The XX Factor

The Misguided Liberal Love for Megyn Kelly

Megyn Kelly giving a standup news report from the floor of the Republican National Convention in 2012.
Megyn Kelly  

Photo courtesy Matt Gagnon/Creative Commons

Last week, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times Magazine ran a fairly flattering profile of Megyn Kelly, host of the popular Fox News Show “The Kelly File.” In it, he describes one of Kelly’s favorite ways of distinguishing herself from the Fox News herd: “For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, a Megyn moment, as I have taken to calling it, is when you, a Fox guest — maybe a regular guest or even an official contributor — are pursuing a line of argument that seems perfectly congruent with the Fox worldview, only to have Kelly seize on some part of it and call it out as nonsense, maybe even turn it back on you.” These “Megyn moments,” where Kelly stands up to a particularly noxious bit of right wing bullshit, invariably go viral as liberal bloggers bask in the glory of seeing the flustered guest flail at this unexpected demand that he—and it’s almost always a he—explain himself on what would otherwise be considered his home turf.

Since that profile came out, Kelly has graced the world with two more “Megyn moments,” both with a bit of feminist flavor. On Monday, she called out Bill O’Reilly for his resentment of the New York Times Magazine profile, which he described as a “puff piece.” “Look, the New York Times, I can’t remember them ever saying anything good about anybody on this channel,” he whined. 

“Jealousy is an ugly emotion, Bill,” Kelly responded, in a Megyn moment. 

She did it again on Wednesday night, when she mocked Mike Huckabee for his ridiculous comments calling women in New York City “trashy” for swearing, which he (falsely, I can attest as a native Texan) suggests Southern women do not do. “We are not only swearing. We’re drinking, we’re smoking, we’re having premarital sex with birth control, before we go to work and sometimes boss around a bunch of men,” Kelly told Huckabee. 

For these two moments, Kelly has received a gusher of praise. Kara Brown at Jezebel says she “managed to make the grumpiest white man on the planet look like an even more cantankerous, crusty scab.” Catherine Taibi at Huffington Post writes that Kelly “schools” Huckabee and “set the record straight.” Gothamist describes her comments to Huckabee as “lady truth bombs” and Ellie Shechet at Jezebel describes her behavior as “smacking down the dang patriarchy with a single, elegant flick of her french manicured hand.”

Look, I enjoy watching creepy old misogynists squirm as much as the next gal, but all this praise for Kelly is getting to be a bit much. These are men whose gender politics are so retrograde you next expect them to complain about women in trousers. Standing up against them is hardly some great strike for the sisterhood. Call me when Kelly says something actually feminist, rather than simply defending the gender status quo of, say, 1960.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no value in standing up against the Mike Huckabees and Bill O’Reillys of the world. These men have big audiences for their Paleolithic beliefs about women’s roles. Huckabee, for one, has been instrumental in mainstreaming the idea that contraception is “controversial,” a notion that would have been laughable even five years ago. And Kelly’s most famous feminist “Megyn moment” was when she defended maternity leave after a radio host called hers a “racket.”

But these “Megyn moments” are few and far between, and they might actually be doing more harm than good. As John Whitehouse at Media Matters wrote regarding Kelly in 2013, “Kelly has the unique ability to pluck misinformation and imbue it with a veneer of legitimacy that Sean Hannity has long since lost, if he ever had it at all.” One example: Kelly allowed a guest to characterize birth control as “euthanasia” without correcting him. But her reputation as one of the good ones makes her somewhat criticism-proof. 

And even when she is standing up to sexism, she’s not exactly standing up to sexism. Take that Huckabee clip, for instance. Kelly’s call-out of Huckabee is really more like the gentle teasing of a relative, and he responds accordingly, with chuckles and jokes. Far from being “called out,” Huckabee is actually getting a chance to spin his seething hatred of female independence as little more than a harmless bit of eccentricity. “Grandpa is just a little old-fashioned is all.” Problem is that Huckabee actively pushes for policies that would enforce his not even remotely harmless ideas about women’s gender roles on all of us. He deserves to be put on his heels, not gently teased. 

As my colleague Willa Paskin reminded everyone in 2013, Kelly is not a breath of fresh air at all. “One week into the show’s run, it is clear that to understand Kelly as anything other than a dedicated Fox News shill is a deluded fantasy,” she wrote. Perusing the Media Matters archives under Megyn Kelly’s name, you see an array of misinformation, race-baiting, and yes, anti-feminist drivel. So, enjoy the occasional clips where she introduces a little bit of ratings-boosting conflict with her guests, but don’t mistake them for a serious effort at improving the quality of coverage at Fox News.