Dr. Caroline Heldman, a politics professor at Occidental College and human rights advocate who speaks frequently about injustice, appeared as a regular guest on Fox News programs the better half of a decade. Her last appearance on Fox was as a guest on the O'Reilly Factor; a portion of the segment was cut out.
"[Bill O'Reilly] called me 'hysterical' and I said, 'That's a sexist term,'" she tells me. "And he cut this entire part out—he ran the segment, and cut it out!" She's mad, but she's laughing. "I called him out on it, and he said, 'I would call a guy hysterical.' And I said, 'No you wouldn't, it's a gendered term. The term doesn't have meaning unless you apply it to a woman. You can't apply it to a man. It is a gendered term.'"
Since her time as a frequent contributor on Fox, Dr. Heldman has left for greener (or bluer) pastures. But Heldman's time at Fox News gave her unique perspective about the way the network and its viewers treat women, both behind the scenes and on camera. For many guests, the elaborate hair and makeup ritual surrounding each appearance is one of the most memorable—and, arguably, one of the most revealing—aspects of going on-air.
"I've worked at every major network: CNN, MSNBC, Fox, History Channel, A&E. The Fox folks are just wonderful," professional makeup artist Lorna Basse tells me. She's spent her longtime career powdering the political elite before they're interviewed on network TV. "It's funny, when people meet you and you say you work for Fox, immediately they assume it's like you work for the devil or something. But people forget that Washington and network news are kind of a small environment in a big city. Everybody knows each other. And I've always found real professionals at Fox News."
Makeup, a lot of times, really sets the tone for how the interview goes, believe it or not.
That the women who appear on Fox News are very young, very beautiful, and very heavily made up is news to no one. And despite the often combative nature of the on-air segments, the backstage experience seems to be much more relaxing. "Honestly," says Basse, "99.9 percent of guests are jazzed about being there because it's almost like a mini-spa. They do full hair and makeup [at the Fox News studio], and the people there are nice. They're just nice." But, she continues, not everyone who sits in her chair wants to have their makeup done. "Sometimes a guest is more low-key and low-maintenance, and they're really nervous, and all I've ever said is, 'Makeup is meant to make you look your best,'" she says. "I let them think I'm giving them exactly what they want, but in the end, I always get exactly what I want. Because I know what the producer's looking for. If for some reason I get someone who's really pushing back, I'll tell them a little bit more about what's going on instead of just slapping something on their face."
Basse believes that the way makeup is applied can even affect the outcome of an interview. "I've never tried to change the way someone looks, but I always try to have them reflect their best self," she says. "If they're really comfortable with how they look, then they're going to give a really great interview. The interviewer's going to get the most authentic interview. Makeup, a lot of times, really sets the tone for how the interview goes, believe it or not."
Dr. Heldman is more critical of Fox News' beauty rules. "They never write anything down, but there are unofficial rules, like you can never put your hair up," she says. "They're definitely looking for certain physical types. There's not really any doubt about that." She added, "When you go on Fox you're automatically not legitimate. You're there as eye candy and to be scoffed at. That is your role on Fox if you're a woman."
Veteran hair stylist Tanya Crocker echoes the hair-down rule. "The majority of the time, the hair is down," she says. "I don't think I've ever had an up-do or even a half-up or anything on any actor or news anchor who was filming for interviews. Most of the time they want hair down." But, she tells me, she understands the reasoning behind this. "I do remember hearing about Fox News being in articles about sexism," Crocker tells me, "but really you're just trying to put your best face forward. You want to look your best on camera."
Crocker has been a network news makeup artist and hair stylist for over ten years. "My first big gig was for Fox News actually, and it was for Vice President Dick Cheney," she tells me. "I ended up flying myself to Jackson Hole, which is where they were filming, to really start getting going with everything. And it went great, it was the best decision I've made, because I've worked with them ever since. More than just Dick Cheney, I've worked with Fox News on Sean Hannity, The Bill O'Reilly Show, The Five... They even ended up sending me back to Florida to do hair and makeup for the Republican National Convention."
Both Crocker and Basse say that producers stay mostly hands-off when it comes to directing their work. "There have been times where I'm on set and they will call in and say, 'So-and-so's makeup is not good,' you know, 'She needs a darker lip and a heavier cheek,'" says Crocker. "But they don't set out requirements. They don't call you and say, 'Make them look this way.'" Crocker adds, "On camera, you don't get Photoshop. You don't get a second chance. You gotta get it right." A makeup faux pas on live TV is extremely hard to fix once cameras are rolling.
You're there as eye candy and to be scoffed at. That is your role on Fox if you're a woman.
Hannah Groch-Begley, a research fellow at Media Matters, devotes her time to tracking how conservative media in general—and Fox News specifically—talk about women, treat women, and report on policy topics that are of concern to women. She and her team are constantly tracking and documenting particularly glaring examples of sexism, from Fox News' guests all the way up to its chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes. "What we really find is that sexism is rooted in Fox's DNA," she tells me. "If you look particularly at the things that Roger Ailes has said, it becomes clear that the culture of the network permits, and I think in some cases encourages, degradation of women and a dismissal of the serious issues that are facing women today."
According to Groch-Begley, we can categorize sexism on Fox as falling into two categories. First, there's the sexism that's rooted deeply in Fox News' business model—including recorded examples of how Roger Ailes treats the women on his channel, from high profile hosts to guests of the network. "There's repeated evidence that he treats them as objects that are there purely for their physical value," she told me. "They're there for their physical appearance. They're there as eye candy. And maybe they'll say something interesting, maybe they won't."
One doesn't have to dig very deep to find recurring examples of this kind of degradation. Brian Kilmeade, longtime host on Fox & Friends, joked on his Fox News radio program in 2012 about Fox News' hiring strategies for it's female hosts, saying, "We go into the Victoria's Secret catalogue, and we say 'Can any of these people talk?'" Roger Ailes' sexist managerial has been well-documented, from him complaining in front of employees, "I did not spend x-number of dollars on a glass desk for [Catherine Crier] to wear a pantsuit!" to him repeatedly referring to Andrea Tantaros as "the legs."
The culture of the network permits degradation of women and a dismissal of the serious issues that are facing women today.
The second category of sexism, Groch-Begley explains, is more insidious. "There are a lot of really classic, great examples of women on Fox pushing back on air against sexism," she says. "Those are great moments, and I don't want to dismiss them, but the only reason we're able to have those moments that the press loves to fixate on is that Fox pays these men to be on air. [A female host] is surrounded by male colleagues who will say horribly sexist things. And those colleagues are never punished. They're back on air the next day."
In fact, when taken as a whole, video clips of Fox's female contributors fighting back against sexist attacks do more to underline the fact that sexism is par for the course at Fox News than to give any hope it can be eradicated. "It just reinforces this culture of sexism that pervades the culture of the network and pervades how they treat women and the topics that women are the most interested in," says Groch-Begley.
Dr. Heldman also pointed to Fox News' viewers and online commenters as being particularly harsh towards women, most likely encouraged by male hosts' attitudes. "There is a layer of sexist vitriol that's directed at me... so it's not just that I'm liberal, it's that I'm relatively young and female," she says. "And that's actually a part of the sellable hatred. They package that all together for their audience to feel better about themselves."
Heldman argues that the particular subset of the population to whom Fox News caters on a nightly basis—a majority of their audience is white, male, and over 68 years old—like to see her get attacked and cornered by Republican men on air. "The Fox viewers are older and male and white," she says, "And so I think that those audience members, at least for me, really enjoy me getting piled on 3-on-1 or whatever." Male liberal guests do not face the same set up situations and do not experience close to the amount of trolling, Heldman tells me. "A lot of the commentary is sexist—it's about my hair, it's about my weight, it's 'dumb blonde', 'bleach blonde', 'you're a prostitute', all of this gendered shit. And it also happens any time I say anything controversial about race: I get 'N-word lover', 'you fuck black men' on and on, constant sexist stuff. So the sexism comes out from fellow panelists, it certainly comes out from the hosts, who are condescending, and it comes out also from the trolls and the audience."
A lot of the commentary is sexist—it's about my hair, it's about my weight, it's 'dumb blonde', 'bleach blonde', 'you're a prostitute.'
Confronted with the harsh lights and harsh critics of Fox News, female contributors seemed to be damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't once they take a seat in the network's makeup chair. On one hand, Heldman's critics can attack her perfectly made up face, freshly coiffed blonde hair, and thin frame in order to dismiss what she has to say. On the other hand, trolls would be sure to criticize a lack of effort on her part—behavior that is encouraged when Fox News talking heads "fat" shame, "ugly" shame, and even "funny" shame women.
However, despite the network's sexist behavior—a spectrum that spans from the perceived necessity of makeup to alleged open sexual harassment—the public faces of Fox News are united in denying sexism's existence. This willful ignorance, coupled with Ailes' own attitudes and hiring practices, creates an environment of insidious misogyny. "They have certain narratives that they have bought into wholesale, that they are confident that a majority of their audience agrees with. So they don't even have to prove their premise," Groch-Begley tells me. "The dominant narrative at Fox says that feminism is evil: 'Women are [already] fully equal, [so] if there are any problems it's feminism's fault."