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Watching 'Bombshell' as Someone Who Was Sexually Harassed at Work

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Editor's Note

This piece contains spoilers for the movie “Bombshell,” and some graphic descriptions of sexual harassment.

If you need support, you can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

When I was asked to see the movie “Bombshell,” I immediately jumped on the opportunity. Not just because it told a true story and was full of Hollywood’s finest, but because it explored a topic many women and even men have encountered at some point in their lives: sexual harassment. Specifically, the sexual harassment scandal that brought down former Fox News chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes. I honestly had some reservations about the film and wondered just how much it would cover. Boy, was I taken for a ride.

The film starts off with a face we all know: Fox’s Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron). She explains the patriarchal structure of Fox News and where she fits in. According to her, the female anchors exist at a 24-hour news network for two reasons: to entice men and keep the audience engaged. If a woman doesn’t have sex appeal, she doesn’t get air time.

We’re also introduced to another popular Fox News anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman). Carlson sits in a conference room reading from a notebook she’s kept to record incidents of sexual harassment from not only her male colleagues but from her own boss, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the man who makes the network run and becomes the center of controversy later in the movie.

While Ailes does not own the Fox News empire, he is largely responsible for its success. He has made its founders, the Murdoch Family, lots of money over the years. As Carlson read her statements about this powerful man, I realized I not only sympathized with Carlson, I empathized as well. It took me back to my own sexual harassment case. It was relatable to see Carlson, who had faced abuse and harassment on multiple occasions, so nervous to speak up. It was also (unfortunately) relatable when the lawyers she’s talking to ultimately advise her not to press charges because of what it could do to her career. 

When my case was eventually investigated, I was interviewed by my harasser’s supervisor who had no sympathy at all. She made the whole situation seem like it was my fault. As though me saying hello, wearing a dress or sending an innocent text was reason enough for this person to invade my personal space and make me feel less than. I recanted at that moment because I was so furious. I left work early because I was so upset. Shortly after that I was let go from my job. Carlson’s lawyers seem to think they are saving her from the same fate. 

The movie takes place during the year leading up to the 2016 election, and while Carlson tries to figure out what to do with her case, Kelly is at the center of a controversy started by then-candidate Donald Trump. As you might recall, Trump made a lewd comment about Kelly being on her period after she was tough on him during a presidential debate — “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump also attacked her on Twitter. The movie shows how being thrust into the news cycle like this endangered her family and affected her psyche. Meanwhile, the incident fuels the popularity of the network, and other reporters at Fox News completely take advantage of Kelly being in the spotlight.

As all of this unfolds, we meet Kayla (Margot Robbie), a young budding producer and editor who just got a promotion. Unlike the other main characters, Kayla is fictional but represents what would happen to ambitious women who tried to get ahead at Fox News.

Despite being nervous at first, Kayla starts feeling more comfortable in her role and eventually, as a leap of faith, follows Ailes’ assistant onto an elevator. She learns there is a secret elevator to Ailes’ office and even gets invited to go say hello. Seeing this as an opportunity, Kayla mentions her humble and conservative background and how she wants to be on-screen. Ailes gives her some advice and a brief interview.

He then asks her to stand and give him a twirl. Reluctantly, Kayla twirls for him. Apparently this isn’t an unusual request from Ailes, and he’s known for asking other aspiring anchors to pull up their dresses so he can see their legs. But with Kayla, he asks her to keep going until her private area shows. This obviously makes Kayla feel uncomfortable. She leaves Ailes’ office and tries to tell her co-worker what happened, but she can’t utter a word. 

As I watched this movie, and especially, this scene, I felt so many emotions. It reminded me of the days I would come to work and loathe walking in the building for fear of what my offender would say to me. Or how he would pop into my office and make lewd comments or find me in the building and comment on my attire. It was a daily occurrence and nobody said a word.

During this whole ordeal, I stopped wearing dresses to work or even form-fitting clothing because never in my life had I felt so vile and ugly. It got so bad I started using a different entrance to avoid where he sat. I made sure to record our interactions and even noticed how he interacted with other women. I wasn’t the only one he was harassing, and other women in my building would avoid him and hang their head low in his presence. In “Bombshell,” we see women in the office act the same way around male anchors and Ailes.

Eventually, Carlson drops her bombshell: she uses her personal lawyers to sue Ailes directly. Everyone panics. Every female employee of Fox starts putting out statements of support for their boss, except Kelly. She says absolutely nothing. The other anchors try to pressure her because her silence is so loud. She knows she cannot lie, but she also knows she must be strategic in how she tells her story. Ultimately she looks at her daughter and realizes what she has to do. The rest is history. 

While I was in the theater, there were quite a few older men and women watching. I was sure the women were going to rally together and support the stories of these victims, but it didn’t feel like that. Instead, there was laughter during the obvious harassment and sexual situations. I think this hit me because if you don’t have someone or several people supporting you and believing in you, stepping forward is only that much scarier. The laughter from the movie theater I was in — plus the fact that, in the end, Ailes was released with a monetary severance package that amounted to double what Carlson got in her settlement, shows there is still so much more work to do.

Overall, I recommend this movie — but beware of triggers, especially if you’ve experienced sexual harassment yourself. My heart broke for both the women in the movie and the women who were laughing in the movie theater with me. Many of us have learned how to navigate the “boy’s club” in order to get ahead, and people find different ways of surviving. The movie shows what can happen when women ultimately stick together.

Originally published: December 28, 2019
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