What’s Missing from “Bombshell”

As a feminist, I found the new film Bombshell to be satisfying, but also hard to watch—and not for the reasons you might expect.

Directed by Jay Roach and with a screenplay by Charles Randolph (co-writer of the The Big Short), Bombshell depicts how Fox News president and CEO Roger Ailes (played by John Lithgow) sexually harassed and abused his female employees, and how these women took him down in the summer of 2016—led by Gretchen Carlson (played by Nicole Kidman) and Megan Kelly (played by Charlize Theron). The third hero of the picture is a fictional aspiring young newscaster Kayla Pospisil (played by Margot Robbie), who is amalgamation of several of Ailes’ over 20 accusers. The film’s portrayal of Ailes abusing Pospisil will make your skin crawl.

But it is not just the sexual abuse and misogyny in Bombshell that makes it hard to watch. This film takes you into the belly of the beast and asks you to sympathize with women who enabled the right-wing organization, even as it propelled Donald Trump into the White House. I sympathized with the harassed women, and even cheered for them when they finally spoke up and challenged Ailes’ sexually abusive behavior, but all the while, they were working for and supporting a news organization that was attacking women’s rights, promoting racist theories that Obama was not a U.S. citizen, spreading lies to the American public and facilitating the election of a misogynist demagogue.

I loved the way Carlson figured out a way to get around the company’s mandatory arbitration policy by filing her lawsuit in New Jersey and against Ailes personally, rather than the company. It was oh-so-satisfying when she proved his denials false with recordings of their conversations, including Ailes saying “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationships a long time ago.” I was relieved when Kelly finally supported Carlson by revealing Ailes’ harassment of her. And it was satisfying when Carlson won her case, and especially when Fox dumped Ailes. But the victory felt hollow.

Also hard to watch was the portrayal of Susan Estrich defending Roger Ailes. Despite her pioneering condemnation of acquaintance rape in the 1987 book Real Rape and her early support of Hillary Clinton for president—she wrote A Case for Hillary Clinton in 2005— Estrich represented Roger Ailes against Carlson. (Her excuse? When she was a liberal commentator on Fox News, he had supported her when she fell gravely ill after a botched gastrointestinal operation in 2014. He reportedly visited her in the hospital and kept her on the payroll for seven months when she was too sick to work.)

The events portrayed in Bombshell all occurred before Trump took the White House, and over a year before #MeToo went viral. It’s interesting to note that Fox News purged itself of some of its worst offenders—not only Ailes in July of 2016 but Bill O’Reilly in April of 2017 as well—before the supposedly more liberal networks, like NBC (Matt Lauer and Mark Halperin), CBS (Leslie Moonves and Charlie Rose), and NPR (Michael Oreskes and David Sweeney), all post-#MeToo.

Of course, Fox News has not fixed its problem with sexual harassment, according to a lawsuit recently filed by Britt McHenry, former co-host of a Fox Nation show called “Un-PC.”

“The real bombshell is that it hasn’t been fixed at all,” McHenry’s attorney Lisa Bloom told USA Today. “Fox continues to be a sanctuary for sexual harassers, the culture has not changed. They give lip service to the idea that they have improved but they have not.”

For Carlson and Kelly, the film offers two possible reasons why they finally spoke out. Carlson lost her show “Fox & Friends” in 2013 after she expressed support for an assault weapons ban following the Orlando shooting—an opinion that viewers overwhelmingly rejected. Kelly did not feel adequately supported by Fox when Donald Trump ruthlessly attacked her after she asked him about his history of misogynous comments in the August 2015 Republican debate. The film suggests that these women finally turned on Ailes for his decades-old pattern of sexually abusing women when he failed to support them in ways unrelated to sexual harassment. 

But the film did not delve into the contradictions of the women who worked for and supported Fox News, despite its misogyny and sexual abuse—not only Carlson, Kelly and Estrich, but the rank and file secretaries, publicists and writers who helped Fox news put Donald Trump in the White House and create purposefully manipulative right-wing media even earlier.

I came away from Bombshell with a better understanding of the downfall of Ailes, but still really bewildered about why women at Fox, and other women like them, are complicit in the same misogyny these characters are made into heroes for taking on.

About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is a Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015. Baker is the President of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.