[Correction: For some reason I replaced the actual name Morris with Brown in places. I have made the correction.]
Phillip Morris is a local columnist for the Plain Dealer who usually writes fairly boring boilerplate local interest stories. I usually read just the first paragraph before moving on. But a couple of days ago my attention was grabbed by the headline to his column that said ‘Rachel Maddow and the gay tax’.
If he wanted an attention grabber, he got it and so I read on and was even more astounded by the opening lines:
MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow is a big lesbian who looks like a man. She’s not an anchor babe and never will be.
As I read the rest of the piece, it seemed to me that his basic point was to complain about the unfairness in the way a TV news anchor in Cincinnati was treated. She was suspended for a couple of days for writing on her Facebook page that “Rachel Maddow is such an angry young man”. She later apologized. Brown says that her punishment amounted to a ‘gay tax on her free speech’.
Morris seemed to feel that the punishment was unjust because Maddow herself had told a British newspaper “I’m not a TV anchor babe. I’m a big lesbian who looks like a man” and so he wondered if that meant that he too could say such things about her and not be hauled over the coals for doing so, adding “That’s part of what’s become so confusing about the current state of public discourse. The rules on what one is allowed or not allowed to say aren’t always clear.”
Morris then piles on:
[A]nyone who pays attentions to the “Rachel Maddow Show” knows the hostess does looks like a man. Just as anyone who pays attention knows that there are times when, given the right topic, Maddow can work herself into one of her ideological frenzies where she resembles an angry young man.
Maddow has swagger and lots of it.
She’s also a big lesbian who looks like a man.
Am I allowed to say that?
Actually, in this case the answer is quite simple: I wouldn’t advise it, unless you don’t mind looking like a jerk.
It is a fairly simple rule that says that people can say some things about themselves that should not be said about them by others. For example, I can say, and have said, that I am not at all good looking, but it would be odd for someone else to publicly say that about me. If Morris began a column by saying, “That ugly Mano Singham wrote recently…” it would be quite weird. And the fact that I would agree with the description does not make it less weird.
What a person looks like should not matter in public discourse unless looks are obviously relevant. Androgynous looks are just another kind of look, except that they do not fit into cultural stereotypes. A biological man may look more closely like the cultural profile of how a woman looks and vice versa but so what?
But it is the case that when someone says that a man looks like a woman or a woman looks like a man, they are not merely talking about appearances in a value-neutral way by comparing them to cultural norms. They usually mean it derogatorily, that the person is unattractive or not a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’, whatever those terms might mean. And that is totally uncalled for.
For the record, I have seen Maddow numerous times on the internet and the thought never crossed my mind that she resembled the cultural stereotype of a man more than that of a woman. She struck me as being attractive, with an expressive, intelligent face, cheerful smile, and an engaging, if somewhat hyper, self-deprecatory manner, which is likely what led to the comments she made to the British newspaper about her looks.
I am not sure what Morris was thinking when he wrote that column. It seems remarkably obtuse to me. I urge you to read it and see if I am missing something.