaping how Maddow is perceived, but if you peel away the layers of hype and fable and misogyny, there's still a reality to the situation: Maddow's appeal ultimately comes down to Maddow, and she really is awesome. Which is why it's all the more frustrating that for every 10 blog comments that fawn over her brainpower, there's one or two sarcastically asking what barber she uses. For every comment that enthuses "She looks like Ira Glass. Cute!" there's one that sneers "She looks like Ira Glass. Gross!" And that's why we're not postgay yet. Maddow's existence as the postgay, well, poster child mirrors Barack Obama as the "postrace" politician and Hillary Clinton as the "post- feminist" one. The three of them combine as a hopeful triumvirate, true; but there's a danger that the public will see them as the ultimate proof of how far we've come, thereby marginalizing how far we still have to go.    


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