Women TV reporters: It's what's on the head

February 07, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

A glance at the office TV screen told me that the news anchorwoman was in trouble with many viewers that day. And I mentioned this to a colleague.

"She looks normal to me," he said.

"No," I said, "look at her hair."

"Her hair looks fine," he said.

Sure it looked fine. But she had it pulled back. And she almost always wore it down and full.

"I can't believe anyone would care," the colleague said.

That, I explained, was because he didn't know anything about TV viewers and their attitude toward the hair of women newscasters.

So we called the anchorwoman, Natalie Allen, of CNN, the dark-haired young woman who does the afternoon reports.

I was right. The calls had been coming in from viewers, expressing disapproval of her switch in hairstyles.

Ms. Allen said: "The producers take most of the calls, but I know we get them. For whatever reason, it seems like our hair is a big deal.

"It's amazing how many letters and comments I get about my hair, and about other women's hair on CNN. Even some of my friends ask about the other people's hair. I'm telling you, people care.

"It's definitely one of those sexist issues we have not gotten past. I think a lot of viewers view the women anchors like they are our parents. They feel like they can call us or write us and tell us what to wear and how to do our hair.

"It's a mystery to me, but to a lot of people who watch news, we are like family or neighbors, and because of that special relationship they feel free to give us advice all the time on our appearance.

"We have a female reporter, who will go unnamed, and I've received letters saying: 'Why don't they put some lipstick on that woman? A little lipstick would go a long way on her.' "

But it is mostly hair. And Ms. Allen remembers anchoring on a quiet Sunday that became hectic after we bombed Baghdad.

After seven hours on the air, juggling reports and reporters, she finished her stint.

The first call she got was from someone telling her she had let her hair become too full.

So how did I know the viewers would react so strongly to Natalie Allen's change of hairstyles?

Actually, a month ago, I wouldn't have known. The obsession of many TV viewers with female hair was not one of my areas of interest or expertise.

But then Ellen Warren, a co-worker at the Chicago Tribune, went on a panel news show on CNN. She and the other panelists thoughtfully discussed many of the grave issues of the day. (This show, "CNN and Company," is not like the McGoofy Group or Haywire, with everybody shrieking.)

It happens that Ms. Warren was born with very curly hair. Tiny, wiry curls. Females tell me this is very difficult hair to control. It can be temporarily straightened. But if a few raindrops hit it, it goes "boiing," and the curls leap back.

As a result, her hair sometimes looks a bit unusual. Not unattractive, to my eye. But sort of like she stuck a finger in an electric outlet.

So she went on this CNN panel show and said all sorts of intelligent things about serious subjects.

By the time she got back to her desk, a fax had come in from some guy in California.

In a wild scrawl of handwriting, the man wrote: "Pleeeeze could you SCRAP that KINKY HAIR job and those atrocious earrings for the sake of all that's endearing to women?

"Pleeeze, that hairstyle went out during the '60s and the free love era of Haight-Ashbury."

Then came a letter from some guy named Ray, who lives in Loon Lake, Wash., who wrote:

"It must be that all of your friends are too embarrassed to mention your hair, so I guess it is up to a viewer of 'CNN and Company' to tell you.

"That is the most God-forsaken, pathetic excuse for any kind of a civilized approach to a hairstyle I've ever seen.

"I'm absolutely stunned that you can walk the streets, let alone the halls of the Chicago Tribune, without people screeching in terror!!"

Obviously, men who live in Loon Lake, Wash., are easily stricken with terror. If Ms. Warren's hair could cause him such fright, a stroll through some Chicago neighborhoods might bring on instant cardiac arrest.

But if you think about it, there is something strange about so many people becoming emotional about the hairstyles of newswomen they see on television.

I've been on TV hundreds of times, but nobody has ever written or called to say: "How come one of your sideburns is an inch longer than the other?" (Because I'm half-asleep when I shave.) Nobody ever demands: "Why don't you trim your nose hair?" (I let my nose hair grow long because if I am ever mugged, I can sneeze at the assailant and flog him to death.)

People don't care about male hair on TV. That's why we have many bald male TV reporters, but not even one bald female news anchor or reporter. Talk about discrimination.

As I often do in such matters, I went to Dr. I. M. Kookie, the noted expert on lots of stuff, and asked him why so many TV viewers get worked up about a woman's hairdo.

L He said: "Do you want the clinical, scientific explanation?"

Yes.

"Because there are a real lot of butt-heads out there."

Makes sense to me.

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