Opinion

Dear Chris Matthews: sexist and inappropriate comments are not “compliments”

Posted by
Jessica Rapana
Published

The US news anchor, who was accused of making inappropriate comments, has apologised for incorrectly thinking ‘compliments’ were OK.

On Monday night, veteran US news anchor Chris Matthews abruptly resigned in the wake of allegations by a former female guest on his talk show who said he had acted inappropriately towards her.

Matthews apologised for “incorrectly thinking it was OK” to make “compliments on a woman’s appearance”. And folks, here we have yet another classic example of a man who doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that inappropriate comments are not “compliments”.

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In an essay for GQ magazine, political journalist Laura Bassett said that Matthews had made multiple inappropriate comments about her appearance when she was a guest on MSNBC Hardball in 2016. 

Bassett alleged that while she was in the make-up room before the show, Matthews had looked at her and said: “Why haven’t I fallen in love with you yet?” She wrote: “When I laughed nervously and said nothing, he followed up to the make-up artist. ‘Keep putting makeup on her, I’ll fall in love with her’. Another time, he stood between me and the mirror and complimented the red dress I was wearing for the segment. ‘You going out tonight?’ he asked.”

This is not the first time Matthews has been accused of making inappropriate comments on and off-screen. In 1999, he was found to have made “inappropriate” comments to an assistant producer who accused him of sexual harassment. In 2008, he was quoted in a magazine profile declaring actor Kerry Washington “a total knockout”. And then there’s the time in 2016 when his comments about Melania Trump’s “runway walk” were picked up by a hot mic as she took the stage at a rally for her husband in Indiana. 

Chris Matthews came under fire for calling Washington a “a total knockout” in 2008

Bassett wrote about her encounter with Matthews in 2017 but had been “afraid” to name him at the time, she said. However, after seeing his “sexist exchange” with Elizabeth Warren last week (Matthews was criticised for his condescending and disbelieving tone while grilling the Democratic presidential nominee candidate over her comments about Michael Bloomberg), Bassett had been inspired to revisit those moments and name him.

On his last show on Monday, Matthew alluded to the fact that the timing had not been entirely of his own choosing. “Obviously, it isn’t a lack of interest in politics,” he said. Then addressing the controversy, he added: “Compliments on a woman’s appearance that some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were OK are never OK. Not then, and certainly not today.”

Let’s file this one under how not to apologise. In the meantime, can someone please explain to Matthews – and to any of the other uninformed men he refers to – that compliments and inappropriate comments are not the same thing? 

There are several factors that contribute to which is which, including the relationship, the situation and the language that is used. And another thing: this is not something the man gets to decide in isolation.

To tell a woman who you don’t know in a professional setting that you might “fall in love with her” is textbook inappropriate, and does not even flirt with the idea of being a compliment – it is straight up sexual harassment. 

This distinction is something Bassett addressed herself when a man wrote to her on Twitter, saying: “Shout out to the ladies who still feel flattered when a man tells them they’re HOT.” Bassett responded: “Shoutout to the men who understand when is a good situation in which to tell a woman she’s hot, and when is a very bad one.”

As feminist writer Jessica Valenti pointed out, Matthews’ non-apology speaks volumes in and of itself. She tweeted: “What’s telling about Chris Matthews’ farewell comments is how he characterised his long history of sexism as simply making ‘compliments on a woman’s appearance’. He wants this to be about something it’s not. Condescending leering remarks aren’t ‘compliments’.”

Matthews appears to be suggesting that he was just ‘behind the times’ but the truth is that this behaviour has never been acceptable. He should have known better, and pleading ignorance is never an excuse for sexual harassment. If anything, his lukewarm apology and failure to take responsibility just reinforces the fact he needs to go.

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Image: MSNBC, Getty.

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Jessica Rapana

Jessica Rapana is a journalist based in London, and enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content. She is especially fond of news, health, entertainment and travel content, and drinks coffee like a Gilmore Girl.

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