Chris Matthews steps down at MSNBC amid sexism complaints: Why experts say his comments would 'diminish' women

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor

When MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews abruptly resigned on Monday night after 25 years on the air, he left in his wake a lot of chatter. Much of it involved accusations of on-air sexism, from an interview with Elizabeth Warren that many found “condescending,” to a collection of inappropriate comments, many recounted by journalist Laura Basset in GQ, directed at women who were guests on his show.

“Some of Matthews’s behavior has already been well-documented,” Basset wrote. “Like Bloomberg, who frequently remarked ‘nice t**s’ and ‘I’d do her’ at the office, Matthews has a pattern of making comments about women’s appearances in demeaning ways. The number of on-air incidents is long, exhausting and creepy, including commenting to [broadcaster] Erin Burnett, for example, ‘You’re a knockout ... it’s all right getting bad news from you,’ while telling her to move closer to the camera.”

There are also those who think Matthews, 74, got a bum rap — including the New York Post columnist who claims the host, who frequently told women they were beautiful while conducting interviews, was just “doing his job,” as well as many folks in the Twitterverse who believe it’s proof that #MeToo has gone too far.

When Matthews announced his plans to retire on the air Monday, he hinted at it not being totally his idea. “Obviously, it isn’t for a lack of interest in politics,” he said, continuing with an apology. “Compliments on a woman’s appearance that some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were OK are never OK,” he said. “Not then, and certainly not today.”

Now, thanks to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, a mashup of some of Matthews’s most notably inappropriate moments has been racking up views on YouTube. Posted on Thursday, it’s called “Lookin’ Good! With Uncle Chris,” and is a fast-paced tour through his flirty comments and unwanted compliments.

Still, not everyone understands how telling a woman she’s “a knockout” can be problematic. Yahoo Lifestyle checked in with some experts for guidance.

“I think part of the challenge,” explains Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, “is when someone is showing up at work for a whole host of reasons — because they are reporting on the news, because they are a deep expert in some complicated subject — likely, they want to be remembered for their ideas. And one of the tactics we have seen over time is using certain approaches with women to diminish them, in real time. Complimenting their looks instead of what they had to say … might make someone feel diminished in any day-to-day interaction.”

And while Goss Graves believes individuals like Matthews should certainly be held accountable, “I think the bigger story is around NBC [MSNBC’s parent network], and the collection of individuals who were really visible under that brand.” That’s because NBC, “as a culture-maker,” has an extra responsibility.

Studies have found that this type of diminishment can even decrease one’s job performance, notes Jaclyn Friedman, writer and host and co-editor, with Jessica Valenti, of the new anthology Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World. “There’s a sociological phenomenon called ‘stereotype threat,’ which shows that when you remind someone in an oppressed group of a negative stereotype about them, they will basically live it down.”

One such experiment, she notes, had people do math problems while dressed in either a swimsuit or a sweater; while the outfit did not affect men’s performance, the women in swimsuits did more poorly than those in sweaters. “They were cued to think of themselves as a sex object — as being dumb and sexy,” Friedman says.

Basically, she notes, calling out someone’s looks, even if it’s complimentary, “is reducing you to what you look like when you are trying to do your job,” which, unless the subject of the flattery is a model, is likely inappropriate. “In a workplace environment, if you’re focusing on looks, you’re cueing women to think about their value as being what they look like,” rather than what they do or say, Friedman tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

And that’s damaging no matter what type of work environment the unwarranted comments happen within. But in Matthews’s case, she notes, “It’s even worse, because it’s on-air, in front of an enormous audience. Privately, there can be an opportunity for a woman to say, ‘I would prefer you don’t do that,’ but [in public] you leave her with no options,” she says. “Because we all know if a woman, in that moment, live on-air, says ‘hey don’t do that,’ there will be a giant scandal — and it would distract from what she is trying to do, which is talk about something important.”

Friedman adds that, even if it still seems too hard to understand why these sorts of comments are inappropriate, try simply trusting women when they say that it is. “If you’re a decent person and you don’t want to make people uncomfortable — and enough women are uncomfortable with random men making comments on looks — then just don’t do it,” she suggests.

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