January 12, 2009
Rachel Maddow: America’s smartest, newest, butchest pin-up
Openly gay and proudly butch, America’s most talked-about political talking head doesn’t even own a TV. Who is Rachel Maddow and why is everyone going crazy for her? Kaite Welsh investigates.
Politics and satire
On the other side of the Atlantic, a 35-year-old lesbian is making waves. After years on radio and being called in as an occasional pundit on cable news channels, Rachel Maddow finally has her own show, where she stands out among her overly-made up fellow female newsreaders.
Maddow is the first openly-gay prime time news anchor, and her blend of politics and satire has proved to be a winning combination. She even has her own fansite, and her cult status helped her get her own hour-long show at MSNBC. After a month, her show doubled the 9 pm slot’s rating.
Her speciality is “the kind of news that makes its own jokes,” but whilst at first glance she comes across as the lovechild of Tina Fey and Rhona Cameron, she also has a serious side to be reckoned with. One of the things that makes Maddow so popular is her refusal to talk down to her audience. She studied public policy at Stanford and has a PhD from Oxford – and boy, does it show.
‘Woman of the Year’
An AIDS activist before her move into media punditry – she managed the AIDS treatment Project in the UK after finishing her PhD at Oxford – Maddow isn’t afraid to show what side of the political fence she’s on. However, the other side is still allowed to have their say.
Noted right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan – who once said “Homosexuality is not a civil right” – is a frequent guest on the show, although Maddow can be seen tearing down his arguments more often than she agrees with him. And whilst she garnered a post-election interview with Obama, she later stated that she was ready to call him on the first bad decision he makes – and followed through after the Rick Warren debacle.
Neither is she afraid to criticise the press – and, by extension, herself – for missing out on the important news stories that just aren’t sexy enough for prime-time. In her New Year awards ceremony, she gave the ‘Um, Is Anyone Going to Say Anything?’ award to herself and her colleagues in the media for the lack of coverage given to Hurricane Ike, which devastated parts of America and left 82 people dead.
Evidently it’s a winning combination – not only did she top the list of Out magazine’s “gay men and women who moved culture”, lesbian website AfterEllen awarded her the title of ‘Lesbian/Bi Woman of the Year’ in their 2008 Visibility Awards. Add that to rave reviews from the liberal media and her sky-rocketing ratings, and it’s clear that Maddow is a star in the making.
Out and proud
Things are looking pretty rosy on the home front, too. She met artist Susan Mikula, her partner of nearly ten years, when she was finishing up her dissertation and working part-time as a gardener. Both women say it was love at first sight.
Rather than shy away from her personal life, Maddow has always been as happy to bring up both her relationship and her sexuality – although, as she points out, “I don’t want to talk about my personal life… I want to talk about Afghanistan.”
She may be a public figure, but she likes her private life to stay that way. Still, her queerness clearly influences her politics, and she never shies away from discussing LGBT issues – for Maddow, ‘lesbian presenter’ is an accurate description rather than a confining label.
Unusually for an industry that likes its women perfectly coiffed, she hasn’t compromised on her famously tomboyish style. Maddow dresses, by her own admission, “like a twelve year old boy”, and yet she’s become an unlikely fashion icon.
The rumour that she was asked to femme up her androgynous image made headline news last year, and she even appears in the January 09 issue of US Vogue, without compromising on her nerdy-butch image – she’s all geek chic glasses and Converse, no skirt or high heels in sight.
So will her success pave the way for other queer women breaking into the newsroom? Only time will tell. Perhaps Maddow’s success will open closet doors for other women in the media to come out. Either way, it can only be a good thing. As that other famous lady-loving-lady Virginia Woolf said, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
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