Steel Magnolia: Nancy Grace and the Epistemology of Place

Curator's Note

Nancy Grace is like a character from a mass-market paperback novel: a female attorney with a deep drawl who is blonde and brassy, argumentative and quick to judge. This, of course, makes for some terrific television. Audiences got more than a glimpse of this during the Scott Peterson trial—a sensational, macabre story that was attended by a great deal of commentary from this gal from the South. At that time, Grace sat in for CNN's Larry King on several occasions and became perhaps the go-to legal pundit for a cable television universe that all but ate up this particular legal story. Grace's legal expertise was weighted with her own moral judgments, delivered with moist eyes and a thick Southern accent as she baited other lawyers, locked horns with other expert guests, and even berated the program hosts who invited her on. Viewers learned that Grace was a prosecutor, victims' rights advocate and a crime victim herself, having watched the murder of her fiancé when she was a graduate student. These tidbits didn't just circulate around Grace, she propagated much of this discourse herself; she would—and continues to—use anecdotes about her life, background, and place of origin as evidence of her investigation skills, moral fiber, and knowledge base. This, of course, has been to Grace's benefit. She is now the host of her own programs on Court TV and CNN Headline News, a much sought after legal pundit, guest speaker, and bestselling author. With her trademark combative demeanor, Grace's programs typically showcase high-profile legal cases: Michael Jackson's molestation charges, the custody suit following Anna Nicole Smith's death, and the disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway while on vacation in Aruba are just a few prominent examples. Her sensational reporting and shameless side-taking has, of course, earned her the ire of many lawyers and legal scholars, especially after her aggressive grilling of a mother of two missing children on air was followed by the woman's suicide. In case it isn't clear by this point, I am at once repelled and fascinated by her. That she appears on national television and so easily and off-handedly assigns guilt to those accused of crimes is, of course, extremely problematic. But there is such a gendered element to the criticism lobbed at her, as if an aggressive woman in a courtroom is little more than a "pushy bitch," that I find myself backing off, even now. As a cultural text, Grace is squarely in the discursive category of "Southern belle," carefully coiffed in her appearance, overly pompous in her demeanor, deeply traditional in her femininity. I want to underscore the way she mobilizes a performance of "Southernness" as an epistemological tool, something inextricably connected to her personhood that is both a source of her wisdom and a central proponent in her claims to moral certitude. In this interview with CBS News, she defends her tactics in the face of still more criticism with the arrogant pomp of Scarlett O'Hara and the steely resolve of Atticus Finch. She's a tough cookie.


I'm fascinated by the gendered ways in which the personal (tragedy and experience) legitimates Grace's political discourse and branding, providing "intimacy" and "vulnerability" (stereotypically coded as feminine) that both offset and feed her aggressive "external" (re)presentation. Would a male pundit receive the same flack? Perhaps. But the legitimization of those actions would likely not be linked to interiority as with Grace, but something "grander".

Despite her claims to the contrary, Grace fits neatly into a shadow system of televised jurisprudence - cable news hosts as prosecutors, daytime TV show "judges," etc. I agree with you that it is her "Southern-ness" moreso than her gender that makes her so interesting - compare with any of the TV judges, who are similarly marked as regional/ethnic (Maria Lopez, People's Court, etc.), and it would seem like this kind of region coding is a prerequisite for getting into TV law school.

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