Notes & Queeries: Rachel Maddow, Butch Fatale


Notes & Queeries is a monthly column that focuses on the personal side of pop culture for lesbians and bisexual women.

It was easy to be irritated, if not offended, by Daphne Merkin’s flashy article about Rachel Maddow in the New York Times Style Magazine last month. For one thing, the piece is titled “Butch Fatale” yet argues that Maddow’s popularity is due to the fact that she is neither butch nor femme.

Putting aside Merkin’s assumption that all lesbians fall into two distinct categories — something I am sure every lesbian would dispute — she goes on to declare that Maddow is “willing to prettify her image sufficiently to endear her to male viewers.”

I am fairly certain, even without asking Maddow, that prettifying herself to attract male viewers was never on her agenda. But beneath Merkin’s ill-informed opinions, there lies a greater truth: America is still mighty terrified of anyone who might be “butch.”

Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

This anxiety with butch lesbians is expressed in numerous mainstream articles about Rachel Maddow. Every time an interviewer asks Maddow to talk about whether she wears makeup or how she dresses in “real life,” they’re trying to make sense of her butch appearance.

Take this paragraph from a recent Guardian profile:

Rachel Maddow — in her own words a mannish lesbian policy wonk who doesn’t own a television set — is not your average anchorwoman in America, or indeed on this side of the Atlantic. Later today when she goes live on air she must swap her Red Sox T-shirt and baggy Levi’s jeans for what she calls “lady clothes” — a bland slate-grey trouser suit. (She won’t say who it’s by for fear of insulting the designer.) Her chunky Eric Morecambe glasses will be exchanged for contact lenses (which she’s still getting used to). Reluctantly, there will be the merest smear of lipstick and blusher. She will, however, cling on to her trainers, safely out of sight under the desk.

We have certainly come a long way from the 1950s when most gay people lived closeted lives, but barring brief time periods in the 1970s and early 1990s, we have also continued to be a remarkably gendered society. Women, these days, are coiffed to within an inch of their lives. Hair extensions, countless makeup products, plastic surgery, cripplingly high heels — these are all signs of the extreme feminization of post-Sex and the City America. Even The L Word went this route.

Any time a lesbian who does not fit feminine norms makes a splash in the pop culture landscape (and it doesn’t happen too often), it is followed by a mass of handwringing as the media attempts to make sense of why she looks the way she looks.

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