Four years ago, there was a flurry of headlines when “Fox and Friends” hosts Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade had an on-air spat, an incident that was all Kilmeade’s fault. It started when Kilmeade made a sexist comment complaining that, “Women are everywhere.”
“We’re letting them play golf and tennis now. It’s out of control,” he lamented.
At this Carlson marched off set, saying, “You read the headlines. Since men are so great.”
Kilmeade celebrated, saying, “Finally” he got to have his “all-male crew.”
“She needed a shower,” he told the camera.
This little incident was largely treated as a joke at the time, but now it isn’t looking so funny anymore. Carlson is now suing Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News, for sexual harassment.
Her lawsuit alleges the worst kind of sexual harassment, too. This isn’t just sneering comments. She is alleging that Ailes fired her for refusing to have sex with him.
Hopefully, more information will come out about the particulars of this case. But we don’t need a full trial to know that Fox News, as an institution, is ideologically geared towards minimizing, defending, and even promoting sexual harassment and the objectification of women.
Under Ailes’ leadership, Fox News has put a premium on protecting a man’s “right” to harass and demean women.
In 2014, the show “Outnumbered” had a segment in which the hosts crawled over each other to defend cat-calling. The female hosts argued that it’s “flattering” and that we should “let men be men.” (In the world of Fox News, treating women with the same basic respect you offer men somehow robs a man of manhood.)
Then the male host, Arthur Aidala, bragged about sexually harassing women, demonstrating his cat-calling strategy. (His preferred method for creeping women out is to applaud slowly at them, a method clearly designed to draw out the interaction while forcing the target to pretend to appreciate the “compliment” in order to escape without argument.)
After a video showing how unpleasant it is for women to be followed and cat-called went viral, then-Fox host Bob Beckel sneered at women for daring to complain.
“She got 100 catcalls, let me add 101,” he mocked. “Damn, baby, you’re a piece of woman.”
“The O’Reilly Factor” has a regular segment where they send anchor Jesse Watters out on the street to mock and bully random people for “comedy,” and, unsurprisingly, a lot of that involves sexual harassment.
You’d think Bill O’Reilly would be a little more careful about that sort of thing, since he had to settle out of court after an employee taped him sexually harassing her. But that’s clearly not a problem for Fox News, where taking this demeaning attitude towards women seems normal.
One of the all-time creepiest examples involved a segment where three men were invited on-air to both leer at and judge women for wearing leggings. Women were paraded out in front of the men — all supposedly chosen because they are fathers of daughters — and the men were asked to comment on whether they would “allow” their daughters to wear the clothes in question.
The segment had it all: Assertions of male ownership over bodies, blaming women for men’s treatment of them, and reducing a woman to an object for men to peruse as if they were buying coffee mugs at the local gift shop. The possibility that a man can see a woman in leggings and still choose to keep his opinions to himself — instead of leering, harassing, or otherwise trying to assert control — was not even considered as a possibility.
The head boss himself, Ailes, is notorious for treating women like they are sex objects who exist solely for his aesthetic appreciation.
Anyone who watches Fox News is bound to notice the disturbing sameness of the way women look on the channel. It’s all miniskirts coupled with skyscraper heels, with slacks or short heels being oddities that stick out like someone wearing paisley bellbottoms.
This is not an accident. Gabriel Sherman’s book about Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room”, details how Ailes is obsessed with women’s legs to the point where it goes well beyond creepy.
One source recalled Ailes getting mad because a female anchor was using a laptop that somewhat obscured his view of her legs.
“Tell Catherine I did not spend x-number of dollars on a glass desk for her to wear pant suits,” Ailes allegedly said when an anchor had the nerve to try to mix it up by wearing a pantsuit.
In 2013, Carlson let it slip on-air that women were not allowed to wear slacks on “Fox and Friends.”
On the various segments minimizing sexual harassment at Fox News, the usual line of defense is to argue that it’s no big deal and women should be able to take men’s sexual interest as a compliment. But, as Carlson’s allegations show, the issue with sexual harassment isn’t men simply finding women attractive.
No, the real issue is the disrespect. In all these incidents, both alleged and visible on-air, women are being reduced to objects for men to control.
Cat-calling isn’t a compliment, it’s about telling a woman that a man’s desire to sexually interact with her trumps her right to be left alone. Controlling what women wear — whether it’s telling them to cover up or take it off — isn’t a compliment, either, but about control. Pretending to hit on women who show you up is about putting them in their place.
It’s these attitudes that lead directly to the kind of quid pro quo sexual harassment Ailes is being accused of. If you think women are nothing but sex objects, then it’s not much of a leap to demand they have sex with you in exchange for decent treatment at work — decent treatment that’s offered to men without any sexual demands attached to it.