Framing the #MeToo Movement: Post-feminism, True Crime, and Megyn Kelly Today
Kathy Cacace / University of Texas at Austin


Megyn Kelly Today debuted in 2017 and has become a hub for NBC’s coverage of the #MeToo movement

Television journalist Megyn Kelly is not a feminist. She has been emphatic about this point in several media interviews and dwells on it at length in her 2016 memoir Settle for More. In addition to characterizing feminism a “zero-sum game” that demands women’s rights at the expense of men, she calls the contemporary feminist movement “exclusionary and alienating.” Why dwell on “divisive issues” like abortion, she asks, when women could “do better simply to unite on female empowerment?” [ (( Megyn Kelly, Settle for More (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 194-5.))] This ethic of general female boosterism sans politics is key to Kelly’s worldview. It is also a critical component of Angela McRobbie’s theorization of post-feminism and its focus on “female achievement predicated not on feminism, but on ‘female individualism,’ on success which seems to be based on the invitation to young women by various governments that they might now consider themselves free to compete in education and in work as privileged subjects of the new meritocracy.” [ (( Angela McRobbie, “Post-feminism and popular culture,” Feminist Media Studies 4, no. 3 (2004): 258.))]

Megyn Kelly Today, a talk show nested within NBC’s long-running morning news program Today and which debuted chaotically in 2017, is suffused with this post-feminist world view. Given particular industrial factors, it also relies on the true crime genre as a hook for its desired audience of young female viewers. Kelly’s dogged coverage of the #MeToo movement—loosely defined by the scope of relevant segments as the wave of sexual assault and misconduct allegations that swept through Hollywood in 2017—represents a unique confluence of post-feminism and true crime with potentially damaging ends. [ (( Though Kelly’s coverage links #MeToo to the outcry against Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and other high-profile personalities, it is important to note that movement dates back to 2006. The “me too” concept and related activism were the brainchild of Tarana Burke and initially aimed to support survivors of color in low-wealth communities.))]

Promotional image for Settle for More

A promotional image for Kelly’s memoir Settle for More

Throughout Settle for More, Kelly presents workplace sexism as a systemic problem best addressed by individualized, not systemic, solutions. If a manager does not take a female employee seriously because of the high timbre of her voice, Kelly suggests “voice training; there is no better way to be instantly dismissed—other than bad wardrobe or makeup choices—than to sound like a child when you talk.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 64. ))] Reflecting on her time as a lawyer, Kelly recalls an instance when her male co-counsel used her attractive physique as an enticement for a older male judge to grant their case a preferential trial date. She “could have taken offense,” but instead “was content to be offered up to this judge like a shiny toy before a distracted baby to get what my client wanted.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 96. ))] Perhaps most directly, Kelly describes her faith in a post-feminist meritocracy when explaining her credo:

My feeling on the subject of women’s equality is that it’s better to show than tell. I believe in the Steve Martin mantra, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” …When it comes to living this just-be-better philosophy, Oprah is my role model. In her years coming up, she never made a “thing” of her gender or her race. She just wowed us all. That’s my goal: do the absolute best I can, and don’t waste time complaining. The less time talking about our gender, the better. [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 210-11. ))]

Leaving aside her erroneously colorblind characterization of Oprah Winfrey’s career, Settle for More attempts to justify its emphasis on these “just-be-better” solutions to systemic misogyny with the revelation that Kelly did file a sexual harassment complaint against Fox News president Roger Ailes, later ousted and now deceased. While I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of her experience and the bravery of any woman who reports such harassment to her employer, it is important to note that Kelly frames even this clearly gendered experience in terms of self-management and individual responsibility. A woman who is harassed at work “needs to remember that no is an available answer. Roger [Ailes] tried to have me, and I didn’t let him. I got out of his office with my self-respect intact even if I felt demeaned.” [ (( Kelly, Settle for More, 313. ))] Further, in relation to her television program, I contend that Megyn Kelly Today strategically deploys this experience to question, police, and reframe other women’s stories of sexual abuse.

A quick industrial analysis illuminates the relationship between Megyn Kelly Today and the true crime genre, which in turn colors how the program covers stories of sexual misconduct. Entertainment trade publications scrutinized Kelly’s bumpy 2016 move from conservative Fox News, where she hosted their highest-rated news program The Kelly File, to NBC, a more mainstream broadcast network. At Fox, Kelly enjoyed a reputation as something of an independent voice on a partisan news network; she notably challenged then-candidate Donald Trump on his history of sexist tweets during a 2015 presidential debate, and Variety credits her rise at Fox to “questioning conservative stalwarts ranging from Dick Cheney to Senator Rand Paul.” However, her jump to ostensibly nonpartisan NBC highlighted Kelly’s history of racially biased reporting, including sensational coverage of the New Black Panther party and an infamous piece in which she insisted both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Slate’s political reporter Jamelle Bouie, reflecting on her career as she moved to NBC, went so far as to call her a racial demagogue.

Given this new scrutiny on her past reporting and following a series of missteps in her early shows (most notably grilling Jane Fonda about her plastic surgery), Megyn Kelly Today found it difficult to secure celebrity guests. It is my assertion that without this morning show staple, alternative formats like the true crime story became the means to fill the hour with television that is compelling to viewers that “skew younger and female.” Representative true crime segments on Megyn Kelly Today include “Survivors of Columbine and Colorado theater shootings tell their stories,” “Meet the man who discovered his grandfather was a prolific serial killer,” and “‘Golden State Killer’ victim speaks out on Megyn Kelly TODAY: ‘I am grateful to be alive.’” Following Laura Browder’s dissection of true crime generic conventions, these segments are to be enjoyed “not for plot, but for detailed descriptions, and for their linear analyses of what went wrong.” [ (( Laura Browder, “True Crime,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, ed. Catherine Nickerson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 225. ))]

Megyn Kelly interviews Van Barnes

Kelly interviews Van Barnes, who accused actor Jeffrey Tambor of sexual misconduct

Kelly’s Today hour has become NBC’s de facto home for coverage of the #MeToo movement and, crucially, a typical Kelly interview with an accuser follows the true crime generic conventions Browder identifies. For example, the video of Kelly’s interview with Jeffrey Tambor accuser Van Barnes is titled “Tambor accuser details her allegations of sexual misconduct.” While a more holistic story might consider Barnes’ biography, her experience as a transgender woman working in Hollywood, or even her well-being after Tambor’s alleged misconduct, I contend that Kelly uses true crime framing to keep the nearly seven-minute segment zeroed in on the titular “details” of Barnes’s allegations.

The true crime conventions of Kelly’s #MeToo segments when combined with a post-feminist framing can have troubling discursive consequences. I want to briefly visit a portion of Kelly’s December 2017 sit-down with actor Alec Baldwin to demonstrate the insidious mingling of these two factors.

This interview was conducted shortly after Baldwin published a handful of controversial statements on Twitter about the #MeToo movement. His tweets were read as a defense of actor Dustin Hoffman, who had been accused of past sexual harassment, and in them he attempts to define Hoffman, who “deserves forgiveness,” against Harvey Weinstein and other predators for whom we should “conserve our judgement.”

Kelly directs the conversation in two notable ways. First, in accordance with true crime storytelling, Kelly brushes aside the discussion of Hoffman’s alleged harassment in favor of discussing the more salacious details of Weinstein’s alleged crimes. She dwells, for example, on actress Rose McGowan’s corroborated assertion that Weinstein had ex-Mossad agents follow her around to report on her actions and whereabouts. Second, Kelly asserts her post-feminist ethos when she attempts to transition the conversation from allegations to solutions. She asks Baldwin what needs to change in Hollywood, and he somewhat clumsily references the tendency for men to speak over women in meetings and wonders if some sort of “quota” system might be implemented to make sure everyone gets to speak. Kelly interjects with the following advice:

“Men do do that, but—it’s a very effective tool, and I encourage all women to use it [raises her palm to Baldwin’s face]. I’m not finished. It works like a charm. My husband taught it to me. It comes easily to men, but now I’ve got it. [Raises her palm again.] I’m not done. And then just keep going. Okay, there you go, solved.”

I contend that Kelly’s tip for women is more than just a segue from one section of the segment to another. It is a post-feminist intervention akin to her repeated advice in Settle for More that demands women take individual responsibility for solving systemic misogyny. It is also colored by her own well-publicized experience with Ailes at Fox News, giving her guidance the authority of personal wisdom, not political spin—threads which can be easily teased apart in a post-feminist age. To declare that the problem, defined throughout the previous segment as violently predatory behavior, is “solved” by equipping women with a confident hand gesture places the onus on women to prevent their own assault and leaves open the possibility for blame when they cannot. The combination of true crime storytelling and post-feminist framing on Megyn Kelly Today thus skirts real solutions in favor of a discourse that threatens to reproduce the sort of predatory criminal behavior the genre, and programs that rely upon it, requires as fodder.

Image Credits:
1. Megyn Kelly Today
2. Facebook
3. NBC via YouTube
4. Megyn Kelly Today

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How London Responded to Beijing in the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony Fan Yang / University of Maryland, Baltimore County

London ceremony

London’s Olympic Stadium and The Orbit

The shadow of Beijing looms large in Danny Boyle’s 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, whether one admits it or not. The spectacle on July 27 has done everything to out-perform the 2008 Beijing extravaganza by following a rather simple strategy: whatever China did, we do the opposite. Since China was serious, we go for the light-hearted. China’s was a dream of orderliness and harmony, orchestrated within a collective ethos; ours would be one of chaos and cacophony, only because we celebrate individualized freedom. ((One may argue that this contrast also applied to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.)) If China’s self-projection manifested the Communist Party’s burning desire to be recognized globally, we might as well throw a big party to show them how we rule (as an older global power).

One could even add that the tribute to Tim Burners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web served as a populist counter-point to the Chinese high-tech frenzy, rendered through director Zhang Yimou’s mechanized “state aesthetics.” “This is for everyone,” Burners-Lee’s line, has seemingly set the tone for the London ceremony, as an event of, for and by “the people.”

In his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2009), Boyle has already demonstrated his ability to subsume a seemingly realist depiction of the subaltern – in this case the poverty-stricken underworld of Mumbai, India – within a familiar narrative of Hollywood (if not Bollywood) romance. He is as skillful in providing a quasi-critique on the globalized reality TV franchise (Who Wants to Be A Millionaire) as in embracing the principles that sustain its success. In this sense, Boyle indeed “wins the Gold” in London. He wins it in the same way he won the Oscar, by representing the masses in a manner that is in line with the long-standing ideological operation of the culture industry. But he also arguably succeeds in carrying the apparatus to a new level in the age of reality TV.

This, again, may be seen as a response to Beijing. One may recall that one of the most embarrassing moments of the Beijing Games was the lip-synching incident at the Opening Ceremony, first reported by The Telegraph. Lin Miaoke, the nine-year-old girl with a pretty face who sang a nationalist song to accompany the entry of the flag, turned out to be “faking” the performance; her “voice” actually belonged to Yang Peiyi, a seven-year-old who was not chosen because of her “crooked teeth.” Pictures of the two girls subsequently flooded the transnational mediascape, causing much criticism of China’s routine “suppression” of its people and their real talent. Adding to the fakery scandal was a subsequent report uncovering that the children representing the 56 ethnic minorities in a crucial part of the ceremony actually belonged to Han, the country’s dominant ethnic group.

Lipsyncing

Left – Lin Miaoke, the “face”; Right – Yang Peiyi, the “voice”

It is as if Boyle took these incidents to heart when he opted to showcase real people in his ceremony, from the volunteer performers, the nurses-turned-dancers, to the deaf and mute children’s choir. All are represented, including and especially the ugly, the weak, or the ill – if not in the stadium, then as faces printed on the sign bearers’ outfits in the Parade of Nations.

Volunteers

Volunteers’ faces printed on the outfit of a sign bearer

The highlight moment came when the workers who helped to build the stadium were lined up to welcome the Olympian fire. Their (less-than-five-second) presence almost outshined that of David Beckham in the final stage of the torch relay.

Boyle also spared no effort in highlighting what he believed to be the two best things coming out of the United Kingdom: children’s literature and the National Health Service. While the latter was bound to strike a nerve in election-year America, where socialism remains a dirty word if not a weapon for the Right, it also led some Chinese to ponder on the apparent contradictions within China’s own “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Children’s literature, on the other hand, opens another set of questions about culture and power. Compared to the cultural artifacts on display in Beijing, the British-originated products showcased in London are much more global in appeal. No matter how elegant Chinese calligraphy or how flamboyant Peking Opera might appear to foreign eyes, they remain confined to the realm of the exotic Other. In no position are they to compete with the array of globally celebrated figures on the London stage, from Peter Pan to Harry Potter, from Sir Paul McCartney to Mr. Bean. While it was surely breathtaking to see the Chinese gymnast Li Ning fly around the stadium in the style of a Kung Fu master, nothing can beat the Queen’s jumping out of a helicopter in the manner of a Bond girl. More than clearly demonstrated is the hegemony of global Hollywood – of which Boyle is part – as well as the industrialized and hence inherently globalizing cultural system it represents.

There is, however, a similarity between the two ceremonies. Just as the entire twentieth century was rendered invisible in the Chinese spectacle, the era of imperialist-colonialist expansion was also non-existent in the UK version. One may argue that Beijing downplayed its Maoist revolutionary subjectivity precisely to prevent an outburst of the West’s post-Cold War paranoia. For Boyle, the job of displaying agents of social change is much easier within a fairly coherent system of civil disobedience, hence fulfilled by presenting on screen the nineteenth-century suffragettes. As if to strike a more deadly blow, London’s bearers of the Olympic flag consisted of human and civil rights activists, whose Chinese equivalents, as it is well publicized in Western media, are a perennial headache for Beijing.

A critical engagement with the universalized particularity of human rights is beyond the scope of this essay. But a comparison between two key scenes of the ceremonies in Beijing and London would suffice in calling attention to the unequal power relations that persist in a postcolonial world order. ((For a more detailed analysis of this unequal power relation through the “fake” incidents at the Beijing Olympics, see Fan Yang, ‘The Politics of Exhibition: China’s “Fake” in the 2008 Beijing Olympics’, antiTHESIS, 19 (2009), 56–70.)) So far, no one seems bothered by the fact that it was not the Queen herself who jumped out of the helicopter in the London spectacle. Some, however, were deeply troubled by a similar use of cinematic montage in Beijing as to call it a “fake”: the firework-footprints that brought the twenty-ninth Olympiad to the Bird’s Nest on the television screen was found to be recorded rather than live, even if real fireworks did take place outside the stadium.

Firework footprints

The “faked” footprints

Surely, in the London case, Her Royal Highness’s agreement to shoot the scene at all is already baffling enough. To question the identity of the jumper would appear to destroy the British humor so fully exhibited. But the absence of this questioning speaks to a deep-seated acquiescence of power. To be sure, the royalty-turned-celebrity is not the same as the old imperial throne that ordered the Opium War. But one cannot help but notice the contrast between the taken-for-grantedness of this hierarchy and the simultaneous tendency to view the Chinese state (alone) as an embodiment of absolute power.

Ideologically framed discrepancies of this kind are so prevalent that an alternative reading of the Beijing ceremony is almost impossible. But the effort is worthwhile nonetheless. In an opening scene of the 2008 event, 2008 Chinese soldiers performed on an ancient percussion instrument called fou. While their bodily movement reflected the vast human labor behind “made in China,” the effect of their collective actions composed a digitized landscape.

Fou players

Soldiers performing fou

Fou digital landscape

The Digitized Landscape Composed by Human Labor

Implicit is a commentary on the human cost of China’s rise, a display of mass subject that offers an opening to critique the real productive conditions of the information age. This representation of subjectivity stands in stark contrast to Boyle’s boy-meets-girl-via-cell-phone story. In that new-media-saturated narrative, the society of spectacle operates in full force: machine commodities displace social relations, screens blind players from seeing the game, and class consciousness is fragmented by the hidden codes of the communications network.

Image Credits:

1. The Olympic Stadium in London
2. Left – Lin Miaoke, the “face”; Right – Yang Peiyi, the “voice”
3. Volunteers’ faces printed on the outfit of a sign bearer
4. The “Faked” Footprints
5. The Soldiers Performing Fou
6. The Digitized Landscape Composed by Human Labor

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