With Joe Biden becoming the 86th president of the United States I, like many others have taken a sigh of relief as one of the largest powers in the world would no longer be in the hands of a hyper-racist, sexist, homophobic man child. Though there is still much work to be done with Biden and Kamala in office, it does not compare to the belligerent fear that would have swept across the United States had Donald Trump been re-elected.
After this announcement, I was oddly reminded of the 2019 American drama film Bombshell that tells the real-life story of the FOX News and Roger Ailes scandal of 2016, the very year Donald Trump was elected to president. The film, directed by Jay Roach, stars Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie as the triad of women who worked to bring down the king of FOX television. This scandal was not only the beginning of the #MeToo movement but serves as a reminder of the kind of treatment women face on and off-screen that is aided by the repugnant mentality of a presidential candidate like Donald Trump.
“You cannot rape your spouse.”
In the opening scene, our main character Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron) is live on-air and hits the viewers with a direct quote from Donald Trump as he attempts to salvage himself from a court case by claiming that a man can’t sexual assault his wife. Megyn goes on to tell the audience that she has a big mouth, making it seem like this kind of outspoken attitude is unacceptable for a woman but quite the ordinary for a man. As the scene progresses the audience gets a sense of just how influential Megyn’s boss, Roger Ailes, is and has been for presidential elections over the years and how he has warped FOX news into the corrupt company of the present day. Megyn gives backstory and as she is walking through the halls of Fox headquarters she is complimented by a VP on her dress. Her response: “He’s not horny he’s just ambitious” sets the tone perfectly for what this film has in store and how, up until this scandal, both men and women were condoning this sexualist behaviour.
What struck me as the most subtle form of sexism and exploitation of women on air was the desire to have them show their legs. A montage of Roger Ailes asking women to do a “quick spin” for him and when women hesitated he explained that news is a visual medium. This shows how the producers of the film really wanted to show the sheer manipulation of women in the media who find themselves agreeing to engage in inappropriate activities for the sake of their career. There are multiple snippets of Roger yelling at cameramen to zoom out of a shot in order to see an anchor’s legs on screen. The simple existence of clear desks is so that women’s legs can be seen which holds an audience to watch the show. As an audience member, this information initially shocked me as I had no idea these tactics were being used. The discussion around legs is a large part of FOX News’ sexual exploitation of women. After sexual assault claims are made surrounding Roger Ailes and FOX news, many anchors are asked if they are allowed to wear pants. What is being said to reporters over the phone is the complete opposite of what actually happens. We see women getting fitted for Spanx, tight dresses and high heels. There is even a shot of a woman with bandages all over her feet, a clever symbol for the pain women endure as a result of male pleasure.
“Got a give a little head to get ahead”
Speaking of male pleasure, Bombshell does a wonderful job of driving home the sad reality that women engage in sexual relationships with their subordinates in order to get a job. A scene that gives backstory on the Rudi Bakhtiar case shows Brian Wilson making sexual advances to Rudi with an underlying message that to get the job she desires in Washington she must reciprocate. The film includes Bakhtair’s inner dialogue that sounds all too familiar to many women who have found themselves in the same position. At one point she even attempts to steer the conversation and make it her fault, making it seem like she has given Brian the wrong idea. After putting her foot down and clearly explaining to Brian that she will not condone this behaviour one sentence from her beautifully encompasses the looming fear all women have: “This is going to ruin my career.” And just like that, she’s fired. Not only does this scene encapsulate the problem with women’s sexual exploitation for a job but it shows how women put the burden on themselves. The movie goes on to prove that this experience is widely spread throughout the world of media as more and more women come forward to report allegations of sexual harassment from Roger Ailes and other conglomerates of FOX news. The producers of Bombshell made the brilliant decision to include real women explaining their experiences and tie it together with a scene between Megyn and Kayla (played by Margot Robbie) where Kayla asks: “You too?” Megyn’s answer is one that is of the same nature across many women’s experiences: “How do you think a woman gets a primetime show.” This idea that women owe men for their successes and must remain obedient to the male subordinate who helped them triumph. Women are seen dismissing inappropriate behaviour out of loyalty and under the grounds that ‘they are men.’ There is an unfortunate position that men in the media have put women in over and over, but for the sake of their career and their reputation women have and will allow themselves to be taken advantage of.
“You’re sexy but you’re too much work”
When presenting her case to her lawyers, Gretchen Carlson (played by Nicole Kidman) shows a highlight reel of the onscreen behaviour she has been dealing with on the show for years. Seriously two-sided comments that compliment her appearance and continue to pin her as the eye candy of the show, not as an integral asset. The remarks get increasingly sexist and even had my blood boiling as I saw the true struggle Gretchen had to keep a smile on her face while being slapped with countless examples of sexual harassment. She opens a book full of proof of the mass unwarranted treatment she has received. Gretchen then goes on to explain that according to Roger Ailes it’s always just “a joke”. When Ailes is finally being accused of sexual harassment, his own wife comes to his aid and claims that women like Gretchen “can’t take a joke.” This mentality, accompanied by the blatant victim-blaming that Roger perpetuates onto the women who come forward leaves women, once again, with the burden of thinking it is their fault. At the end of the film, Kayla talks about the many questions women ask themselves when they are being sexually harassed; what did I do, what did I wear, am I after attention? It reiterates the need for a shift in responsibility when it comes to any type of sexual harassment or assault. It is never the victim’s fault and what is most disappointing is that up until recently this was not only FOX’s mindset but America’s as well.
“Will other women come forward?”
The element that ties the film with a bow is an accurate representation of the challenges women face in the eyes of sexual harassment/assault cases. When the bomb explodes and Gretchen Carlson accuses Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, her biggest fear is whether or not she will be supported by other women. It is clear that the air at FOX or any network is stiff with women who want to speak up but are afraid of the repercussions. In an intense scene between Megyn and her team, she exclaims that what FOX presents is quite the opposite of what they are actually doing for their female employees. The network claims it supports women in need of support but is neglecting to tell them that they are in full support of Roger, or any other man for that matter. Women won’t be believed and their career will be in shambles: “ go ahead call the paranoid man who decides your salary a pervert do that on a fucking anonymous hotline he controls on a phone he has a contractual right to record.” With this information, the producers of the film were choosing to expose FOX for its contrived policies and shed light on the kind of barriers that are placed in a woman’s everyday life when working for a network like FOX.
“Someone has to speak up someone has to get mad”
The film left the audience with a bittersweet ending they were not expecting. Though the women affected by the harassment/assault were paid $50 million in severance pay, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly received $65 million. This final touch speaks for itself as an example of the persistent disregard for women’s rights. Even though the women won the case they were still disadvantaged in their severance pay. The film altogether sends the message that while much progress has been made, there is still more to be done. With Donald Trump out of Office and an ever-changing socio-political environment in the United States, there is hope for a different kind of life both on and off-screen for women.