Of Monsters and Bombshells, part three: “Real” victims don’t speak (out)
By Karen Boyle, University of Strathclyde
Content note: this blog series focuses on media representations of sexual assault, victim-blaming and sympathy for abusive men.
Contains spoilers for the season finale of The Morning Show.
In this blog, the final instalment of this series, I want to turn my attention away from appearance to consider the believability of women’s speech: firstly in relation to the film Bombshell and then, briefly, in relation to Apple TV’s The Morning Show.
As I summarise in #MeToo, Weinstein and Feminism, feminist scholars have long identified how the credibility of victim/survivors hinges on a paradox. Sexual assault – and rape in particular - is popularly constructed as the worst thing that could happen to a woman, so traumatising that it should render them silent. So when a victim/survivor not only speaks out, but uses global media platforms to do so, there is an inherent suspicion cast over her narrative. If it was really that bad, then how is she able to speak about it publicly?
In this context, what can we make of Bombshell, the Oscar-nominated film focusing on the women – themselves public figures - who brought down the CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, in 2016?
Well, the first thing to note is that this snappy summary of Bombshell isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, the filmfeatures Ailes’ most well-known complainants – Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) – but it also includes a fictionalised character, Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), and it is her experiences of sexual harassment which are most unambiguously represented on screen. Interestingly, whilst the film leaves no doubt that Ailes was an abuser, Carlson’s and Kelly’s specific accounts of abuse receive little attention. The reasons for this may partially lie in the restrictions placed on Carlson by her legal settlement with Fox, but Kelly – who is not bound by these restrictions – also reports having “zero” connection to the film. This suggests an enduring tension around the believability of women’s speech about assault. Carlson and Kelly are credible in Bombshell partly because we don’t hear them speaking out, in a film that is ostensibly about them speaking out.
Bombshell does not dwell on the women’s experiences with Ailes but rather is focused on how their case against him unfolds. Significantly, the three women share only one scene when they meet – but barely acknowledge one another – in an elevator. Whilst the film may be successful in highlighting how sexual harassment can isolate women in the workplace, what it misses is the extent to which their solidarity ultimately led to Ailes’ downfall. This may seem like a curious claim when so much of the film hinges on Carlson’s lawyers’ question: “will other women come forward?”. However, Bombshell is pointedly not about female solidarity. In the opening scenes, Kelly and her entourage repeatedly assert that she is not a feminist. When Pospisil finds out Kelly was harassed in her youth she explicitly blames her for the abuse that followed. Finally, although the coda does acknowledge that Carlson’s case was instrumental in opening the floodgates on reporting of sexual harassment, her own continued work in this area since 2016 is not acknowledged.
I don’t want to (re)claim these women as feminist icons here, nor do I want to downplay the contradictory messages about female solidarity and harassment in their own work. For instance, Carlson’s 2017 book Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back is based on her interviews with other women who have experienced sexual harassment. It offers a resources section which includes links to support, advocacy and activist organisations. Yet, at the same time, it offers primarily individualistic solutions focused on women’s behaviour and is largely ignorant of the long history of second-wave feminist organising on this issue. In positioning Carlson as a kind of godmother of #MeToo, it also ignores the work of Tarana Burke, who founded the MeToo movement in 2006.
Yet, whilst Burke’s and Carlson’s experiences, access to the media, and approaches to activism could not be more different, in some ways their treatment by the media has parallels. If Bombshell is prepared to acknowledge Carlson as igniting #MeToo, nevertheless, it ignores her continuing work. This is something Burke has also spoken of in terms of the media treatment of her work, since Alyssa Milano’s use of the hashtag #MeToo went viral in 2017:
Burke describes this process as being “acknowledged and erased”, as mainstream media both gives voice to experiences of victimisation, whilst distorting the ongoing work of survivors: their analysis, authority, and advocacy. This is also an individualising narrative, focused on the person of the “founder” rather than the continuing activism of a “leader”. It is as though the only way her experience can be acknowledged is to freeze it – and her – in time: “this is what a victim looks like”.
It is important to stress that I want to in no way diminish the vital work of speaking out, or the significant risk that entails. However, both Bombshell and Burke suggest that stories of women’s survival, solidarity and activism are perhaps even more difficult to tell.
This contrasts with the scenes outside the Manhattan court where Weinstein’s trial is taking place, where “silence breakers” have gathered en masse to face the man they have accused of abuse. Both in their public statements and in their curated accounts on Instagram (_nolongersilent) these women have increasingly presented themselves as a collective, emphasising the importance of solidarity and support.
However, there are limitations to mass-mediated solidarity. It is not accidental that the stories of sexual harassment to have made it to the screen in the post-#MeToo era have been those of the blonde “bombshells” of the film and television industries. This is not to say that other women have not spoken out, but rather to note that their stories have been less media-genic.
This dynamic is disturbingly laid bare in Apple TV’s The Morning Show. The series begins with the firing of beloved morning-TV anchor Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell) following sexual harassment allegations. Over ten episodes it explores the workplace culture at the titular Morning Show and how Kessler’s co-anchor, Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) and her new co-host Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) deal with the fall out. As viewers, we never learn of the specific allegations of misconduct and harassment that led to Kessler’s dismissal. The characters within the show, and the audience for the show-within-the-show, all seem to know and (to a large extent) acceptthe veracity of the allegations. So the show is left to explore the nature and severity of the allegations (misconduct? harassment? rape?) and extent to which one man can be held accountable.
In a pivotal episode which takes place in Las Vegas following the 2017 mass-shooting (just days before the New York Timesbroke the Weinstein story), Mitch takes an emotionally-exhausted junior booker, Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), back to his room and rapes her. Although I am categorising the incident as rape, the show is more ambiguous. It makes Hannah’s fear, inability to resist and distress evident, but also deals with her difficulty in categorising and understanding what Mitch did, and shows us Mitch’s very different understanding of events. Back in the present, Hannah is persuaded to go on-the-record for a Morning Show exclusive which Mitch hopes will, at least partly, exonerate him by demonstrating that his behaviour was acknowledged and enabled by the network. The night before Mitch’s interview is to air she takes her own life (whether deliberately or in an accidental overdose is left open). The reverberations of her death lead Alex and Bradley to go rogue live on-air and expose the network’s complicity in a culture of abuse.
A full analysis of The Morning Show will have to wait for another time, but my interest here is how the show plays with questions about women’s speech and believability. Because Hannah was promoted by the network when she tried to raise a complaint, she is emotionally conflicted about her own complicity. For her harasser she is a witness; for the white women reporters, she is a “story”; but she is only unambiguously recognised as a victim at the point at which she is no longer able to tell her own story. Her death is the evidence that Kessler’s behaviour really was bad and it prompts Alex and Bradley to speak out for Hannah. This silencing of the actual victim – and the negation of her survival – is troubling on many levels. Hannah, a young woman of colour, has neither the platform nor the authority to speak out. Alex and Bradley – middle-aged, established, white anchors - do. Their solidarity in the finale’s final scenes depends on the silencing, the death, of a woman of colour.
The Morning Show – like Bombshell -may go some way towards lifting the curtain on the cultures in film and television which have enabled men like Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer to (allegedly) abuse multiple women over lengthy periods. However, they do not entirely get past the credibility paradox which has long haunted all women’s speech on sexual violence, and which is itself structured by inequalities of race and class.
In Scotland, the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline is open 6-12 every night on 08088 01 03 02. If you are in Europe, the Rape Crisis Network Europe, Women Against Violence Europe, and the European Commission provide links to country-specific services across Europe.