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Face up to the perky

Katie Couric can't escape the adjective. Some say it's descriptive. Others call it sexist.

April 15, 2006|Robin Abcarian | 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.' "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Perkiness: In Saturday's Calendar section, a graphic with a story about perkiness misspelled the first names of TV celebrities Kathie Lee Gifford as Kathy and Kelly Ripa as Kelli.

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."

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