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It was an odd (queer?) juxtaposition, going from the spectacle of Wash. U.'s Spin Alley on VP debate night to the spectacle of a campy Charles Busch flick the next morning. (The former I was viewing in hopes of uncovering bloggable tidbits, the latter for an upcoming magazine piece.)

Busch, one of the theater world's most lovable female impersonators, doesn't so much skewer the notion of femininity as spear it (sometimes literally) and drag it onstage. But more than that, his renditions of the classic leading lady (à la Marlene Dietrich) left me peering underneath the hood, so to speak, of the femininity around me.

Looking back on debate night through a Charles Busch lens, it began to seem very clear to me just how much we female members of the press (to say nothing of the female politicians we've covered this season) camp it up in certain respects. The little blazers, the pantsuits, the lipstick, the hairspray—not to mention the laptops and shoulder bags and little recorders and badges that brand us "official." We can look in the mirror before stepping out the door and say to ourselves, "Yep, that looks about right." Men will come up to us on the stairs and shake our hands as colleagues. If we have these things, we are official, to anyone looking—and to anyone checking.

Yet after watching Charles Busch unfurl his gleefully realistic version of femininity, all of these things popped out at me as just so much political theater.

It's not that the women reporters around me on debate night weren't busy doing their jobs, or that their reporting wasn’t important. The free world depends on this coverage, and many of those women reporters would likely take umbrage at the insinuation that their professional persona is anything less than authentic. Just as I once witnessed Phyllis Schlafly swat down a woman who questioned her with a curt, "I think that's your problem, not mine," so too would the women of the press say that this is likely my problem, not theirs.

But to get some perspective on it: Does the free world depend on female reporters' docile willingness to traipse around amid a clump of black-clad pressmen as an almost inevitably male talking head (or a token female one) holds a "conversation" with them in sound bites? Does the free world depend on these tropes, these predictable questions and answers, this idea that everything is continuing as planned, on schedule, as foreordained?

Maybe it does. Maybe these are the ways in which we show (reassure?) ourselves that we're making progress, that we are the nation we think we are. These tropes I rail against—perhaps some theater is necessary to camouflage the sausage mill of lawmaking and governing.

It’s a privilege—truly—for a female reporter to be able to even fake a conversation with a political leader. In so many other nations, women are scarcely able to step out the door without getting shot at or kidnapped or worse. We’re also lucky to have a media machine that employs so many people who otherwise might toil in the proverbial salt mines. (Or the "book mines," as I once referred to a previous job in the depths of a bookstore.)

But that machine is shrinking—and morally, it’s growing smaller still. And at the end of the night, all that’s left is a buzzing crowd of suits shoving cameras, recorders and boom mikes at another guy in a suit, the whole mechanism moving about the room ponderously, like a black crab with many legs, a signpost stuck in the middle.

3:00 pm, October 03, 2008 :: debate

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