Sunday, October 04, 2009

Why Maddow Matters

The first time I ever listened to Rachel Maddow on the radio for any length of time was when she guest-hosted for Michelangelo Signorile on his Sirius OutQ afternoon drivetime show a few years ago. It wasn't that I didn't have an interest, mind you, it was that Rachel's own show was live early in the morning, not what you'd call prime talk radio listening time for me and not on a station I could receive well on my car radio from Central New Jersey. Still, I knew who she was and I always looked forward to hearing her on the air when I could catch her. When she filled in for Signorile, though, was when I truly became a fan not only of her and her work, but I also came to understand that she and her success represent a lot more than many of us realize.

During that show, Rachel told a story of how she'd been hassled at the airport getting on a plane because of her gender-variant appearance. As I was listening, it occurred to me that this was a story that none of Sirius Out-Q's regular, conventionally-gendered hosts could have told in the first person, but I had no doubt that for scores of transpeople and gender-variant gays and lesbians it was a very familiar one. For me, it underscored the point that even in mainstream media specifically intended to serve the LGBT community there's really still precious little out there that speaks directly to and from the experiences of the unconventionally-gendered.

After Rachel's appearance on Out-Q, I began playing closer attention and when she started on MSNBC I instantly became a loyal viewer. Over the time she's been on MSNBC, she's referred to her partner Susan a number of times and she's made jokes about her non-classic-feminine body image on her show. The most important part of all that is really the fact that when she mentioned these things there was a massive earth-shattering yawn. No one except those on the farthest reaches of the right-wing care that she's a lesbian. No one's freaked out because she doesn't present an ultra-feminine on-air figure ala Norah O'Donnell or Andrea Mitchell. What matters is that she's great at what she does and viewers love her...and that's all that matters.

This is actually a bigger deal than some may realize. Aside from Rachel and Ellen Degeneres, how many openly LGBT mainstream television or radio hosts can you name? If you're having trouble coming up with names, there's a good reason for that. There just aren't very many, and the few of us who actually are out there can generally be found online, emanating from non-mainstream sources and usually working for free.

While I do chastise myself for being such a cynic, I must admit that Rachel Maddow has become successful in television despite my expectations. As Dr. Laura, Michael Savage, and so many others have taught us so well, that which is perfectly acceptable on radio may well prove intolerable on television. Michael Savage can denigrate LGBT's all he wants on his radio show, but when he does it on the third night of his MSNBC television show he's out of there, end of story, no questions asked. Dr. Laura may lose all of her sponsors and hence her television show because of reaction to her anti-gay views, but those same sponsors will continue eagerly writing checks for ad spots during her still highly-rated radio show.

That being the case, I fully expected Rachel Maddow to remain a strong and respected voice in left-wing talk radio. It never occurred to me that she'd ever have a shot on television because of her butch presentation and because she's an out lesbian. Traditional commercial media in general is notorious for being unwilling to take risks and break new ground, and I expected Rachel would be just too much of a departure from what had come before for her to get a television show. Not only did she get the show but MSNBC's bet on her has paid off bigtime. She may not be the number one show on the air but she's a major player, on a par with any and every other pundit out there.

Yes, it matters, even though it shouldn't. No one would think to judge Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, or Bill O'Reilly by anything other than by the quality of their work and their record of delivering the viewing audiences their sponsors are seeking to attract. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, the reality is that a gender-variant and openly lesbian host is likely going to have a tougher time of it and have to put up with a lot more crap than a middle-aged heterosexual white guy, regardless of their politics.

Luckily, Rachel Maddow seems more than up to the task. Despite the criticisms of some, she doesn't cast herself as a cheerleader for LGBT rights issues, but she does take them on from time to time on her show as they arise in the news cycle, including features and interviews regarding Don't Ask, Don't Tell and other LGBT-relevant topics. In my opinion, that's a very good thing. There are plenty of people like me, like us, who are creating shows and other media by, for, and about ourselves. That's critically important, and we need that kind of media to be and to remain a vibrant, healthy, and informed community. Yet we also need people like Rachel Maddow who are mainstream pundits taking on mainstream issues who just happen to be LGBT but don't make that their focus. If we truly want to be an integral part of modern mainstream America, we won't get there by continuing to talk only amongst and about ourselves.

In Rachel Maddow I see reason to hope that sometime soon she and Ellen won't be exceptions anymore, that we may eventually live in a world where you'd be as likely to find someone like Rachel or Ellen or even me as you would to find a middle-aged white guy when you turn on your radio or television. It may still be a while off right now, but the success of the Rachel Maddow Show on both radio and television portends well for the future, not necessarily of LGBT media per se, but certainly of media made by LGBT's.

From a personal perspective, as a transwoman with a fairly feminine appearance but a rather masculine speaking voice who's been trying to land a paying gig in radio for the better part of a decade now, I can't help but hope that Rachel Maddow's success has pushed the door open at least a little wider for those of us who exhibit some form of sexual or gender variance and are still trying to land their first (or first big) media job.

It may be years longer before the playing field begins to level for us in any detectable way, but it's no longer a given that hiring an openly LGBT person for an on-air position on a mainstream media network is a bad idea. In fact, not only has it been proven that it's not always a bad idea but also that it can be a very good and highly profitable idea if done correctly.

The best news about Rachel Maddow is that she's not news. It's the quality of her work and the loyalty of her audience, not her sexuality or her gender presentation, which define her to her audience and to the public at large. For openly LGBT and gender-variant people trying to break into this industry, those of us who hope to perhaps follow her into mainstream media someday, that has to be the very best news of all.


Unknown said...

Thank you for great post about Ms Maddow. I have been conflicted about her since I found out she was gay (through wikipedia). I wasn't sure whether it was ok that I liked her more afterwards, but now I appreciate just how important she is for us queers.

Valerie Keefe said...

She has, in the last three years, mentioned trans people twice.

Once for Amanda Simpson

Once as part of a piece on the Sheppard Hate Crimes Act.

Nothing on Chrissy Lee Polis. Nothing on ENDA. Not even a side note mentioning that trans folk will still be discharged after DADT is repealed. I tend to think it's because she doesn't care. Otherwise she would have invited Dr. Zucker, who works at CAMH and practices reparative therapy on young gender variant children right after her previous guest on reparative therapy for sexual orientation.

Rachel Maddow ignores us. I defy you to present me with evidence to the contrary.