Why do we — men and women, gay and straight — find Rachel Maddow sexy? Daphne Merkin’s “Butch Fatale” about the newly minted MSNBC icon, hidden among the overpriced handbag porn and fluffy profiles of last weekend’s New York Times T style magazine, is more complicated than it appears.
As Merkin writes, it isn’t often that mainstream culture celebrates the attractiveness of butch lesbians. Sure, we admire femmes like Portia de Rossi and Lindsay Lohan. But for the most part, lesbians who wear suits, cut their hair short or otherwise don’t conform to traditional standards of beauty — the Ellen DeGenereses and Rosie O’Donnells of the world — have to remain culturally neutered in order to participate in public life. Though we find classic representations of gay male beauty in the films of Luchino Visconti and the writings of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann, says Merkin, “It’s much harder to envision a lesbian icon without coming up against Fran Lebowitz, looking surly and bored.”
The problem with lesbian archetypes, according to Merkin, is that “both categories — butch and femme — borrow from gender-influenced dichotomies of beauty.” And this is where Rachel Maddow, supposedly, is a revelation. “She may not be one of Hefner’s Girls Next Door, exactly, but she is no bare-faced, unstylish dyke either, however she chooses to characterize herself,” says Merkin, going on to coo over the way Maddow combines a light dusting of makeup with “Poindexter glasses, Jil Sander pantsuits and Converse sneakers” and concludes that “she’s willing to prettify her image sufficiently to endear her to male viewers.”
Here’s where I disagree with Merkin: I don’t think Maddow’s TV appearance is particularly calculated to attract male viewers. The makeover doesn’t seem like a ploy to sex up Maddow; rather, it’s a concession to appearing on television, where everyone has to wear makeup and dress like a professional. According to a New York magazine profile, Maddow’s partner, Susan Mikula, is responsible for her wearing makeup: “Without it, ‘she looked like a dead person,’” Mikula said. And as for the designer suits, it’s not as if MSNBC was going to let Maddow — or Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews, for that matter — go on the air in a ratty button-down and carpenter jeans. Meanwhile, Maddow makes no effort to hide her casual, butch off-screen appearance, either. In this pre-New Year’s video, also for New York magazine, a bare-faced, hoodie-clad Maddow gives a lesson in mixology.
It’s true that while the butch-femme dichotomy has already broken down among many younger lesbians — I’m hard-pressed to categorize any of my mid-20s lesbian friends as either — Maddow is still a butch in my book (and her own). And besides, I think Merkin misses something major about what makes Maddow sexy: the nerdiness! From the “Poindexter glasses” to the Oxford Ph.D. to her perfectly crafted sarcasm, Maddow is as geek-chic as she is lesbian-chic.
Unlike Merkin, I believe Maddow when she says “she has no interest in the issue of physical appearance — her own or anyone else’s.” And as much as I would love her to herald a new age of lesbian beauty, it seems to me that viewers respond more to Maddow’s non-physical qualities — intelligence, charm and, above all, authenticity — than to her looks. But I’m interested to hear Broadsheet readers’ take, too. What do you think makes Rachel Maddow sexy?