My father’s dream for his daughter used to be for me to hold my own spot on Fox and Friend’s nightly news round-table alongside his favorite columnist of all time, Charles Krauthammer. As I grew older and progressively more liberal (although I still consider myself a staunch independent as neither party fully encompasses my values and principles), I think this particular fatherly imagining has gone the way of my own childhood conviction that I would follow in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’s footsteps. At least, for that dream, I had a role model (albeit a fictional one that doesn’t quite hold up to feminist scrutiny as an adult viewer).
As this past week’s much-discussed all-male House committee hearing on contraception and religious freedom demonstrates, women’s opinions on political policy are hardly in high demand. According to analysis by Think Progress, “men outnumbered women by a nearly 2-to-1 margin last week in all debates about contraception on MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and Fox Business.” This is no new development: “female experts were sought out as commentators only 38 percent of the time on a story about women’s health.” These disheartening statistics made me all the more excited to catch MSNBC’s new weekend news program, Melissa Harris-Perry yesterday.
Ms. Harris-Perry, a full-time professor of Political Science (specializing in gender and race politics) at Tulane University in New Orleans (where she lives with her husband and her daughter), will be teaching a full course-load during the week and flying to New York on weekends to tape her live show (the first scholar to do so). Harris-Perry has history outside her academic sphere – a columnist for The Nation, and a frequent contributor to other MSNBC network shows such as “The Rachel Maddow Show” and Al Sharpton’s “PoliticsNation.”
Now, I’m not usually one to sit down and watch my news – my attention span just won’t cotton to that kind of sustained engagement. Rather, you’ll find me scanning rapidly through the paper, the blog roll, and (if I can muster the brain cells) a NYTimes article in its entirety – a hearty accomplishment! But the two-hour debut of Melissa Harris-Perry kept me riveted to the television (even eliciting a few “Damn straight!”s and power fists) while only losing me a few times to Pinterest (my laptop was right there and, as with any piloting show, there were a few lags).
Unlike with my crack-addict-esque obsession with an online pin-board, I can clearly analyze why I was so drawn to Harris-Perry’s show. It is not simply that the show is a mix of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ news – my lover, Jon Stewart, delivers that to me nightly with his humorous take on distinctly serious topics. As much as I love Mr. Stewart, however, he rarely invites female guests on his show that are not celebrities promoting a new movie or tell-all memoir. Not only is MHP anchored by a woman, but her first episode alone featured three female commentators and discussion of several late-breaking women’s issues (including Virginia’s new reproductive rights laws and women in the Catholic Church).
For the first time watching a mainstream news program, I could see myself at the table – with something pertinent to add to the discussion, not merely as a nodding head to soak up the expertise of the other guests. While I hardly have the credentials of MHP’s guests (take for example, my personal favorite, Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania), these women weren’t speaking from a teleprompter about obscure issues that I had no hope of fully grasping . . . they were engaging in a conversation that I could and would willingly join about what mattered to me.
My DVR has a series date with Melissa Harris-Perry and I can only hope that women and men across the country recognize this program for the rare opportunity that it is to re-frame the political discourse.