• September 30, 2020 5:48 am

Reporting From Delhi

Bringing to screen the toxicity of sexual harassment

ByNiraja Rao

Jan 10, 2020

The film and the mini-series trace how Richard Ailes of Fox News was brought down by Gretchen Carlson. Every time a predator is felled, the cause of justice is served

“I am not a feminist” Megyn Kelly, played by Charlize Theron, says repeatedly in the film Bombshell, often more to reassure herself that she fits in the Fox newsroom than to deny her conviction in feminism. 

Yet, it is her testimony of sexual harassment that finally helps bring down Richard Ailes, the Alpha Male of Fox News.

Bombshell is a semi-biopic of three women who were sexually harassed by one man, Ailes, but have reached different points in their careers and lives. The impact of the harassment is therefore felt differently by each of them. 

Megyn Kelly was a star anchor of Fox News. She was also a product of the polarisation and rightwing rhetoric that Fox, under Ailes, brought to television news in the US. She has a tough time separating her ambition and affection for Ailes from what she accepts as a toxic work environment. Her dilemma is whether she should rock the comfortable boat she is in or put herself out there and talk about the harassment she faced at the beginning of her career. “I don’t want to be defined by it,” she concludes. That is until her colleague Gretchen Carlson is fired from Fox.

At the other end of the career ladder is Kayla Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie, a fresh-faced conservative with an overwhelming ambition to become a Fox News anchor. She knows her way to the top goes through Ailes because he embodies all that Fox stands for and wields absolute power in that world. What she doesn’t realise is the price of such a move in terms of her emotional wellbeing and sense of self-worth.  

Through the film, one is rooting for the women to be delivered from the grip of Ailes and his acolytes, who function as a cult based on absolute loyalty. However, the toxicity of their workplace is almost sanitised and the women, although victims, appear complicit because their ambition looks like consent. 

The actual lawsuit that started the downfall of Ailes was filed by Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman in an understated performance and a horrible wig. Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota (1988) and Miss America (1989) – a title Ailes says got her the job – who graduated with honours from Stanford University. She’s therefore an unusual anchor on Fox. 

The fact that Carlson is an assertive, intelligent woman is unbearable for Ailes and he fires her when she tries to take editorial control of the show she anchors. Her sacking only serves to open a can of worms that eventually brings Ailes down. 

The contradiction between Carlson’s background and her onscreen persona could have been exploited better for more drama. It would also have offered context to why she filed the case and eventually settled for $20 million and non-disclosure agreement silencing her for life. 

The problem with Bombshell is that Ailes is dealt with in a clichéd, unidimensional manner. His harassment is almost never visible and mostly hinted at. So, when the women take him on, their ambition and willingness to put themselves at his disposal get greater play than their emotional and physical destruction. The focus on sexual harassment and a toxic work environment is diffused throughout the film, making it ineffective as an emotional trope.

Another representation of the same story, but with a different and more powerful focus is the HBO-Showtime miniseries The Loudest Voice, also released late last year and now available on Hotstar in India. 

The character of Ailes is brought to life brilliantly by Russell Crowe, who won a Golden Globe for “Best Actor In A Limited Series Award” for this role. 

What The Loudest Voice does more effectively than Bombshell is to focus on the character and power of Ailes. This power is then moulded into a cult-like protection and preservation of the sexual predator. 

As his power grows, Ailes begins to position himself in the role of a political kingmaker. Advising Republican presidents from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, Ailes engages with the political right, growing gradually paranoid and narcissistic like his preferred demographic. 

The show also puts a lens on the election of Trump and his extraordinary relationship with the media, particularly Fox News.

Both Bombshell and The Loudest Voice raise two important issues related to the media and politics in America that we are also seeing an echo of in India today.

The first issue is sexual harassment. Concentrated power, creating an imbalance in the workplace and leading to toxic exploitation, is not a new issue nor specific to the entertainment industry. However, after the MeToo and Time’s Up movements (both in Hollywood and Bollywood) there is a new awareness about what constitutes consent as well as what is an acceptable and safe work culture. 

In fact, the Time’s Up Foundation has even put out  guidelines to deal with such issues, especially in the entertainment industry. In India, artists’ and producers’ associations have also initiated the process of providing guidelines for a safer work environment and extended support to victims of sexual harassment. 

The second issue is more specific to news broadcasting. Since the late 1990s, news has been commodified to an extent that it no longer needs to rely on facts. There has been a concerted effort to manipulate both the medium and the message. With the rise of a rightwing media across the world, broadcast news has also become the home of opinion and prejudice. 

People like Ailes have scanty regard for the truth or facts and treat News more as a call to action. This has made the world a more dangerous and bigoted place. 

Therefore, every time a Richard Ailes is called out and brought down by a Gretchen Carlson or a Megyn Kelly, the cause of justice is served.     n