Workplace sexual harassment and abuse doesn’t qualify as “man bites dog” news. But in recent years it has become news because of the rich and powerful people involved. #MeToo has become the catchall term for such abuse, especially in the entertainment industry. Bombshell is based on the 2016 scandal that led to the ouster of Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News. We may look at that story as a sign of success in the fight against sexual harassment, but we might also see within the story the failure of society to adequately address the underlying issues.
We first meet two of Fox’s key women on-air talent, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman). They want to be considered serious journalists, but face an uphill battle. For example, when taking part in an early GOP candidate debate, Kelly challenges Donald Trump (then a long-shot to get the nomination) about his record with women. She becomes the target of his abusive twitters. Carlson has been demoted to a less viewed time slot.
When Carlson goes to lawyers to file suit over a demotion, she says it is because she has thwarted Roger Ailes’s (John Lithgow) sexual advances. She assumes that if she files suit other Fox News women will come forwards.
We also meet Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character of several women at Fox News who spoke with filmmakers anonymously. Pospisil is a Barbie-figured young woman who dreams of being an on-air personality. She is ambitious and pushes her claim that as a Christian Millennial, she represents a key demographic. She creates an opportunity to get a meeting with Ailes to make her case. Even this first meeting is a bit on the creepy side.
The story develops as we watch these three women each trying to negotiate their way in a toxic and misogynistic environment. Anyone who raised these issues would be accused of the dreadful sin of “feminism”—not even women at Fox News wanted to be saddled with that word. All three women face sexist behavior from colleagues without much support from other women. Even after Carlson’s lawsuit is filed, few women come to her support—in large part because they need their jobs. Meanwhile the institution gears up with demands of loyalty to the company and expressly for Ailes.
This is not about an isolated bad situation. It reflects a reality that many women (as well as other minorities) can face in the workplace. In this case we see an especially heinous example, but even when it is not as blatant as we see here, such situations can be damaging. One of the contributing factors at Fox News, as it’s portrayed in Bombshell, is that it is built on an amoral pragmatism. A co-worker describes a Fox News story to Kayla in an early scene as what will get the most watchers. Ailes’s key phrase as he asks to see women’s legs is “It’s a visual medium.” The goal of Fox News here is not even ideology; it is whatever sells.
That amoral pragmatism was not limited to the abusers. It was suggested as the way to get what you want. The end justified the means. Good viewership justified sensational reporting. Keeping one’s job justified silence. Does a chance at a fame and fortune justify allowing oneself to be used?
Part of the problem that the women at Fox News faced was the silence of other workers. Should people warn new women about what happened in Ailes’s office? (It seemed to be an open secret.) Should they speak up when they know something bad is happening to their coworkers? In the film, much of the debate of this takes place in sotto voce debates within Megyn Kelly’s work team. These discussions serve as the voices that might well play within us and our coworkers in such a situation. We have conflicting feelings and fears, just as this small group brings to the film.
What I see as a small downside of Bombshell is that it feels a little bit voyeuristic. We stand outside looking in. (That may be in part because I’m a man who hasn’t had to live out this story in the workplace.) It may seem like an aberration that took place in a company of questionable integrity to start with. But we need to remember that in many ways both big and small, women continue to have to deal with such abusive situations.