Media-related umbrage-taking reached new levels of confusing in the past week. It started when Conan O’Brien, in a segment called “Coffee Table Books That Didn’t Sell,” held up a fake book titled Fox News Anchor or Porn Star?, featuring a picture of Fox News host Jenna Lee smiling while sipping from a straw.
The picture didn’t evoke a pornographic image so much as a fast-food commercial or a tooth-whitening testimonial, so there was that. But then Lee expressed her outrage on Facebook, noting that the picture was taken “for a food blog” “before I got married” but also that O’Brien’s comment was “inappropriate, it’s clearly ridiculous” because she is “a wife, and a new mom.” Noting that O’Brien has a daughter—who she names—Lee lamented that she is “growing up in a world where porn references to successful, educated women are somehow considered ‘funny’ and appropriate, even when made by fathers.”
Fair enough, right? But WAIT:
“Conan brings up a sad truth”? “Some women feel they need to dress and look like porn stars to make it on TV”?? “Maybe they don’t care about their ‘traditional career’—the Twitter followers are enough”?!? We don’t know who these hussies are, but man are they burnt.
“As many of you have noted—I dress more conservatively than many of the women on TV,” Lee continued. “My theory is my body should never be more important than my body of work—and I’m not done building the latter.”
O’Brien’s joke, while misfired, wasn’t about social media but plain old media-media—specifically, Fox News, which is famous for the heavy makeup and short-skirt dress standards for its female anchors. Roger Ailes wants to see bare legs perched in skyscraper heels on his TV screen. Showing off the gams is a big part of the “traditional career” of a Fox News female host.
Indeed, Lee had to walk back her modesty-bragging a bit, where she said, “Sometimes I look back on what I wore in the very beginning when I first started on the air; I think the skirts were too short.” But that was probably before she was a married mom:
So it’s unclear why Lee took umbrage in the first place. It can’t be that O’Brien took a sexist swipe at women who wear short skirts—Lee agrees that women who do so should be scolded. It can’t be that O’Brien was wrong in his choice of target, as Lee pleads guilty for the crime of skirt-wearing. It seems she just wishes he’d picked on someone who hasn’t earned wife-and-mom status. Andrea Tantaros, maybe? She has a Twitter account. Just look at all those legs in her cover photo!
As Paul Waldman of the American Prospect wrote last year, Fox News presents itself as an ally to Christian conservatives in “the grand battle against sexual depravity,” but they also “work extremely hard to find excuses to put images of scantily clad women on the air.” Often those efforts to titillate go hand-in-hand with the moralizing about how young women have lost their way. Sean Hannity’s annual spring break ratings grab, which offers a stream of pictures of college girls in bikinis to accompany angry ranting about how girls these days are out of control, is the ideal distillation of this formula.
Or it was until now. Going onto a network where women are instructed to show off their legs to explain how women should be ashamed of showing off their legs might be the most perfect Fox News moment ever. You may not make a lot of sense, Jenna Lee, but you are definitely speaking the Fox News language.