Early-rising Americans not ready for pretty childless women

Campbell Brown is apparently way too attractive and child-free for morning news audiences.

Published September 19, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

This news won't come as a shock to people who pay attention to these things, but Radar online yesterday carried an item about why NBC's weekend "Today" anchor Campbell Brown did not get Katie Couric's abandoned gig as "Today" co-anchor. Apparently, because she is too sexy and doesn't have kids.

Brown, who spent years as NBC's White House correspondent and has reported for "Today" and "The NBC Nightly News" with Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, has covered two presidential elections, the Clinton impeachment, the death of the pope, the Iraqi elections and Hurricane Katrina. She's also a regular "Today" contributor on subjects like closet organizing and workouts, and was considered a serious candidate to take over for Couric.

But a source involved in NBC's search for the "Today" co-anchor told Radar that, in reporter Jeff Bercovici's words, Brown "never really had a shot, on account of her youth, looks, and, especially, her lack of kids." Apparently, the "Today" show's female viewers, including a core of stay-at-home moms, "would have trouble relating to a female host without rugrats of her own." It didn't help that Brown is something of a looker, and that the network felt her less-foxy viewers might have been intimidated by her beauty. Adding to the intimidation factor is the fact that she's 37 years old. That's young enough to be nailed for her "youth" -- even though it's just two years younger than Jane Pauley was when she was traded in for a newer Deborah Norville model in 1989 -- but really too old to be single, which Brown was until April, when she married GOP strategist Dan Senor.

Ever heard the phrase "a working girl can't win"? It seems to be amplified on morning television, where Couric -- widowed mother of two, closing in on 50, not threateningly hot -- was harangued for lacking the "gravitas" to anchor the evening news. For what it's worth, Couric was not a mother when she became anchor of the "Today" show, and in her years there wound up so hamstrung -- maintaining a balance between perky and profound, grave and cheerful, smart and silly, mommy and professional, pretty and unthreatening, widow and sexual being, grown-up and teenager, rich woman and every woman -- that it often felt as if she were trying to embody some kind of idealized American female who simply does not exist in nature.

This isn't to say that Brown should have gotten the job. The woman who did, Meredith Vieira, is terrific. But she's also an example of exactly how twisted this nexus of news and maternity has become. Vieira, whose career as a young correspondent for über-serious (read: old and male) "60 Minutes" came off the tracks after she had kids and could not negotiate a suitable schedule with CBS brass, took a long detour through the far-flung fringes of journalism on "The View" before she got rewarded (surely in part for her relatable, palatable commitment to motherhood) with the co-anchor's chair on "Today." If Vieira's path serves as an example, it's of the fact that motherhood is still deemed incompatible with the demands of a career in hard news, but that those women willing to forsake the power jobs to be good moms get the big-money, fluffy morning jobs in the end.

And those like Brown, who have not had kids, let alone sacrificed anything meaningful for them, apparently have nothing to say to American women. This is perhaps an even more startling, and covertly dangerous, assumption: that a female audience can only take their news and decorating tips from a woman who is a mom. It suggests that reproduction and maternal engagement are the most important achievements of a woman's life -- and the only grounds on which other women can relate to her.

Sure, on morning television there are lots of segments about kids that a childless anchor might not have experience with herself. But there are also stories about gardening and cooking that the average well-paid urban anchorwoman won't relate to either. Does Vieira have to have been a synchronized swimmer to cover the Olympics? Again, the notion that none of us can understand motherhood or are qualified to talk about it unless we have experienced it -- when in fact the single thing we all have in common is having been children ourselves -- becomes an ideological trap in which child rearing is the most vaunted and complex of female accomplishments, trumping every other mode of identification.

So let's hear it for morning television, where notions of femininity and professionalism get more muddled, twisted and fetishized every day. It's a relief at least that ABC thinks more of its viewers: "Good Morning America" host Diane Sawyer does not have children and seems to be relating to women just fine.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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