Bombshell that altered workspaces
What's it about the Roger Ailes #MeToo film that makes you want to watch it twice over? It's the story of our times
When was the last time I watched a film in the theatre, and felt an instant urge to catch it again, within a span of a week? Jay Roach's Bombshell, that opened in cinemas this Friday. What's the huge achievement within it cinematically, that calls for a repeat view so soon? It's no great shakes, in that sense, of course. Only a thoroughly engaging story, entertainingly told, to reflect what history may judge as the turning point for women in the workplace.
Talking more specifically about the headquarters of Fox News —the mouthpiece of American Right Wing politics. Zeroing in further on its founder Roger Ailes. And a series of #MeToo allegations, starting with an old associate, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and later by Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), among several others.
Where would you get a more detailed/in-depth account of the life and times of Ailes, who in turn redefined the way we consume mainstream television news (as pure, unabashed propaganda) for a replicable playbook — prompting a full genre of totally 'chaatu', terribly compromised, one-dimensional, opinion-led channels, over a hundred of them in India alone, blurring lines between fact and fiction or fake news as well?
Well, you watch the seven-part miniseries The Loudest Voice (on Hotstar), with Russel Crowe in Ailes' role. I caught it quite a few months back. The one shot/scene I distinctly remember among so much that plays on screen is when Ailes is gleaning at audition tapes of anchors he intends to hire for Fox News, backed by Ruper Murdoch, with very little time left.
"What's with the pussy masala," he yells, looking at an Indian girl on the audition tape. Screw diversity, Ailes is clear what his anchors should look like — his audience.
American Conservative Whites, for one. Any other box to be checked? Well.
Before he started Fox, Ailes used to work at CNBC. About a decade ago, I remember sitting among drunk banker-type friends, where all they seemed to talk about, by way of celebrity gossip or male loose-talk, were attractive anchors on CNBC India. I found that quite intriguing, and checked with my colleagues at the newspaper if we could put together a story on hot, female 'celebs' reporting on boring quarterly results, and Sensex numbers, simultaneously soaring temperatures on a business channel!
The anchors my colleagues tried to get in touch froze at the suggestion — even calling me back, to be, please, kept out of it! Can understand why. Nobody would want to be reduced to a sex object when their day-job involves reporting on something as serious as the economy. And yet, television is a visual medium, as Ailes says repeatedly in Bombshell, offhandedly asking his colleagues or job applicants to either twirl, or lift their skirts up.
This is the sort of 'casual' harassment one came across a lot while investigating #MeToo allegations within the Bombay film industry as well. What spot does that put an aspirant into? An awkward one, of course, as you watch the former weather girl Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) in Ailes' room, as he (John Lithgow) in Bombshell goes too far. She's left with no choice but to do as he says.
At no point does Ailes make it seem like there's something odd going on here. As if what he's checking for is merely a professional demand. Which is the sort of toxic environments that men over generations have thrived on, while their victims have remained perplexed, and often played along. When the allegations do come out, several years after the actual incident, some turn around to ask, "Why now?" Well, because this is the time, I guess.
For years I've been part of drawing room conversations with journalists who at some point or the other had worked with MJ Akbar, a former newspaper editor, notorious for calling female employees over to his hotel room, while he was in his boxers. Or to his office-cabin, often, allegedly jumping them, if not making suggestive remarks tending towards full-blown sexual harassment. Here's how I'd heard these allegations until they publicly came tumbling out, one after another — as jokes. Over drinks; seriously.
That's what societal gas-lighting does to its survivors. Makes them collectively believe, it's okay. As did a whole lot of women in Ailes' case. That Ailes was a completely unscrupulous man with his work life is a given. How you're with one thing is what you'd be with everything else. Didn't surprise anyone that he was equally a jerk in his non-work life. He passed away in 2017.
But his story, whether The Loudest Voice, but more particularly, Bombshell, is an incredible reminder for generations on how the conspiracy of silence at the workplace was finally breached, defying odds, and taking a toll on the powerful. Could do with a similar film on Akbar; even a documentary would do.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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