Leslie Griffith | Rachel Maddow Takes Us Back to the Future

Every June, I leave my Northern California home and head south to our annual Gulf Coast family reunion. I might as well be an alien visiting from another planet. My appearance at these soirées is a bit scandalous because, quite frankly, many suspect that my time in California has turned me gay.

Why do they think I’ve gone to the dark side? “It’s her square glasses,” one redneck “in the know” told my family. “She’s from Cal-uh-forn-eye-eh and single … at her age!” Well, what better proof is there?!

My smarter than usual smart-ass siblings goad me as they playfully drawl out their characteristically slow pronunciation of California. It’s a knowing self-parody. They suspect Californians see Texans as nothing but fossil-fuel guzzlin’, rattlesnake humping hicks. And, it’s true … many Californians do. However, the preconceived notions cut both ways. My Texas friends call just about anyone from California a “socialist” or a “homo.” Suspicion of the “dreaded socialist homo” is why they worry so much about the transformation of my appearance.

What they don’t know is that my 22 years in television, endlessly coloring my hair and plucking my eyebrows and exercising into a size six has cured me forever of the desire to work hard at looking plastic. Still, though, they wonder … sometimes out loud … why I “let myself go,” which simply means I refuse to wear makeup in the Gulf Coast heat. They think not “gettin’ dolled up” means I’ve gone to the dogs. What my Southern friends cannot grasp is that I am no longer preoccupied with looks because I no longer have to be. I’m no longer in broadcast news.

Enter Rachel Maddow. Rachel’s simple, clean and decidedly muted appearance hearkens back to a time when credibility made the newscast what it was, and when sleeveless shirts and mini skirts were the stock and trade of game show sidekicks and soap opera vixens. She is buttoned down and smart, and knows how to stay out of the way of a story. How does she manage it? Easy, she does not let sex get in the way. Is the hot button issue of “being gay” comforting in some way to viewers, especially when juxtaposed with the alternatives? Rachel has somehow made it clear her “gayness” is not the sum of her identity. If only the vixens could rely more on gray matter than sculptured legs, perhaps we could take them more seriously.

Sometime during the 80s, “sex sells” crept in from the dark corners of advertising and into the bright lights of the newsroom. By the 90s, “sex” became an adjective. “Sexing up a show,” became a newsroom mantra. I heard the word “sex” used so often in the world of news broadcasting, I wondered if we’d become pimps instead of anchors, call girls instead of reporters.

Can you help? If you can afford to contribute, please keep Truthout free for everyone with a donation.

But there is Rachel, sitting smartly in her square glasses and easily disproving the conventional wisdom. Maybe sex sells some things, but smart sells the news. And the two should not go together. In a masterful stroke of genius, she appears asexual by simply refusing to put sex on display.

Normally, this formula wouldn’t make corporate stockholders happy. But Rachel is focus-group friendly and demographically delightful. Both men and women like her.

Women watch her mostly because she represents their Jungian shadow self. The good shadow, that is. Smart, funny, sarcastic, playful … Rachel’s the sort of woman other “down to earth” women look up to. She’s unplucked, unbleached, easy to relate to, and there’s an added bonus. Rachel’s not competing for their man’s attention.

Men like to watch Rachel Maddow for some of the same reasons. They are not threatened by her. They can trust her because she’s not leading with her cleavage. Rachel’s power comes from the synapses between her lobes.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp and Fox News, has been quoted as saying he is not prejudiced against smart women and that he “lets them ‘do’ the news.” He’s typical of many men and, in a strange twist, some women in corporate news today. Sex sells, and right now it’s selling wars, corporate agendas, disrespect for government and inane celebrity gossip.

Rachel gives broadcast news credibility by refusing to make it about her. There’s no sex for sale on Rachel’s highly successful broadcast. Hey, consultants … are you watching?