It’s a peculiar kind of entertaining to read former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. The complaint is full of juicy, disturbing details of Ailes’ alleged misdeeds, none of which will surprise any reader with passing knowledge of the notoriously vulgar, chauvinist CEO. Laid out point by point, the accusations make for a compelling (and in that sense, fun-to-read) case against a man who’s likely gotten away with unacceptable behavior for far too long.
But a familiar sinking feeling accompanied my reading of Carlson’s complaint on Wednesday. To imagine a woman that accomplished—a woman with an international platform and her own daily TV show—being fired for refusing to have sex with her boss is to acknowledge that no amount of power, fame, or success can insulate women from gender-based mistreatment on the job.
Ailes isn’t the only target of Carlson’s complaint, and unwanted advances aren’t the only kind of harassment she says she faced. Carlson claims that Ailes let her contract lapse in part because she complained about the sexist behavior of her other male colleagues. The lawsuit sketches an appalling landscape of a company built on sex discrimination and the commodification of female employees’ bodies, perpetuated by men like Carlson’s Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy and Ailes himself.
The suit alleges that Doocy treated Carlson “in a sexist and condescending way” by touching her on camera and pulling her arm to “shush” her in a live broadcast. Carlson also claims that Doocy mocked her when the show went to commercial, ignored her during on-air segments, diminished her work on the show, and refused to “treat her as an intelligent and insightful female journalist rather than a blond female prop.” When Carlson reported Doocy’s actions to Ailes, the suit states, the CEO called her a “man-hater” and told her to “get along with the boys.” Then, he started giving her less desirable work assignments and eventually booted her from the show.
“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you'd be good and better and I'd be good and better,” Ailes allegedly said to Carlson in September 2015, when she confronted him about his discriminatory behavior. “Sometimes problems are easier to solve that way.”
Previous reporting has unearthed similar claims of crude and manipulative conduct from Ailes, depicting the man as an immature, sex-obsessed bully who uses his position of power to compensate for his own flagging desirability. Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book The Loudest Voice in the Room included several accounts of sexual harassment and misbehavior. Sherman wrote that Ailes would pick job candidates based on looks, a consideration almost certainly spared for the network’s average-looking male hosts. Ailes reportedly declined to recruit CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo because she’d “gained so much weight.” He sexualized and insulted the appearance of two other female TV news hosts on Don Imus’ radio show, calling them “girls who if you went into a bar around seven, you wouldn't pay a lot of attention, but [they] get to be tens around closing time.” Fox employees told Sherman that Ailes made repeated comments about female hosts’ legs, remarking that he “did not spend x number of dollars on a glass desk for her to wear pantsuits.”
Paired with the general distaste Fox News programs exhibit for women, Ailes’ nasty reputation ensures that little in Carlson’s complaint will dumbfound the average reader. But it’s a strange mix of gut-wrenching and gratifying to see all our dystopian conjectures about the inner workings of Ailes’ kingdom written out in a legal complaint by someone who experienced it firsthand. Carlson claims that Ailes committed repeated acts of sexual harassment: He’d ask her to turn around so he could look at her butt; tell her to wear certain clothes that he thought looked good on her body; make remarks about her legs; tell her he’d want to be stuck on a desert island with her; tell her she was “sexy” but a piece of work; and embarrass her in front of groups of people by making derogatory sexual remarks about her and women in general.
Even so, Carlson’s indictment of Doocy’s behavior is more damning to the network as a whole than any allegations about Ailes. The suit’s account of Doocy’s sexism—and the network’s tacit endorsement—disgraces the very culture of Fox News, not just the dirty old man at the top of the pyramid. Here, Carlson confirms what many have suspected of the network that’s made its name by blaming women for men’s problems, lying about abortion, characterizing rape as “regret sex,” and reducing female soldiers to their breasts: that its day-to-day functioning is just as hostile to women as its programming.
That’s a claim that’s tricky for an outsider to make. We can call Fox anchors out when they spread racist propaganda and give platforms to Christian child-abuse apologists, as Megyn Kelly has done. We can point out how stupid they sound when they claim that Jesus and Santa Claus were/are white men (Kelly again). But we hesitate to point out that Fox News treats its onscreen women as dumb blonde props, in part because saying so might seem like we’re claiming they are dumb blonde props. It’s easy to see that Fox employs a disproportionate number of slim, blonde, conventionally attractive women of a particular mold, which suggests that network leadership values women for their looks more than their talent. But Fox women themselves have said that to point out that pattern feels like the flip side of that same misogynist coin, like the pattern-pointer is delegitimizing any potential contributions an attractive blonde woman could make to political discourse.
Let’s be clear: For all the mind-boggling bigotry and affronts to logic perpetrated by the women of Fox News, they’re no stupider than their male counterparts. Yet those male counterparts, and the men who pay their salaries, use female anchors as foils for funny battles of the sexes; they pretend misogyny is harmless, then use it to goad a woman into exasperation. (See: Carlson storming off screen when Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade made a sexist remark.) In recent years, the network has made bank on Kelly’s moments of righteous girl-power anger, an attempt to stir up support from surface-level feminists. It’s a sorry excuse for the kind of sensitive, pointed coverage of women’s issues a halfway-decent news network would strive to achieve. But when a network’s political pillars so reliably stand against the fair and equitable treatment of women, it’s no surprise to hear that it puts those values into practice behind the scenes.