“Bombshell,” much like its characters, suffers from a sort of cognitive dissonance
“I’m not a feminist, I’m a lawyer,” declares Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell,” just before she moderates the Republican debate where she challenges Trump’s sexism — as if daring the audience to question her loyalty to Truth and Justice.
But the movie starts with a scene where Kelly is viciously ill in the hours leading up to the debate, leading her and others to wonder if one of Trump’s supporters or employees had poisoned her coffee. (Kelly’s questions trigger increasingly humiliating and scary attacks from Trump and his followers, echoes of which linger today.)
She’s just one of three thorny protagonists-slash-heroines at the heart of this story about how the late Roger Ailes was ousted from his position of Fox CEO in 2016.
Nicole Kidman co-stars as Gretchen Carlson, the more liberally inclined of the two — seen as a character flaw by those at Fox — whose 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes actually triggered a domino effect that ultimately led many more women coming forward.
And Margot Robbie is a fictional young news producer, Kayla, who’s forced into a deal with the jowly devil when Ailes (John Lithgow) locks her in his office and offers her a plum position with Bill O’Reilly in exchange for sexual favors. Eventually, the quid pro quo is too much to bear, especially once Carlson comes forward. (It doesn’t help that her best friend at work, played by Kate McKinnon, is a silently suffering closeted lesbian and closeted Hillary Clinton supporter. Yes, really.)
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“Bombshell,” on the surface then, seems to work from the assumption that the audience sees the icy blonde trio as the ultimate gender traitors, as if we think automatically they don’t deserve the support of the #MeToo movement because they can be seen as complicit in the overall oppression of women in the United States.
But few liberals, even those that hate Fox News, really believe that women should be subjected to for sexual harassment because they are insufficiently liberal; any movement for the liberation of women necessarily must mean that we are all qualified for it.
What we do believe, though, is that the systems of oppression to which Carlson, Kelly and the fictional Kayla were subjected are directly connected to the policies espoused by the party and the president that the network clearly supports, and the systems it essentially upholds.
So sure, when Carlson filed her lawsuit, Kelly was notoriously silent — she didn’t stand up for Carlson in the press, but she also avoided the reported pressure to do so for Ailes. Meanwhile, New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Kelly helped put a few nails in Ailes’ coffin: “Kelly has told investigators that Ailes made unwanted sexual advances toward her about 10 years ago when she was a young correspondent at Fox. Kelly, according to the sources, has described her harassment by Ailes in detail.”
Kelly waited to address the matter publicly in her book “Settle for More,” writing about her behind-the-scenes involvement in the Ailes investigation and confirming much of the previous buzz.
She was, as she said, a lawyer and not a feminist.
And while on one hand, it would make sense for the characters in the movie to treat Trump as the joke candidate we thought he was in 2016, the movie never fully connects the dots between their attitude towards Trump’s “harmless” sexism and the culture of sexism at Fox — or more broadly in the media, as suggested by Ronan Farrow and reporter Irin Carmon. But even Kelly seems to have made that connection herself.
It’s a real head-scratcher to anyone outside of the right-wing news bubble as to why a female journalist would set her sights on Fox as the ultimate way to deliver the fair and balanced truth to the public. But director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph never get around to really answering that, let alone addressing how the systems that enabled the widespread sexual harassment at Fox News were the ones that enabled the rise of Trump (who himself has been accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment and assault, including rape, all of which he’s denied.)
When it comes down to it, the movie can’t quite stomach making “Bombshell” as edgy as they want to, deferring to a weaksauce female empowerment message instead of addressing the broader social questions of how to take down the system rather than a few bad men.
Robbie’s Kayla soon realizes her dreams of hitting it big at Fox aren’t worth the sort of collateral damage she’s suffering. But instead of tossing a real bombshell at the power structure that enables people like Ailes to demean and violate others at every strata of society, the movie whiffs at the last minute, opting for a weird “you-go-girl!” ending where Kayla heads off to greener and presumably less sexually-harassing pastures, tossing her ID card into the trash like she’s Mary Tyler Moore.
Carlson, in reality, risked far more — and still little has changed (especially since the network is still holding her to her non-disclosure agreement). Most of the women who reported sexual harassment at Fox News were blackballed in the industry; the repercussions for women who report sexual assault and harassment at school and in the workplace are many and varied.
Kayla’s last line challenges us to change the environments in which we work and make it better for others, but it’s unclear how leaving did that for anyone. All of the network’s remaining female network anchors might be happy they no longer have to wear high heels and short skirts on TV to satisfy Ailes, but it’s hardly a pantsuit party every morning now on “Fox & Friends.” Sean Hannity is reportedly pushing the network to re-hire Bill O’Reilly, who was fired in 2017 after his numerous sexual harassment settlements became public.
The problem is that the issue is bigger than one man — or one president, or one network — and it won’t be solved by a few women. Sexism is pervasive at Fox News because it’s pervasive everywhere… as Kayla probably discovered at her next job.