“Telegenic” Is Not a Sexist Term
On a number of occasions, education historian Diane Ravitch has referred to former CNN anchor and corporate reform advocate Campbell Brown as “telegenic” or “pretty.”
Apparently Brown hates this, and she views such references to her appearance as “sexist.”
It seems she was willing to overlook being referred to as “telegenic” in this November 2014 Observer gush piece. But for others to use the term (i.e., Ravitch): sexist.
However, the term “telegenic” is not sexist.
According to Merriam-Webster, the term “telegenic” first appeared in print in 1939 and is a hybrid of the terms “television” and “photogenic.” It means,
Well-suited to the medium of television; especially: having an appearance and manner that are markedly attractive to television viewers.
It is not a term reserved for women.
I remember studying about the televised, Kennedy-Nixon debates. Kennedy had a telegenic advantage over Nixon, which is captured in this History.com article:
Before the first debate, both men declined the services of CBS’s top makeup artist, who had been summoned from New York for the event. Bronzed and glowing from weeks of open-air campaigning, Kennedy was more than ready for his close-up–though sources later claimed that the naturally telegenic senator still got a touch-up from his team. Nixon, on the other hand, had a pale complexion and fast-growing stubble that together lent him a perpetually grayish pallor; during an interview with Walter Cronkite two weeks before the debate, the vice president had confided, “I can shave within 30 seconds before I go on television and still have a beard.”At his aides’ urging, Nixon submitted to a coat of Lazy Shave, a drugstore pancake makeup he had used in the past to mask his five o’clock shadow. But when the candidate started sweating under the hot studio lights, the powder seemed to melt off his face, giving way to visible beads of perspiration. It didn’t help that Nixon had chosen a light gray suit for the occasion, which faded into the backdrop of the set and seemed to match his ashen skin tone. Reacting to the vice president’s on-air appearance, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly said, “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”
For those presenting themselves to the public via the TV camera, being telegenic is critical.
In August 2015, NPR’s Ron Elving used the term “telegenic” to refer to Senator Marco Rubio:
In August 2000, Boston Globe reporter David Nyhan referred to former Senator John Kerry as “younger and more telegenic than [former Representative] Dick Cheney.”
In October 2014, Fitsnews referred to former Columbia (SC) news anchor Ben Hoover as “exceedingly telegenic.”
On the flip side, February 2016 Raw Story reports that a former Princeton classmate commented that Senator Ted Cruz is “about as telegenic as an undertaker.” (Interesting aside: My sister once lived next door to an undertaker, a woman who reminded me of Suzanne Somers.)
The fact that Brown is irked by Ravitch’s references to Brown’s telegenic appearance does not make such references sexist.
Ravitch has made it clear that she wonders what qualifies Brown to be a televised mouthpiece in the crusade for so-called education reform. I wonder as much myself. Brown has money and connections; she has a background in journalism. And as of 2014, she appears before national audiences pushing for charters and higher test scores and faulting unions for all perceived ills of American public education.
I am surprised how easily Brown cracks under pressure, which she made particularly evident in her May 23, 2016, Washington Post response to former principal and Network for Public Education (NPE) executive director, Carol Burris, over the issue of Brown’s misapplying the term “below grade level” to mean scoring “basic” (and not “proficient” or higher) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):
The histrionic reaction to the distinction between “grade level” and “grade level proficiency” begs the question: is this all you’ve got? You’ve lost the debate on charter schools. You’ve lost the debate on special protections you want for abusive teachers. You’ve lost the debate on tenure. Again, this reaction screams desperation. If I were trying to be completely and utterly precise then I would have specified “grade-level proficiency”, instead of “grade level” in the context of NAEP scores. But any reasonable person or parent can rightly assume that if their child is not reading at grade level, then their child is not proficient. Any reasonable person or parent knows exactly what I meant in that statement. That the people who disagree with my characterization would react by attacking me personally with sexist insults speaks volumes. Those feigning outrage over the difference between “grade level” and “grade level proficiency” are the people who profit off the system’s failure and feel compelled to defend it at all costs. Sadly, in the age of Donald Trump and Diane Ravitch, this is what constitutes discourse.
Brown resides in some debate triumph bubble unfamiliar to those of us outside of the Campbell Brown Adulation Society. Still, if she expects to sit before those television cameras and blast a reality foreign to her firsthand experience, she will have to drop the “I won’t engage with the sexists” defense or risk being viewed as (dare I write it? I think I will) pretty, well-financed, and emotionally ill-equipped to face the consequences of her telegenic indictment of American public education and its teachers.
Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press: