Face up to the perky

Times Staff Writer

IT remains one of the most famous lines ever uttered on a sitcom pilot. On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Ed Asner’s curmudgeonly Lou Grant looks at Mary, who is applying for a job, and says, “You’ve got spunk.” “Well ... “ she starts to reply, obviously flattered. “I hate spunk!” he snarls.

Years after the 1970 show, Asner had a change of heart. “No one could hate spunk, not even a curmudgeon,” he told the AARP magazine. “I should have said, ‘You know what? You’re pretty goddamn perky. I hate perky.’ ”

So, it turns out, does the woman to whom the word has been applied more often, quite possibly, than anyone else in America. That would be Katie Couric, who, in September, will become the first woman to solo at the anchor desk of a nightly network newscast.


Like the VW Beetle with its dash-mounted daisy vase, SpongeBob SquarePants and Molly Ringwald’s breasts in “Sixteen Candles,” perkiness is an ephemeral, know-it-when-you-see-it quality, combining cuteness, a certain bubbly energy and optimism. It is a vaguely 1950s quality, not a 21st century quality. In fashion, perkiness went out with the pointed bra cup.

In Hollywood, the Golden Age of Perkiness may have passed with Sandra Dee, Patty Duke and the Gidget/flying nun years of Sally Field. Local television news teams continue to be bastions of retro perkiness, but in the world of cable television, the women tend to be harsh or hectoring, in the manner of Nancy Grace and, despite the well-publicized beauty makeover, Greta Van Susteren.

So what are the semiotics of perkiness?

Apparently, the word harks back to the French word “perquer” -- to perch, as a bird. The adjective “perky,” which connotes liveliness, buoyancy and cheer, first appeared in the mid-19th century, in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Maud” (“There amid perky larches and pine ... “).

A century and a half later in this country, “perky” would come to be synonymous, for better or worse, with a certain American television news personality.

Earlier this week, a search of the word “perky” in the massive database Factiva turned up more than 64,000 hits. At the top of the list was this story from the April 17 edition of Newsweek: “The Katie Factor: After 15 years, the perky star of morning television finally gets to sleep in. Will she change evening news or will it change her?” If there was a dash of irony in the body of the story, where Newsweek referred to the 49-year-old star as “our Katie,” it was hard to detect.

Just try to find a published account of Couric’s switch from host of “Today” to the “CBS Evening News” that does not employ, straight-faced or not, the word “perky” to describe her. Most of the coverage has been laudatory, but with its slightly negative edge, the word always seems to slice at Couric’s authority. “Why can’t we have a reassuring mother figure instead of turning immediately to one of the perky kids?” carped John Leo in the New York Sun. A column in the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye was just as blunt: “Is she too perky for prime time?”


Couric, who is not a fan of the word, has been described as “terminally perky.” As far as can be determined, she has not yet been described as perkadelic or perkalicious. But give it time. She doesn’t even start her new job until September.

A spokesman for Couric, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said he thinks the word has attached to her like a limpet because of simple journalistic laziness. “It’s an incomplete depiction of a versatile multidimensional success story,” said Matthew Hiltzik.

Perhaps the word has stuck because of her diminutive stature (she is about 5 feet 2), her big smile or her youthful appearance. Indeed, when Couric, a 34-year-old deputy Pentagon correspondent, succeeded the untouchably sexy Deborah Norville as Bryant Gumbel’s co-host on “Today” in 1991, she wore a pixie haircut. Almost immediately she helped perk up the broadcast and boosted the ratings. And the label stuck. Over the course of her career, she has interviewed heads of state, world leaders, American presidents. And the label still stuck.

There may be such a thing as a perky man (Richard Simmons comes to mind), but in reality, “perky” belongs in the realm of adjectives used to modify women. Its antonym, “gravitas,” is presumed to apply to men only. (Tell that to Margaret Thatcher.) “ ‘Gravitas’ is a code word,” according to Connie Chung. Chung, who co-anchored the “CBS Evening News” with Dan Rather in the mid-1990s, told Newsweek for its cover story that people who say Couric lacks gravitas are implicitly endorsing a sexist point of view. “It has an offensive, chauvinistic connotation that should not be applied to any newswoman today.”

But Camille Paglia, a feminist who is often at odds with the feminist establishment, thinks many women possess gravitas, a term that was applied to the Roman senators of antiquity, who were expected to demonstrate leadership and sobriety. She would exclude Couric but include California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (“I really regret that she has not run for president; she has far more gravitas than Hillary Clinton”), the novelist Toni Morrison and the late writers Ayn Rand, Lillian Hellman and Simone de Beauvoir. “Women, if they ever expect to ascend to the presidency and be commander in chief, had better learn what ‘gravitas’ is and stop blowing it off as some sort of backlash word,” she said.

When it comes to Couric, Paglia, who is not a fan, said simply, “Perky, yes, perky ... and girly, OK? That’s the problem.”

In 1994, Paglia said she was interviewed by Couric during a book tour. “I found her pleasant but weightless, depthless. Backstage in the green room, she said to me with a look of wonderment in her eyes, ‘But Camille, why do you say all those controversial things when you know you will be criticized?’ I was dumbfounded.”

When an adjective is so gender specific, and tinged (as some believe) by a slightly patronizing odor, the question must be asked: Is “perky” -- particularly when used to describe a middle-aged woman who will earn a reported $15 million a year to read the nightly news -- a sexist term?

“I have no problem with it,” said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. “It’s slightly derisive, but ... perky is perky.”

Others, including the subject herself, who once told an interviewer, “I don’t do perky,” find it offensive.

“In the end, it’s all sexism,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. “If I were Katie Couric and someone described me as perky, I would hit them upside the head. It’s just a ridiculous thing to be talking about,” he added with a self-aware chuckle.

Some have even suggested that Couric might think about changing her name from the diminutive Katie to her given name, Katherine, when she takes over at CBS in the fall.

That idea made Thompson nearly sputter. “That would be considered the most ridiculously egregious attempt to gain gravitas. If you were going to change your name to Katherine to get rid of the ‘perky’ thing, maybe you should just knock out a tooth or scowl more often or put a big devil’s head tattoo on your cheek.”

In the end, Couric’s perkiness may be the single ineffable quality that led CBS to lure her away from NBC.

“It’s what’s earned her all the money and made the ‘Today’ show No. 1,” said Peter Shaplen, a Northern California freelance network news producer who also trains clients for media appearances. Many surveys show that viewers don’t remember TV content but have very good recall about the messenger, he said.

And apart from a certain level of talent and experience that one presumes any national newscaster must bring to the table, it’s a cosmetic decision, said Shaplen. “It’s all packaging. Katie is the most recent package to be tried out.”

He added: “I think they probably put in people like Walter Cronkite because he was fatherly and properly dour. Same thing for Dan Rather. He had talent, but he had boyish, rugged good looks, and they thought that would appeal to the audience. Let’s face it, TV strives for easy. And Couric is easy to look at and easy to listen to. You don’t want to struggle with ‘The end of our world is at hand tonight, and here is our first report from Quasimodo.’ ”



How they rank on the Perk-o-Meter

With perkiness poised for a comeback, as evidenced by the ascension of Katie Couric to the CBS News anchor desk, it’s time to see who’s got it and who doesn’t. The Perk-o-Meter is based on a highly unscientific measure -- pairing names and the word “perky” in the search field of Factiva, a media search and archive service run by Dow Jones & Co. and Reuters. This means “perky” may not necessarily be used to describe the person in question, just that it appears in the same story. Which basically makes this a high-tech parlor trick, but the results dovetail neatly with the conceit at hand.


Katie Couric...857

Kathy Lee Gifford...433

Paris Hilton...181

Kelli Ripa...156

Mary Hart...137

Margaret Thatcher...132

Dick Cheney...103

Janet Reno...59

Tony Soprano...44

Condoleezza Rice...39