Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
In June 2021, as America reeled in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, commentator Jonathan Rauch described former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s media strategy thus:
“This is not about persuasion; This is about disorientation.”
In a sentence, Rauch encapsulated an approach that’s become increasingly popular among much of the right. Rather than follow a clear line of reasoning, zigzag back and forth between arguments. Rather than offer one explanation for any given event, offer several. And perhaps most effectively of all, co-opt the ideas and language of the left to cut through to an ever larger, ever more confused audience. It’s not about persuasion, it’s about disorientation.
We’ve seen examples of this across many of the most debated news stories and political debates of the past few years. The hypocrisy of billionaire and former President Donald Trump raging against the elites, the crass inhumanity of anti-maskers invoking George Floyd’s final words during their protests and the weird, inside-out logic of purported feminists arguing against women’s reproductive rights, to name a few.
This week, a new example came into view. The unsubstantiated, misleading misogyny of former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s tirade about the harm plastic surgery does to women.
It went like this. Toward the end of a recent episode of “The Megyn Kelly Show,” a SiriusXM program that also streams on YouTube, Kelly pulled up what she said was a “relatively recent” photo of “The Boys” actress Erin Moriarty. She cooed over how “beautiful” Moriarty was — “so beautiful that she was becoming a very famous Hollywood actress.”
Kelly then pulled up a second image of Moriarty, this time wearing very different makeup. She declared that the actress had “completely changed her face.” Kelly lamented what she described as Moriarty’s new “Kim Kardashian lips,” a nose “so skinny it looks like a pencil now” and “what appear to me to be cheek implants.” “I’m starting — not to pick on this Moriarty gal,” she said. But “more and more young women are doing this…. It’s not about an objection to plastic surgery. It’s about an obsession with turning yourself into this fake version of yourself.”
The next several minutes were spent conferring with her guest, the conservative political commentator Michael Knowles, about the second photograph and its apparent implications. Kelly suggested that Moriarty’s apparent “obsession” was a sign of “mental illness.” Knowles agreed, adding that they denoted a social media-driven “hyper-reality” that drove women to alter their appearances until they look “grotesque.”
The only element of Knowles’ analysis that Kelly disagreed with was his view that women almost never look better after plastic surgery. “I’ve seen a lot of women benefit from, in particular, nose jobs,” she mused, before reemphasizing her belief that Moriarty and women like her have a “mental disorder.” Finally, she confessed to having wondered initially whether the second photo was “an AI-generated face.”
It was, of course, nonsense. But it was nonsense that caused Moriarty herself very real distress. Over the weekend, Moriarty posted a detailed response to her Instagram page. She said that since Kelly’s show had aired, she’d “BARELY been able to eat and sleep.” She pointed out that the alleged “before” photo, which Kelly claimed had been taken about a year ago, was in fact about a decade old. The comments made during the segment, Moriarty stressed, were “disgustingly false,” and “counterproductive to the degree of being ironically misogynistic.” A representative for Kelly did not respond to multiple outlets’ requests for comment.
“Ironically misogynistic” is exactly right. Throughout her segment on Moriarty, Kelly latched onto what might, in other hands, under other circumstances, have been sympathetic and important themes. She flagged mental health, the pressures put on women by social media and the beauty industry and the struggle to remain authentic in an increasingly “fake,” AI-dominated world.
In Kelly’s hands, however, those ideas were twisted. Mental illness wasn’t suggested in terms of sympathy or curiosity, but condemnation. The beauty industry wasn’t the target, nor, more importantly, the patriarchal, capitalist systems that fuel it. But the women who fail (in her opinion) to look “classy” were. And, as Moriarty pointed out, the entire basis for Kelly’s argument — that she’d drastically altered her appearance in a very short space of time — was utterly misconstrued.
Unfortunately for Moriarty, the damage is done. Observers posted vicious comments about her appearance. Moriarty said she would be taking “an extensive if not permanent break” from social media and in her words, she experienced “one of the most challenging weeks” of her life. So much for Kelly’s concerns about her mental health.
Moriarty’s peace of mind is not the only potential casualty, though. As history has proven, the more such sensitive themes and language are used so disingenuously, the harder it becomes for those who mean well to deploy them sincerely and effectively.
As author and social activist Naomi Klein wrote in her book “Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World” when discussing how anti-vaxxers co-opted the phrase “bodily integrity:” “Abusing such terms is dangerous: it drains them of their intended meaning, their legibility, and power.” To apply the principle in this instance: the more people like Megyn Kelly use phrases like “mental illness” to underpin their prejudiced, callous thinking, the harder it becomes to have a sensible, empathetic discussion using that same language.
As Rauch put it: It’s not about persuasion, it’s about disorientation.
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