by Joy Gideon
In the 1970s and 80s, the question of equality norms in the workplace had surfaced. Nowadays, the film is often used as a medium to convey messages about how women continue to be subjected to male supremacy in the workplace. Prominent contemporary theorists analyze the representation of modern-day feminism in film, and how it embodies the changing societal norms in regard to women.
In director Jay Roach’s Bombshell, antagonist Roger Ailes serves as a focal point and prime example of male supremacy in the workplace. The film demonstrates an egregious level of patriarchy as it follows the provocative true story of the former CEO and chairman of Fox News who was accused of sexual harassment by over twenty women. It reenacts the real-life scandal from the point of view of three ambitious women, who essentially become the narrators by breaking the fourth wall. By doing so, the audience is given insight into the challenges and oppression the women are subjected to by their boss. Ailes’ bigotry and corrupt leadership create a hostile and volatile work environment at Fox News that ultimately costs him his position.
This essay argues that Ailes’ character embodies an amalgam of the detrimental dangers of male supremacy and patriarchy being perpetuated. Firstly, it will analyze how he continuously verbally abuses women. Secondly, it will explain how he brainwashes them to conform to his patriarchal views. Lastly, it will explain how he uses his power to sexually harass women. This essay will analyze how the film producers specifically portray Roger Ailes; they utilize the women’s point of view to dehumanize him and demonize him, leaving no room for the audience to sympathize with him. This essay will make comparisons between Ailes’ representation in the aforementioned film and that in another adaptation of the true story, The Loudest Voice. This is mostly to warn the audience of the dangers of workplace sexism, and how it will continue to prevail as long as corrupt figures of authority, such as Ailes, exist.
- Verbal Abuse
Women are often perceived as overly sensitive and emotional, which causes verbal abuse to be normalized and rendered as trivial. Men often make inappropriate or insensitive comments towards women without considering how it may affect them. In Bombshell, Roger Ailes exhibits an abuse of power by constantly making inappropriate and disrespectful comments to his female employees. Women working at Fox News comply with his verbal abuse simply because he is their boss. One of Fox’s star anchors, Gretchen Carlson, speaks to her lawyers about Ailes, describing his comments: “It’s always just a joke, a put-down, like: ‘you’re sexy, but you’re too much work’ or ‘you act like it only rains on women, stop getting so goddamn offended by everything.’” (Bombshell 13:15) Because Ailes is a man, more specifically known as the most powerful man on TV, these comments are disregarded. Throughout the film, Ailes is never seen speaking sympathetically or respectfully. This is purposely done to highlight how aggressive and misogynistic this person is in reality, and how basic human respect is dismissed as a prerogative of women in this film. In a later sequence, Carlson is shown wearing no makeup as she does a news story about how women are oversexualized, in light of International Day of the Girl. Ailes’ reaction is to attack Carlson and tell her “Listen, mouth shut, ears open, nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat away through menopause.” (Bombshell 21:05) Ailes bashes this segment and diminishes its importance, whereas ironically, its purpose is to promote empowerment in young girls and advocate for their basic human rights. The performance in this sequence is extremely effective, composed of several close-up shots, to highlight how belittling Ailes’ comments are to Gretchen. The fact that Carlson is also wearing a bare face is a metaphor for how she is completely exposed to this abuse, and she has no form of protection from it. Ailes disguises his verbal abuse as constructive criticism as if it were to better his employee’s performance when in reality his violent and demeaning tone demonstrates his misogyny and patriarchal ideals. This portrayal of Roger’s character is effectively a rebuke to the audience of the dangers of male supremacy, as well as manipulation.
- Brainwashing Women
Chairman Roger Ailesserves as a paradigm of male supremacy in the workplace. He abuses his power by brainwashing his female employees to act the way he wants, dress the way he wants and say what he wants. He even subconsciously pressures them to adopt his beliefs, whether or not they agree with them. Ailes is known for caring a great deal about appearance, and he convinces women at Fox News that their worth is determined by their looks. Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema addresses Ailes’ portrayal of women: “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) Ailes asserts these same patriarchal ideals onto his female employees. For instance, he says “There’s a reason for clear desks. We need you in a shorter dress. Wide shot!… I want to see her goddamn legs! Why the f**k do you think I hired her?” (Bombshell 26:12) In connection to Mulvey’s argument, she states: “Similarly, conventional closeups of legs (Dietrich, for instance) or a face (Garbo) integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism.” (Mulvey 14) Essentially, Mulvey reinforces the idea that Ailes’ behaviour stems from desire, and that he excuses the objectification of his female staff by asserting the statement that the network is a visual medium. At Fox, every woman must be attractive, wear heavy makeup and short skirts, and be ladylike. To Ailes, talent, experience, and dedication have no importance if the employee does not have a pretty face. Arguably, he brainwashes the women by forcing these beliefs onto them obsessively, who eventually start to believe these ideals themselves.
Women at Fox normalize the abuse they are subjected to, to the point that they no longer view his actions as demeaning. In fact, some women encourage it. One of the female employees defends Ailes after the sexual harassment claims are publicized, saying: “Does Roger want us? Yes. He’s a man. He also gave us time. He gave us the opportunity. We benefited from that kind of attention.” (Bombshell 1:03:00) Ailes brainwashes his female employees to believe that the way he treats them is to their benefit and simply to further their careers. Filipa Mela Lopes’ Perpetuating the patriarchy: misogyny and (post-)feminist backlash suggests the idea that “women have always enforced their own submission.” (2518) This point of view suggests that women are partly to blame for being victimized and oppressed by men. Roger Ailes promotes these same beliefs through his leadership, convincing women that the subordination they are subjected to does not make them victims. He suggests that no woman at Fox should feel victimized because they allow him to talk to them in a demeaning tone, that they accept it. He minimizes their circumstances and convinces them that they are simply over exaggerating. After being accused of inappropriately speaking with one of his female employees, Ailes aggressively defends himself by saying: “You know the look in a woman’s eye when she’s interested, walk into a casting, back then. As a decider, there was a look they gave.” (Bombshell 1:08:10) He suggests that flirting with his employees is acceptable simply because they made themselves available. Ailes uses his power to coerce his staff into thinking that the women accusing him are being manipulative and exaggerating their circumstances.
Ironically, several female employees defend him: “We’ve got this woman, making these complaints when there are real victims out there,” and “I know Roger, I told People Magazine we’ve been in your office alone a lot over 15 years. I’ve never seen anything like what I’m reading about.” (Bombshell 55:00) The filmmakers utilize this portentous dialogue by females to create dramatic irony in this sequence. The fact that female actors are shown defending Ailes, rather than male actors, highlights the extent to which the female staff is impacted by his manipulation. Though women should defend and empower one another, their clouded judgement causes them to turn against one another – they are coerced into being loyal to their boss. Additionally, he effectively coerces his staff to be loyal to him by threatening them; “This is a fight for your jobs. If I go, you go.” (Bombshell 1:09:05) He instills fear of job insecurity and creates a toxic work environment as a whole. In connection, an adaptation of the Fox Scandal, a mini-series entitled The Loudest Voice (created by Tom McCarthy and Alex Metcalf), was also released in 2019. Although this series did not completely demonize Ailes, it was said to “convey Ailes as a showman who blurred opinion and fact to fuel ratings and viewer anger, but to do so with the charm and grit that characterized him.” (Zeitchik) In both the film and this mini-series, Ailes’ character is portrayed as an aggressive bully, who has no sympathy for his employees and who brainwashes his staff to conform to his beliefs. His portrayal as a manipulative and intimidating figure of authority alludes to his male supremacy, and how his rhetoric towards women dangerously affects his victims.
- Sexual Harassment
Women in the workplace experience gender inequality through wage differences, limited career opportunities, and their opinions being dismissed. But among the most dangerous forms of gender inequality in the workplace is sexual harassment. Undoubtedly, Bombshell serves as an egregious portrayal of sexual harassment in the modern workplace. The film successfully demonstrates the psychological, physical, social, and even economic effects that being sexually harassed has on a woman. The film’s additional fictional character, Kayla Pospisil, is the only character in the film that is shown being harassed firsthand. For instance, the filmmakers create an effectively infuriating scene that is uncomfortable to watch, arguably the most important and disturbing sequence of the entire film, in which Ailes commands Pospisil to stand up and lift up her skirt. She is hesitant and resists these commands, but Ailes aggressively pushes her to until she eventually complies, and her underwear is exposed. Margot Robbie’s performance contributes harmoniously to the victimization of her character; she has a terrified look on her face, her hands are shaking, she wears a tight smile, and she can barely make eye contact with Ailes. Consisting of no dialogue, heavy breathing, and grunting, this scene embodies a representation of the belittlement and oppression that Ailes’ victims faced. Significantly, the lack of dialogue and uncomfortable silence is symbolic of the many women that were silenced, unable to tell their story. This scene underlines the psychological effects these victims faced, because Ailes does not physically touch Pospisil, nor does he verbally harass her.
Furthermore, the film underlines the psychological effects that male supremacy has through the use of narrating techniques. In several instances, the female characters’ thoughts are narrated during uncomfortable encounters with other male characters. For example, a Fox employee, Rudi Bakhtiar, is shown having lunch with her male employer, to discuss her promotion. During this meeting, he asks to see her hotel room for her to ensure she is promoted. Her thought process is narrated throughout the scene: “Just look confused,” “Goddammit! Don’t react. Make it your fault.” “This is gonna ruin my career.” (Bombshell 15:30) The following day, Rudi is fired without cause. This truly accentuates the point of view of the women in this film, and the narrating technique provides the audience with insight into how impactful male supremacy is. This same technique is also exhibited in many sequences, including a few with Roger’s victims. This demonstrates the effects of the patriarchal work environment fostered by Ailes, and how his behaviour has even penetrated down to his male employees.
Moreover, Ailes’ power allows him to conceal most of his sexual scandals and prevents his victims from speaking out. He creates such a fearful environment, by intimidating his staff and threatening their jobs, that over twenty women are sexually harassed by him before any allegations are made. Evidently, the women comply with Ailes’ sexual harassment because he inspires fear of retaliation and demolished careers. This ties into the idea of The Politics of Sexual Harassment by Kathrin Zippel, which states: “In France, for example, several victims of sexual harassment who sought justice in court not only lost their cases but found themselves facing defamation libel suits from the men they accused.” (2) By comparing this real-life situation to the film, it is evident that the women do not speak up because they believe the consequences would out-weight the benefits. This is arguably the most toxic characteristic of Ailes’ male supremacy; he corners the women with the use of his power. He essentially gives them no choice but to be silent and submissive, because their careers are at stake. All in all, the depiction of Roger Ailes’ character warns the audience of the detrimental effects of patriarchy in the workplace.
In Jay Roach’s Bombshell, the depiction of antagonist Roger Ailes is demonizing, as he is shown to verbally abuse women, to brainwash them to conform to his patriarchal beliefs, and to sexually harass women. The aforementioned adaptation of this story, The Loudest Voice, in comparison, does not completely portray Ailes as a villain, but rather provides a storyline behind how he built up the network. The filmmakers give a sense of a mad genius and give the audience someone to root for. (Zeitchik) Though the mini-series takes a more realistic approach to reenact the scandal, it is evident that Bombshell purposely villainizes Ailes’ character with the intent of sending a more influential message; to fundamentally warn the audience of the great dangers of patriarchy. The film serves as a way to reprimand and bring to a halt the corrupted figures of authority who perpetuate male supremacy in the modern workplace.
Lopes, Filipa Melo. “Perpetuating the Patriarchy: Misogyny and (Post-)Feminist Backlash.” Philosophical Studies Vol. 176, 2019, pp. 2517–2538, link-springer-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/10.1007/s11098-018-1138-z.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 4 (1975): 6-18.
Roach, Jay, director. Bombshell. Ryerson Library, Lionsgate, 2019.
Zeitchik, Steven. In ‘The Loudest Voice,’ Roger Ailes Again Stirs Controversy, This Time from the Grave. The Washington Post (Online), 26 June 2019, search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/2247376997?pq-origsite=summon.
Zippel, Kathrin S. The Politics of Sexual Harassment. A Comparative Study of the United States, the European Union, and Germany. Cambridge University Press, 2006.