What’s a smart conservative woman who makes her living performing in the public sphere to do? There are two currents running through the contemporary political landscape that make it difficult for such women: the far-right’s troublesome relationship to feminism, as well as its suspicion of intellect. First, as has been noted of late, conservative public rhetors such as Sarah Palin are making a grab for the feminist mantle, yet eschew many of the traditional causes and goals of the feminist movement. Second, the use or display of intelligence in public life challenges the far-right’s embrace of populism and populist rhetoric, as well as the movement’s use for what George Lakoff calls the cognitive needs for a “strong father figure.” So how does the Mary Tyler Moore of the new millennium “make it on her own” in the world of contemporary conservatism, especially if she is also publicly positioned at the headquarters of the de facto intellectual center for the far-right movement, that is, Fox News?
The associated clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart demonstrates these tensions at work, and posits an answer. Gretchen Carlson is one of three hosts of Fox News’ morning show, Fox & Friends, and the only woman. Stewart reports the repeated tendency of Carlson to assume a particularly annoying role—that of the “troubled mom who just tries to make sense of this crazy modern country we’ve got.” Crafting a persona for morning television is nothing new, of course, as network programs such as the Today show have routinely constructed cast members such as Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, and Willard Scott or Al Roker as brother, sister, and crazy uncle figures, respectively. The problem here is that the Carlson may not be as dense in real life as the character she plays on Fox. As Stewart argues here, there seems to be an intentional dumbing-down of Carlson—who was a valedictorian, an honors graduate from an Ivy League university, and an accomplished classical musician—for “an audience who sees intellect as an elitist flaw,” as Stewart puts it.
Certainly that’s one interpretation, and maybe the correct one. But it also raises as many questions as it answers: where is the agency here, that is, who is doing this? Are her lines crafted by her producers? Are they trying to craft a familiar feel for the show (in jest, Stewart suggests Three’s Company)? Or is this a persona Carlson has chosen to construct, and if so, why? Does this persona allow her, as we see here, to engage in some very intellectually dishonest rhetorical maneuverings, all in an effort to continually play up Fox’s “preconceived narrative” (as Stewart calls it) that is hell bent on the destruction of Obama and the Democratic Party? Is she really that dense, despite her previous achievements, or is this what smart conservative women have to do in the public sphere—emulate the density of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann? Finally, is Fox News’s influence on contemporary Tea Party and Republican Party politics strong enough that performances like this (and those that they also feature from Palin, Bachmann, et al.) will increasingly “define” the type of persona that smart conservative women must adopt? I’m not sure I have the answers, but Carlson’s adopted persona should certainly lead us to examine this troubled relationship between feminism, conservatism, and public performance.