I have a secret. I know Megyn Kelly is right wing. Or at least I think she is, though some things she says—I guess I’m not entirely clear on that. But she was on Fox, after all. Yet here is the thing: I’m intensely attracted to her, and I don’t mean sexually (though—maybe I do). I mean her ambition, the power she radiates, the guts she has to stand up to men on camera. I respect that. Also, she got her own show, and she’s beautiful and wears great clothes and—well, isn’t this female empowerment?
Salty understands how you feel…no, really. Salty confesses she’s a bit caught up by this, too. (Along with Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker and a few million other women. Not to mention men.) In fact, Salty—that is, I–spent a long time trying to work out a response to this question. I needed to figure out this Kelly thing for myself.
Ever since we invented mirrors, humans have been able to view our own images. Ever since we’ve lived in societies with markets—markets of social class, finance, romantic relationship, marriage–we have compared our images to those of others, and even considered ourselves commodities. Once people lived in their bodies, then in novels and radio and movies. When TV arrived it was mostly an evening entertainment, only three channels during a few peak hours, and then it shut off. Now TV and internet are 24/7 and throw stimulation at us all the time, contriving to seduce our attention, often via heightened characters—”celebrity culture.” We are immersed in a spectacle of imagery nearly every moment.
TV “news” now is part of this. It has always to some degree been theater. But in the past—during the eras of Murrow, Huntley/Brinkley, and Cronkite nationally—it was higher in information. Local news is now almost entirely entertainment, but even some national “news shows” are higher in information than others. There is C-SPAN, which is facts fact facts. And then there is Fox, which barely does information at all. Fox is almost entirely flashy opinion, though some is presented in the guise of news. And when she was there, that is a lot of what Megyn Kelly did.
So, Salt-seeker, to suss out Kelly’s appeal, I looked at another woman who also had a top on-camera job at Fox: Gretchen Carlson. An anti-Kelly.
Carlson was born on top of the social-class-and-money pile in a little town. She excelled in music (a lot of money for those lessons and camps), did Stanford and Oxford, then did a beauty pageant her mother pushed her into (more money to prep for that), and won her first leading role: Miss America. Then she jumped into broadcasting. She is white, blonde, pretty, wealthy, abled, Christian, and thinks life in America is fair and anyone can make it with enough hard work. Being born lucky often makes people think it’s not about luck. The system has worked just great for them, after all.
But at Fox, Carlson’s job was to wear a skimpy cocktail dress, sit on a couch between two men each with a fraction of her education, and smile constantly. Be an ornament and a foil. Carlson is very attractive but not glamorously tall, and she has mostly kept the button-nosed face that worked so well for her all those years. Her look says suburban soccer mom, and this makes her ‘cute’ rather than ’sexy’ in the spectacle market. Her smile said, I will please. I will get along. Fox audiences liked her jokey giggler act.
She was Betty. Carlson was cast as—and presumably accepted—the role of bubble-haired good girl. She is the woman whom conservative men publicly approve of. She is the woman they want to marry and take to church and make children with.
But—eh. That woman can be sexual ennui to men. See, men work to squeeze women into submission, but then they’re bored because the resulting characters are so erased of agency they feel dull. Men are turned on by a woman who engages her own assertiveness. They are excited by a woman who insists on her ego equality. In this way men are conflicted.
To be a superstar TV figure these days, Carlson would have had to break out of Sunday school teacher mode, maybe get some plastic surgery, dress differently. She’d have to sex it up, and combine that with fierce assertiveness—change her persona from girl next door Betty to edgy rebel Veronica.
Carlson chose not to do that. If her choices don’t appeal to you, Salt-seeker, I’m right there with you.
On the other hand, there’s Megyn Kelly, who took a different tack. Trained as an attorney, she learned to question witnesses sharply, then switched to TV.
She altered her face and body surgically for a movie-star look, and styled herself in the long flowing hair and sleeveless dresses that are de rigueur for Fox women. Yet over time she gradually moved from girlish designs to tighter, more revealing silhouettes. She chopped her hair short and androgynous and layered on heavier eye makeup.
All this drag suggested dangerous and sexy—Veronica. The woman that men fantasize about.
Sarah Palin performed a similar role eight years ago with her loud voice, direct and angry manner, athletic body, and black boots. Palin played dominatrix. Men—right, left, and center–wanted to fuck her. Right-wing women wanted to be her. Did those men want to marry—engage every day—a woman that assertive? Debatable, but they sure wanted her for an hour.
Kelly does a more elite version of Palin’s act—more intelligent, better educated, more polished, so she has broader appeal. Socially conservative America claims that women shouldn’t aspire to full-on ambition and out-front sexual power. So in presenting this persona, but mouthing right wing talking points, Kelly plays to all sides of the right-wing brain. She holds to the stricture of conservative views, yet enacts the covert desire to break out and let loose. She turns on men a lot. That’s her secret.
All through her tenure at Fox, Kelly’s fearless and pointed interview style, learned as a lawyer, came to the fore. Kelly is a smart on-camera personality—an actor, albeit one who plays it tough—who has perfected the skill of passing off right wing bias behind the objective guise of hard news. She was willing to perform the Republican talking points her Fox producers hired her to mouth, including racism (“Santa is white, Jesus was white”) and more.
Salt-seeker, you probably remember Kelly challenging Karl Rove on election night 2012. It was down to the wire. Rove insisted, rather desperately, that Romney really had won, and she refused to agree. She got up—so tall! so challenging!–from her anchor chair and said, I’m going downstairs to check with the numbers people. She click-clacked out of the room in her heels, and click-clacked back. No, she said to Rove, You’re wrong. (You putz.)
That was performance. That was performance of female assertion, on camera. She was an actor playing a role–the dominatrix slapping the little self-important flabby man, Lara Croft ass-kicking a villain. It was that persona that drew her viewers close, excited and overwhelmed them, and stirred in them a bit of anxiety from the cognitive dissonance her act provokes.
In putting Rove in his place that night, in putting Trump in his place more recently, Kelly embodied avatar to every woman who’s wanted to speak her mind but has held her fire. She spoke for women who still had some fucks left. Plenty of those Fox-watching women were excited by Kelly’s faux-feminist show.
Kelly knew, as Rove didn’t, that it’s all theater. And she’s good theater. Were you thrilled? Millions of viewers were. (Maybe even I.)
Kelly has her cake and eats it. Like any good actor, she crafts a narrative that people want to believe. Sure, she mouthed conservative ideology—but she also knew to throw in a fillip of surprise, a “rebellious” gesture to lead her audience to believe she was not performing so. Her dominatrix performance with Trump served not only to get Trump hard, but the entire Fox audience as well. But Kelly’s porn turn didn’t prove her independence from Fox’s line. Actually, it served to burnish Fox’s brand along with her own.
Look at how each of these two women handled the revelation that they’d been sexually harassed by powerful men at Fox. Carlson played it righteous and outraged. Shocked, shocked!—that the system that promised her success if she followed its rules had betrayed her. She doesn’t see that system contains contradiction at its very core.
Neither does Kelly. But notably, Kelly did not play the injured victim. She probably recognized that stance diminishes her carefully self-nurtured persona of mystery. If she showed she was wounded, she would lose power.
Yes, when a male Fox employee questioned Kelly’s maternity leave, she shut him up with a withering remark. But does she stick up for women as a class, or only herself and those she sees as like her? When the right-wing talker Erick Erickson offered an astonishingly retrograde opinion–that society is collapsing because more women are primary or sole income-producers–she pushed back hard. But whom was she defending? Those middle-class and wealthy women who, in her words, “choose to work.” She didn’t say, most women have no choice but to work because their partners make too little money or they chose not to partner. She didn’t say, There are tremendous financial pressures on these women and sometimes on these men. She didn’t say, You’re blaming women for an economy that the GOP created, for destroying unions and the decent salaries they fought for.
Yet in her book, Kelly says she’s “not a feminist” because feminists are “emasculating.” This is weaseling, double talk.
Because if she means by “feminism,” women who rip power from men and humiliate them, then of course she has performed such acts on camera. Indeed, she has even made her male on-camera subjects like it, while titillating her audience.
So yes, Salt-seeker, plenty of women long to be like Kelly. To be beautiful enough to attract, then confront powerful men and win—and not only not be rejected and trashed for it, but actually be desired more for it.
In his last book, in 1967, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Dr. Martin Luther King warned that the movement for racial equality was hobbled not just by white intransigence, but also by white delusion. “The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro,” he wrote. “They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” Translate that narrative from race to sex. Fox—and the right–promulgate this false ideology about sex (and social class and disability)—that equality of opportunity is already here, and all that’s needed for success is hard work.
“Women’s empowerment” is sterile, a delusion and a lie, if it presents tokens as authentic representatives. If it presents deployers of sexual imagery who also perform the ideology of white male supremacy. If it elevates female celebrity over what really frees women—full opportunity, reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. What both Kelly and Carlson were cast to do at Fox was to play that lie. They were hired to perform “women’s empowerment” while undermining it. And they did as expected.
Is this what you wanted to emulate, Salt-seeker? I thought not.
By the way, Hillary Clinton has for years been vilified by men left and right, women left but especially right, for doing everything Kelly does except be seen as fuckable. Hillary was quite beautiful at Kelly’s current age—but the sexy come-hither-I’ll-control-the-scene dominatrix persona wasn’t her style. She chose nurturing mother—the smart compassionate woman who reaches out and lifts up people, especially the less powerful, around her.
So what’s the difference between Smart Nurturer Hillary and Smart Domme Megyn? It’s that the Domme goes it alone. She’s out for herself only, as phrased in the title of Kelly’s memoir, “Settle for More.” That’s a different theme than Clinton’s “It Takes a Village,” or even “Hard Choices,” because choices for whom? Choices for the polity, the whole village that embraces everyone and their differences.
Do be ambitious, Salt-seeker! Don’t get me wrong. But if a person is only ambitious for herself, that’s not women’s empowerment. It’s hers alone.
So what now? Whither may you go in search of real female journalists onscreen?
I think of Oriana Fallaci in her best, early years confronting dictators and getting them to talk. I remember Barbara Walters pioneering news and Judith Crist critiquing film (and both being Jewish) at The Today Show. Nancy Dickerson breaking glass ceilings as a political correspondent. Gwen Ifill firmly probing interviewees (while being black). Christiane Amanpour fearlessly calling in from war zones. Rachel Maddow insistently pushing analysis, demanding complexity (and being lesbian and out).
None of these women was ever a Betty. A few played Veronica off and on–to get a story. All used their independent spirits to push limits.
Tall and tan and young and lovely the girl from Ipanema goes walking and when she passes, each one she passes goes “ah.” Tell dear firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Nordmark’s essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in Entropy, Peacock Journal, Draft: The Journal of Process, Porter Gulch Review, Matrix, and elsewhere. She studied anthropology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and Harvard, and now lives in Oakland, California.