When sexual harassment occurs in a workplace environment, victims—often women—can be hesitant to come forward. Some are fearful that their jobs will be at stake. Others worry that nobody will believe them.
But in 2016, journalist Gretchen Carlson faced those fears: She kickstarted a sweeping internal investigation at Fox News when she accused chairman and CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment.
The former anchor’s allegation? That she had been removed from the popular show Fox & Friends and pushed into a less desirable time slot for her refusal to exchange sexual favors with the CEO. And, she added, for her inability to “get along with the boys.”
Carlson’s claims created a maelstrom of events that encouraged other harassed victims at Fox to come forward. Eventually, fellow Fox anchor Megyn Kelly and at least 20 other women working at Fox added their own testimonies to bolster Carlson’s claims.
Bombshell shines a bright light on the courage required by Gretchen, Megyn and all the other women at Fox to report their toxic workplace environment.
When they first experience sexual harassment, Gretchen and Megyn both go through the proper channels to report Ailes’ inappropriate behavior. They try to make the network more female friendly by calling out misogynistic comments by their colleagues and promoting programs and policies that aim to end the oversexualization of women. (In the same time frame, the film sympathetically portrays Megyn’s confrontation of presidential candidate Donald Trump regarding his disparaging comments towards women.)
Unfortunately, the women’s efforts don’t go far. So when Gretchen senses that her time at Fox is coming to an end, she begins recording conversations with Ailes, conducting research into past cases of sexual harassment and, ultimately, turning all of her evidence over to the corporate and legal authorities when she files her lawsuit. She encourages other women to do the same and remains patient as supporters of Ailes and Fox drag her name through the mud and try to discredit her.
When the time comes for Megyn to pick a side between Gretchen and Ailes, she initially refuses to speak up, not wanting to discredit Gretchen but not wanting to put her career on the line either. However, after discovering that Ailes has been harassing Kayla, a young (and dramatically fictionalized) anchor hopeful, she decides to tell her own story and supports Kayla as well, knowing that this will protect women in the future.
When Kayla admits to a friend that she gave in to Ailes’ advances because she feared for her career, she breaks down and admits to feeling “filthy.” However, that friend reassures Kayla and rightly redirects responsibility to the perpetrator of the harassment instead of letting her blame herself.
The female attorney defending Ailes makes a point to ask him if anything “uncomfortable” will come up in the investigation since she doesn’t want women who have actually been harassed to be trivialized because of the case.
Kayla identifies herself as an “evangelical millennial” and says that for her family, watching Fox News is like going to church. Another person says that Fox News is the last line of defense against the “Jesus-hating” liberal media.
Someone says, “God bless America.” Another character says that Jesus and Santa are both white men. A cross is seen hanging in someone’s cubicle. Men wear yarmulkes at a wedding.
While conducting interviews for on-air talent, a man asks multiple women to stand and spin in a circle since they work for a “visual medium.” One woman is asked to hike up her skirt until he can see her underwear beneath it. Nearly all women working at Fox wear dresses with short hemlines; someone mentions that this is the reason why the news anchor desks are see-through.
We hear several discussions about various sex acts (including one act involving two men and another involving a 16-year-old girl) and sexual arousal. There are also several conversations about the oversexualization of women in which people comment on the expectation of women to maintain a certain level of attractiveness through their makeup and clothing. Women are also forced into uncomfortable situations with men in which they are forced to endure inappropriate touching and comments.
A woman who is portrayed as a Christian puts her undergarments back on (nothing critical is seen) after a sex act with another woman. They lie in bed together, and she states that she isn’t gay; the other woman admits that she is. A few women are seen in their bras and underwear as they put on Spanx and their work dresses. Someone looks at pictures of a female news anchor who posed in a “sexy” outfit for a magazine shoot.
Post-coitus, a husband and wife lie in bed together (he is shirtless, she is wearing a tank top). They are forced to go outside in this state to chase off a member of the paparazzi photographing their children; they tell their kids that they were just napping when their kids inquire what they were doing before that.
A husband and wife share a brief kiss. People greet each other with kisses on the cheek.
A man forcefully grabs and attempts to kiss a woman twice, but she shoves him away both times. When a man angrily gets into a woman’s face, her husband steps in and threatens him with physical violence.
Newscasters discuss Ivana Trump’s rape accusations against her ex-husband. An extremely paranoid Fox employee voices his belief that he is receiving death threats, frightening the people around him. (He also tries to convince a fellow employee that someone tried to poison her as well.) Someone says that her boss throws donuts at his staff when he gets angry.
A news anchor reports on gun violence and takes a poll to see if constituents believe the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons should be reinstated. A woman mentions that her mom is training to be a security guard because she wants a job where she can carry a gun.
Because Bombshell addresses the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, a multitude of terms that might not normally be considered crude or vulgar become incredibly derogatory or manipulative in the context of this movie. Some of these instances are milder—such as when two men call their female co-anchor “beautiful”—but others are much more disparaging. (A man talks about a woman’s menstruation cycle, and several women are also called “man-haters.”)
The f-word is heard nearly 40 times, and the s-word is heard about 15 times. There are also about 5 uses each of “p-ss,” “a–,” “d–n” and “h—,” two uses of “b–ch” and one use of “c–k.” God’s name is taken in vain 20 times, at least half of which are paired with “d–n” or “d–mit,” and Jesus’ name is misused another 10 times (twice paired with another harsh profanity). Someone uses the term “BS” in place of the actual word. The word “bimbo” comes up in several conversations after it is used to insult a woman.
Several people drink alcohol at bars and restaurants throughout the movie. Two characters get drunk. Producers watch footage of a man smoking a cigarette. A woman is asked to go out for drinks. Someone takes medication for nausea.
Throughout the movie, we witness a culture of misogyny at Fox News. The story here focuses on Roger Ailes propositioning women with promotions in exchange for “loyalty” (read: sexual favors). But women are also “encouraged” to dress and act a certain way while men are continuously defended for their inappropriate behavior.
At one point, several women are shocked to discover the existence of a “harassment hotline” where they can report this type of misconduct in the workplace. However, Megyn points out that the hotline is a joke, since every phone in the building is monitored and recorded, and the entire organization stands behind Ailes.
A man’s negative comments about women (and Megyn in particular) are defended since they make for good television, and since these women have probably heard much worse. Megyn attempts to navigate this situation but receives negative feedback from both sides of the conversation—some believing that she should just let it go and others believing she isn’t attacking the issue hard enough.
When Gretchen first comes forward, many people refuse to believe her. Hundreds of Fox employees say the accusations are ridiculous and wear t-shirts in support of Ailes. Some women worry that if they don’t stand behind Ailes that it will be assumed all the women working there performed sexual favors.
In an attempt to protect himself, Ailes threatens the jobs of several people. He starts rumors to discredit the women who came against him and he openly coerces his employees into boycotting these women.
Due to Fox’s conservative viewpoints, a gay woman working there worries that she will lose her job if anyone discovers she is a lesbian. When asked why she doesn’t apply somewhere else, she points out that no other news sources want to hire someone coming from such a conservative background. Someone else calls liberals lazy and arrogant.
A woman vomits in a bathroom stall and later in a trashcan. Someone tells a story about how Ailes’ parents divorced and moved away when he went to college but didn’t tell him. So, when he came home for Christmas that year, he found a house full of strangers and all of his worldly possessions gone. Someone describes hoodies as “creepy.”
Bombshell comes at a time when the political climate of America is at its boiling point. However, rather than focusing primarily on the conservative versus liberal media perspective, the film focuses more on what is right versus what is wrong—regardless of political affiliations. (That said, the gratuitous, fictionalized depiction of a conservative evangelical woman having a lesbian fling perhaps reveals some of the filmmakers’ own biases here.)
Gretchen Carlson decides to sue her boss after being fired because she wants his foul behavior to stop. She is told by her lawyers multiple times that she’s risking everything, and that she will essentially be muzzled if she goes through with it. They aren’t wrong: She finds herself struggling to find a new job after the lawsuit goes public. However, Gretchen stands her ground, wanting to show solidarity for other women and peers still facing harassment in the workforce.
Some women, like Kayla, are afraid to come forward because they know they don’t have any power at the news conglomerate. However, after getting support from women such as Megyn Kelly, they bravely choose to put everything on the line in order to protect themselves and their colleagues.
Bombshell’s core message is one of empowerment. But the story it tells is a messy one, and it’s a story that’s told realistically—a narrative choice that pushes it firmly into R-rated territory. The film verbally and visually depicts many of the instances of sexual harassment at the center of this story. Profanity is also an issue. And it presents a same-sex encounter as well that involves one woman who comes from a conservative Christian background.
In the end, Fox fired Ailes and a few others, paying $65 million to end the contracts of these perpetrators. However, we learn that the network only paid $50 million to the actual victims. While this is disappointing, actress Nicole Kidman (Gretchen Carlson) breaks the fourth wall to say, “Let me be that woman” who stands up first and gives others the courage to step forward as well.
Bombshell isn’t an easy film to watch. But it seeks to bring a difficult-but-important issue into the spotlight—albeit in a gritty, R-rated way.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.