News & Opinion


The power of Megyn Kelly’s feminism—even if she doesn’t call it that

The Daily Beast

October 27, 2016

After her dust-up with Newt Gingrich on her show Tuesday night, the headlines spoke as one. Reluctantly, liberals have conceded that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly is a feminist—even if, as she has said, she does not see herself as one.

Imagine, then, her mix of satisfaction and maybe ennui as she scrolled across some of the praise-ridden screeds out today: “How Megyn Kelly Became an Improbable Feminist Icon” (Vanity Fair); “Megyn Kelly Has Become The Biggest Example of White Feminism At Work (Pajiba); and “Aw Crap—Here’s Proof That Megyn Kelly Is Kind of a Feminist Role Model Now” (The Stir).

Note the grudging headlines. Because of Kelly’s employer, and because she has not fought the good feminist fight in a conventional, left-wing context throughout her career to date, the F-word mantle is being conferred upon her with something of a scowl.

This, in itself, reveals a kind of blinkeredness on the part of Kelly’s critics: It is perfectly possible to work for a right-facing institution and not be 100 percent right wing yourself, or spout the prevailing dogma of the TV station you work for. (Full disclosure: I worked for The Times of London, a British, Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, for over 13 years.)

In a way, the question of Kelly’s feminism is a canard because the extreme cycle of the presidential campaign has—in the excitable, quick-to-define lens of the media—made her into a feminist, symbolically at least, whether she likes it or not.

This fame means she herself has become news, as evidenced in the widespread reporting of her contract negotiations Wednesday night. In a highly unusual response to these contract negotiations being played out, highly unusually, in public, Murdoch told the Wall Street Journal that he hoped Kelly’s contract–she wants ‘north’ of $20 million a year–would be resolved soon. He added, pointedly, that others “would give their right arm” for her primetime slot. The hardly subtextual meaning that, much as Murdoch values her, nobody in his eyes–including Kelly–is bigger than Fox News.

But he and the network would not like to lose her. Kelly is one of the few women on screen strongly standing up for women and women’s related issues before a vast audience, and on a network not known for its feminist leanings. CNN and ABC are said to be keen to hire her should she leave Fox; the day after the presidential election she will be Kelly Ripa’s co-host for that morning’s Live With Kelly on ABC.

At the first Republican primary debate, Kelly asked the question of Donald Trump that has ultimately—crystallized in the multiple accusations of sexual assault leveled against him—come to define his soiled candidacy:

“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”

This of course, led to Trump’s infamous imagining of “blood coming out of her whatever.”

Last night, Kelly called time on Gingrich, as he pivoted—as wildly as viewers have come to expect from Trump surrogates—away from discussing Trump’s sexual assault accusers to blathering on about Bill Clinton.

Gingrich foolishly accused Kelly of being too focused on sex; she corrected him that she was talking about sexual assault. (His incorrect conflation is depressingly telling for its own reasons.) Kelly told Gingrich that Bill Clinton wasn’t running for president, and that voters were more focused on who was—Donald Trump.

“We’re going to have to leave it at that,” she said, “and you can take your anger issues and spend some time working on them, Mr. Speaker.”

It was a brilliant broadside, because Kelly had correctly identified, and called him out, for his intemperate tone. But it also received plaudits because her repudiation mirrors ours watching the intemperate daily shouting chamber of voices—almost always Trump supporters—as they filibuster and avoid answering the Trump-related questions being asked of them.

“You can take your anger issues and spend time working on them,” honestly should be printed on a T-shirt, and given to every one of the bug-eyed, shrill Trump surrogates squalling on cable TV.

Gingrich was hit square-on by Kelly’s zinger. “You too,” he muttered weakly.

A day later, he was still trying, weakly, to muster up a comeback after she had put him in his place.

The bias criticism seems especially absurd because Kelly broadcasts on Fox News, known for the very opposite of liberal bias—and Kelly herself has behaved, as The Daily Beast has reported, around a number of stories, like the prototype Fox News anchor.

And while Kelly may have become the most publicly visible victim of Trump’s misogyny, she has indicated she does not see herself as a feminist or like the word.

“Well, I don’t like that word: feminist,” Kelly told Stephen Colbert earlier in the year. “I think it’s alienating. The reason I think that is because it’s been co-opted by some people who don’t want you in their club unless you see certain women’s issues the way they see them. I think that’s alienating. I like more of the Sheryl Sandberg approach, where it’s take the most divisive issues and table those and see what we can agree on as women.”

Kelly continued that her “own brand of feminism, if that’s what it is,” was to follow a Steve Martin motto, which is: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” “I was never lined up outside of my boss’s office saying give me an opportunity, there’s not a woman in primetime… I was just trying to be so good they couldn’t ignore me. The best answer and the best way forward to young women out there who want to get ahead is work your tail off. Work harder than everybody. Be better than everybody else. Do better. Try harder.”

Many may say, sure, she can say that because she already possesses a lot of power and occupies an exalted professional position. But, even taking into account that privilege (which she has worked hard to achieve), Kelly has certainly transformed this theory into practice in recent months.

Kelly, like any anchor who blurs newsgathering with polemicizing, is most certainly is pugnacious. You challenge her at your peril. She wants eyeballs on her show, and on the column inches that follow. She knows how to generate publicity, and to parlay her own image and PR from that.

The presidential election has transformed her professional fortunes and power, mostly for the positive—the only misstep was the yukfest she and Trump shared when he finally spoke with her again after the first debate, after the fallout from his vicious verbal and tweeted assault of her had abated. Why was she making so nice, after he had targeted her?

The media talks about their “feud,” but a feud requires two people actively engaging in hostilities; Kelly has not said anything intemperate about Trump. If asked about him, and what unfolded after the first Republican primary debate, she is measured in her responses. The “feud” is all one-way—Trump’s—and his ugly campaign against her was launched because she had criticized him.

His response to Kelly became the template for anyone who did the same—from Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of gold star veteran Capt. Humayun Khan to the women accusing him of sexual assault, to any journalist or journalistic outlet that does the same. The bully immediately assumes the aggrieved position of the bullied.

Kelly’s memoir Settle For More, to be published on Nov. 15, the week after the election, will address Kelly’s experience of being engulfed by the Trump hurricane, “revealing never-before-heard details about the first Republican debate, its difficult aftermath, and how she persevered through it all.”

That may well be true, but observers have noted that Kelly is no fading flower either: Strong and ambitious, she now knows her increased professional worth in Trump’s wake.

Not only that, in the wake of Gretchen Carlson’s allegations of the same, she also let it be known she also reportedly told investigators she had been sexually harassed by Roger Ailes at Fox News (after facing criticism for not speaking up sooner).

For others targeted by Trump, and female voters revolted by him and his words and deeds, Kelly stands as the most vocal and visible of public interrogators of him, and someone who weathered all that he threw at her afterward. The moral victory is hers. Trump’s image continues to be sullied; Kelly’s only becomes more buffed.

Whether Kelly stays with Fox News in 2017 when her contract expires is unknown; but rather than the network holding the key cards she currently does.

Behind the putdown she leveled at Gingrich on Tuesday night lay not just a smart journalist outflanking a surly interviewee, but a journalist who knows her own worth.

If she is a feminist, she is not only one because of how she has dealt with Trump and Gingrich, but also in remaining calmly, unflappably insistent in the face of both men’s blustering that those who have power should answer questions relating to alleged past abuses and misogyny.

Personally, in capitalizing on the furor that followed such incidents, she has revealed a steeliness and self-possession in taking charge of her own career and future.

If Kelly isn’t a feminist, she has certainly set a powerful feminist example—and that may ultimately be more powerful than owning or rejecting the word itself.