by Sheridan Riggillo
The term bombshell is defined by Oxford Languages as “a very attractive woman” identified with the idea of a sex symbol. This term is stereotypically associated with “blonde women” and “supermodels” based on features relating to the curves of the female body such as an “hourglass figure” and “large breasts” (King & King, 157). The blonde bombshell is also defined by her “ditzy qualities” of a persona that is very childlike and bawdy based (Haas, 324). Marylin Monroe and Lana Turner are two of the most popular bombshells in media history. Both are identified as bombshells because of their physical attributes and sex appeal. Although bombshells are most noted in the early years of Hollywood and media, the sexist ideas and harmful stereotypes surrounding them still exist today. The film Bombshell by Jay Roach displays the integration of bombshell’s in modern media while challenging the traditional aspects of the role.
Based on true events, the film follows the story of three women, Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, and Kayla Pospisil, working at Fox News and their journey to expose their incidents of sexual assault committed by chairmen, Roger Ailes. Megyn is a news anchor at Fox who becomes involved in a media scandal with President Donald Trump after she questioned him on his offensive comments towards women. Gretchen, a co-anchor is meeting with lawyers about her experience to discuss the sexist environment at Fox after being switched to a less popular show on the network. Kayla is a fictional character who just started working off-screen at Fox and is harassed into inappropriate meetings with Roger in order to work her way up in the industry. The three women each resemble the physical image associated with a bombshell and although their storylines begin separately, they come together for the purpose of taking down their Ailes.
This essay argues that the film Bombshell challenges the idea of a bombshell including its sexualization, limitations of expression, and powerless traits as the role of women. Firstly, the essay will discuss the sexualization of women in society and how the film protests this role. Secondly, it will address the voiceless trait expected of women and how Bombshell promotes the exact opposite. Finally, the essay will discuss the misogynistic values that limit or alter the power given to women and acknowledge the challenge Bombshell creates to this idea.
2. Sexualization of Women: The Image of a Bombshell
The sexualization of women has existed in both media and society for many years. Laura Mulvey supports this by stating the common portrayal of women in film as “isolated, glamourous, on display, sexualized” (17). This idea contributes to the persona of a bombshell which is how women are often expected to be portrayed not only in film but in media as a whole, including Fox News. Mulvey writes, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” (12). The sexualization of women in the workplace and media is evident in Bombshell through the exposure of how the female employees are treated at Fox. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Megyn as she walks through the halls of the Fox studio. When she passes by a male co-worker that comments on her appearance while eying her physique, “love that dress Megyn, no really I love it.” (03:44-03:47) to which she responds to the camera, “He’s not horny, he’s just ambitious” (03:48-03:50). Throughout the film as we often see male workers in the office staring at their female co-workers and making similar harassment comments to them. Sexualization in the workplace is evident by the way the female employees are shown in tight, short skirts to accent their physical features. Another significant example of the sexualization of women and these bombshell figures is with the character Kayla and her repetitive experience of sexual harassment with Roger Ailes. The film uses the character of Kayla to challenge the sexual role of women as an accessory to men by having her involved in a homosexual relationship. Although Kayla continues to be assaulted by Roger Ailes, a straight man, she is a woman that engages in sexual relations with women. Therefore, breaking the stereotypical role of women being sexual accessories of males. The film takes the sexualization of the bombshell role that is often used against females and puts it into a different perspective. The sexualized ideals of a woman for a male’s pleasure is dissociated by having Kayla romantically involved with a woman. This creates a feminist control over the sex-appeal of a bombshell by removing the male.
3. Challenging the Voiceless
Another stereotypical trait associated with an attractive woman is a lack of opinion. This idea can be supported by Mulvey who writes, “Woman then stand […] bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (3). In Bombshell, this ideal trait of a bombshell is evident in both Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. For Gretchen, her opinions of sticking up for the sexist comments made toward her both on and off-air got her moved to a later show that had fewer viewers. When she began fighting back, she became less attractive to the show and was considered difficult to work with by her boss Roger Ailes. This is evident in the comments made to her by Roger when she would defend herself, one being “you’re sexy, but you’re too much work” (14:31 – 14:35). This comment refers to her talking back against the put-downs made about her on-air because of her sex. Another example of this voiceless ideal of a woman is with Megyn Kelly. When Megyn voices her opinion against Donald Trump by calling him out on his offensive comments towards women, she receives major backlash. Kelly experiences death threats, social media hate, and even direct hate from Trump himself through social media posts and interviews. One of the offensive comments he makes against Kelly in the media as a response to her question to him is about her period. He says, “she gets out and starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions you know you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes-blood coming out of her…wherever” (12:13-12:15). This sexist comment accusing Kelly of “anger-menstruating” (12:16-12:17) was made against her because she challenged him on his misogynistic comments. Trump’s misogynistic response to Kelly adds to this idea of an ideal woman not speaking their mind or being aggressive as when she does, she is put down and threatened by society. By speaking her mind in the first place, Kelly goes against these female ideals of a bombshell, however, when she recognizes the effect it has on her career and the safety of her family, she backs down and reconciles with President Trump. The idea of women favored to be voiceless is challenged with the entirety of the concept of the film. By including real-life events and a political figure, the film projects high political content from the female perspective. Therefore, Bombshell itself speaks out on the injustices against women and gives a voice to their treatment in society, in both the workplace and in media.
4. Empowering the Powerless
A large part of the injustice towards women in society has to do with the workforce. When examining workplace sexism by Mark Rubin and his team of writers, they found that “women’s minority status in male‐dominated industries places them at greater risk of experiencing workplace sexism and poorer mental health and job satisfaction” (Rubin, et al, 267). In many aspects of careers such as politics and business, female workers are not taken as seriously as males. This is portrayed in the film with the roles of the women vs the roles of the men. The women in higher positions at Fox are secretaries and new anchors, whereas the men in higher positions are CEO and chairmen. Throughout the film, women are constantly degraded and taken less seriously due to this stereotypical belief. Kathrin Zippel supports this idea with the following critique made by feminists, “men who harassed women harmed women’s dignity and integrity by offending, humiliating, and demeaning not only individual women but women in general” (14). This quote relates to the power difference stereotyped against women that is reflected in the workplace. In Bombshell, this is evident when Gretchen exposes a comment made by Roger about women working their way up in the industry. She says, “Roger likes to joke, ‘To get ahead you’ve got to give a little head’” (14:20-14:23). This saying sexualizes females in the workplace by demeaning their work ethic to a male’s sexual pleasure. Feminists have supported this idea with the perspective of sexual harassment “to be foremost a ‘gendered’ problem, an abuse of power by men who held higher status than women as men and as supervisors” (Zippel, 14). The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is connected to this power dynamic. Due to this, women who experience sexual harassment often are embarrassed and afraid to come forward. “Women not only suffer emotionally but risk job loss if they do not want to have sex with their supervisors and might quit their jobs when they cannot endure belittling, demeaning, and other hostile actions by their colleagues” (Zippel, 15).
Often women who come out about their experience of sexual assault are either not believed or victimized because of it. It is a reputation that often defines sexual assault for the rest of their lives. This fear due to the power dynamic is evident in Bombshell with all the women who delay coming forward about Roger. For Kayla, she was embarrassed to admit what she was forced to do. For Gretchen, the fear of what impact this would have on her career while she was still working at Fox was terrifying. As a woman, if she came out about Roger, she would lose her job and her future employment opportunities would be very difficult due to that experience. This is why she developed a plan as her career was already deteriorating with Fox. From this plan run by Gretchen, Megyn reveals her experience of assault from Roger which then begins the action of the takedown of Roger Ailes. Bombshell challenges the image of women without power by centering its plot around women leading a fight in taking their power back. Often associated as victims, Bombshell changes the view of these women who were assaulted by Roger and places them as survivors.
In conclusion, Bombshell is a feminist film that challenges the view of a bombshell in society. It takes the sex-icon, voiceless image associated figure of a woman and changes the definition to be a woman of power and a strong opinion. By focusing the story on two strong women in power, the film is dropping a bombshell by giving them a voice. The second definition of a bombshell referring to an explosion is also very appropriate to this new idea of a female bombshell displayed in the film. It describes the impact their voices had in media and the shocking explosion of destruction that resulted from it to Fox. The film takes the sexualization of women for men’s appeal and makes it solely about the woman herself, not for any man. Bombshell redefines a feminist view of the term bombshell to be a “very attractive woman” one who is strongly outspoken and powerful.
Bombshell. Jay Roach. Lionsgate, 2019.
Haas, Elizabeth, et al. “Women Politics and Film: All About Eve?” Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015, 312-341
King, Katie, and Debra Walker King. Body Politics and the Fictional Double. Indiana University Press, 2000.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 4 (1975): 6-18.
Rubin, Mark, et al. “A Confirmatory study of the relations between workplace sexism, sense of belonging, mental health, and job satisfaction among women in male-dominated industries.” Wiley: Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2018, pp. 267-282
Zippel, Kathrin S. The Politics of Sexual Harassment: A Comparative Study of the United States, the European Union, and Germany. Cambridge University Press, 2006.