t’s ludicrous for Bombshell to position any of these women as champions against workplace sexual harassment when their racism simply shifts that violence against Black and brown women.
CW: Discussions of workplace sexual violence
I knew exactly what I was in for the moment I sat down for my screening of Bombshell (dir. Jay Roach) after dinner on Christmas Day. Its release had loomed over my head ever since I first saw the trailer last November. As I enter the fifth year of my complaint against the Canadian government for its complicity in workplace sexual violence, I felt a responsibility to see how this film represented the dehumanizing horror of misogyny at work. But given that its plot centers on former Fox News host and notable racist Megyn Kelly and her colleagues, I was hesitant and apprehensive. I knew Bombshell would be yet another example of white women celebrating themselves as rebellious truth-tellers while denying their own complicity in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
The first act of the film follows Kelly (Charlize Theron) in the aftermath of the 2015 Republican debate, when Trump targeted her on social media for daring to question his overt misogyny throughout his campaign as the Republican nominee. We see her react in real-time to his conversation with Don Lemon, where Trump muses about “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever.” As she hunches over a toilet, vomiting from the anxiety of it all, later becoming paranoid that someone poisoned her coffee, it’s clear the film wants to establish Kelly as a character worthy of our sympathy.
As a woman named Bernice Starnes once said, “I’m supposed to feel sorry for that bitch?! I don’t!”
Harassment and abuse are unequivocally dehumanizing and damaging, and I can’t imagine the horror of enduring it while in the public eye. Kelly shouldn’t have been attacked with such vitriol for criticizing a presidential candidate for his mistreatment of women — she was simply doing her job. But this is the woman who once commented that Sandra Bland would still be alive had she just “complied with police orders,” and vehemently insisted that Santa Claus, a fictional character based on a Turkish myth, is white (the film briefly addresses this via her narration, minimizing it as her having a “big mouth” getting her into trouble). It’s a tall order to ask that audiences extend sympathy to Kelly while her real-life counterpart berates any marginalized person for standing up against racism.
Unsurprisingly, the film makes no substantial effort to tackle how Fox News gleefully contributes to the harassment and abuse of Black and brown people in our everyday lives. Bombshell masquerades as a biographical drama about courageous whistleblowers while dishonestly glossing over the network’s legacy of violent racism. It centers the plight of white women crusading against injustice while ignoring how they built their careers on demonizing and oppressing Black and brown people.
It seems that Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph knew that the film couldn’t entirely revolve around the unsympathetic Kelly or Gretchen “LGBTQ+ Rights Distract From Real Issues” Carlson (Nicole Kidman). Hence, they created the fictional character Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an amalgamation of the accounts of more than 20 Fox News employees bound by non-disclosure agreements in their sexual harassment cases. Pospisil describes herself as an “evangelical millennial” striving to become an “influencer in the Jesus space.” She also happens to be queer, a reveal that happens early in the film when she sleeps with her co-worker Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon).
After their off-screen tryst, Pospisil is astonished to discover that Carr is both a closet lesbian and Hillary-supporting-Democrat who works for Fox News. Carr explains that she was stuck at Fox News, despite wanting to work somewhere else, because it was the first organization that offered her a job. This effectively demonstrates the way white women easily compartmentalize aspects of their identity to adapt to their environment. Ultimately, it’s their whiteness that allows Carr and Pospisil to blend in and make a living at a major media organization whose ratings and profits thrive on “frightening and titillating” its audience at the expense of Black and brown lives.
That isn’t to say that these characters have an easy time at Fox News or that the toxic environment didn’t have an impact on them. When she meets with notorious sexual predator and then-Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) under what she believes is a professional context, Pospisil is the character through which the audience is exposed to the horror of his abuse. This scene is particularly harrowing and triggering, as Ailes has her stand and “give us a twirl” before him in a demonstration of her “loyalty” to him and to prove her worthiness of a promotion. Pospisil’s shock and humiliation are palpable as Ailes coerces her into lifting her skirt higher and higher, his panting and heavy breathing audible as he leers on. Though he does ultimately promote her, it’s implied that Ailes continues to sexually abuse her behind closed doors for the rest of the film.
It isn’t until Carlson’s lawsuit against Ailes that Pospisil is given the opportunity to fight back and hold him accountable. Kelly, who was hesitant to speak about her own experience with Ailes abusing her years prior, approaches her at her desk and encourages her to provide testimony to support Carlson’s lawsuit. When she learns that he also sexually harassed Kelly, Pospisil is furious with her for having refused to say anything sooner. As tears stream down her face, she asks, “Did you think about what your silence means?”
We know that choosing silence in the face of injustice is a win for abusers, who only need neutrality and passivity to get away with and continue harming people. Kelly merely shrugs off her complicity in Ailes’ abuse. She makes it abundantly clear that protecting other women from him was not her responsibility, considering it never happened again and she went on to have a successful career. In other words, “Fuck you, I got mine.”
My colleague Clarkisha seperates white women into three categories in “White Women Have Always Voted In Their Self-Interests”: 1) those who vow to fight the patriarchy, but not whiteness, in their quest for unlimited power; 2) those who are content with the limited power they have under the white supremacist patriarchy and protect it at all costs; and 3) the rare ones who vow to burn it all down. Every character in the film easily fits into the first two categories.
Both Kelly and Carlson were happy to keep silent about Ailes’ abuse until it no longer benefitted them, — fully aware that he would continue to prey on and harass younger women like Pospisil. Instead of breaking his cycle of abuse by speaking up, they chose to reap the benefits of their complicity for years, opting for their individual success and wealth over the collective wellness and safety of women in their workplace. It isn’t until Ailes fires Carlson that she decides to file a lawsuit against him, and it isn’t until he refuses to defend Kelly from Trump that she even considers rebelling against him. Pospisil’s indignation towards Kelly’s complicity is ironic, given how ecstatic she was to have a job demonizing racial minorities at Fox News. The film closes on her walking away from the office, tossing her badge in the trash, wondering if she can make her next workplace any different. Perhaps for white women, but for the rest of us, I highly doubt it.
It’s ludicrous for Bombshell to position any of these women as champions against workplace sexual harassment when their racism simply shifts that violence against Black and brown women. Empathizing with these characters is difficult knowing that they wouldn’t give a shit if, say, a Black Muslim woman was the one coming forward about her predatory boss. White women have historically been more than happy to throw Black and brown people under the bus in pursuit of attaining equal power with white men. The thought of dismantling the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy never occurs to them because they directly benefit from it. Until white women realize how they perpetuate harm against themselves by siding with whiteness, they’ll never be champions of shit. And quite frankly, I’m tired of the media trying to convince me otherwise.
Roslyn Talusan is a Canadian freelance culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing aims to critique media and dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.