Bombshell, the new Jay Roach movie about the women of Fox News who took down chair Roger Ailes, unveils its story almost like a procedural. If you’ve been following the news the past couple of years, you probably know the outcome. In 2016, Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes for sexual harassment, setting off a chain reaction of other women’s accusations — including, most prominently, Megyn Kelly’s — which culminated with his ouster from the network he helped build.
The movie focuses on the lead-up to those events, following Carlson and Kelly as they decide to build the case against Ailes and as they maneuver through the media and career fallout that came from their allegations.
The film is one of the more stylish entries in the burgeoning genre of explainer movies that, in breaking down Big, Serious Topics, become awards season darlings. Bombshell is already getting Oscar buzz; it’s loaded with major star power: Nicole Kidman plays Carlson, Charlize Theron stars as Kelly, and Margot Robbie is a fictionalized (and, spoiler alert, queer) Fox producer among the lower ranks.
By failing to bring race into its analysis, Bombshell falls into the same simplistic empowerment narrative.
It’s also being received as a kind of #MeToo movie about women finding their voice in the Trump era — and calling out institutions that ignore or outright support abuse and harassment. That this film depicting the realities of harassment was even made is noteworthy, and Theron, who is also a producer on the film, recently spoke about some of the difficulties in pursuing the project after some of the film’s initial backers pulled out. In some ways, the film complicates the “lean-in women’s empowerment” narratives that permeate Hollywood and the media, especially through its representation of Kelly and the fictional producer. But by failing to bring race into its analysis, it falls into the same simplistic empowerment narrative, though now with a queer twist.
Bombshell is rare for a big production in that it’s focused on gender and power in a corporation, but it doesn’t really provide a more nuanced contextualization of the stakes around Carlson’s and Kelly’s stories. Instead, the movie ends up being, in some ways, an infomercial for their post–Fox News incarnations while also promoting the idea of a kinder, gentler Fox News without Ailes at the helm.
In her essay “The Cult of the Difficult Woman,” critic Jia Tolentino writes about a certain strain of pop culture analysis predicated on “the re-writing of celebrity lives as feminist texts.” This framework uses women celebrities as tools for exploring questions of gender and sexism, without addressing, for one thing, the complicated ways that celebrities aren’t just regular people. And in defending women celebrities from the sexist trope of “unlikability,” the framework ends up ignoring other vectors of power, namely class and race.
With its emphasis on Megyn Kelly’s and Gretchen Carlson’s stories, Bombshell initially seems like a movie version of that celebrity feminist analysis. The Megyn Kelly we meet here is decidedly not the one who deployed her prosecutorial skills on her show The Kelly File to stoke racist conspiracy theories or lecture viewers about the whiteness of Jesus and Santa. Instead, she is presented, in her own words, as a tell-it-like-it-is journalist who puts powerful people in the hot seat, and faces sexism because of it.
Presumably, representing the network’s racial politics would be too controversial and make the protagonists too “unlikable” for the broad moviegoing audience.
This is how the movie frames her big moment sparring with Trump during the now-infamous presidential debate that turned her into a Vanity Fair cover story symbol of lean-in empowerment. (Her subsequent memoir, Settle for More, pushed this empowerment narrative even further.) Kelly’s decision to ask Trump about his treatment of women is portrayed less as a journalistic standard and more as a brave bucking of her network’s — and Ailes’ — own sexism and support for Trump.
As with Kelly, the Gretchen Carlson we meet in the film is not the habitual peddler of racist conspiracy theories and anti-gay and anti-trans talking points. Instead, Carlson is an ideological maverick who faces pushback from Ailes for advocating for (some) gun control, and for appearing makeup-less on an episode about empowering young women. “Nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause,” Ailes admonishes her.
As the film lays out its story, it narratively emphasizes the importance of Kelly and Carlson’s breaking with the sexism of conservative media orthodoxy, as if this means that they were ideologically independent-minded, rather than also complicit with that orthodoxy.
In the explainer movie mold, Bombshell frames the story so that it’s not just about individual celebrities but about sexism and the institution of Fox News in the Trump era. In the opening scenes, Kelly — whom Theron portrays brilliantly, capturing everything from Kelly’s confident gait to the husky undertones of her voice — speaks directly to viewers as she takes us through the different floors of the Fox building, including the floor where the Murdochs (owners of Fox) operate and the floor where Roger Ailes (the chair and CEO) holds court. In this way, institutional forces become embodied in particular power players whom we are meant to understand aren’t always in alignment. Yet what forces are represented as causing the misalignments are telling.
The movie defines Trump’s, Ailes’, and Fox News’ politics as problematic exclusively through gender, rather than also contextualizing gender within the network’s racial politics. In fact, the film only attempts to bring in race in passing, as background information. For instance, Ailes’ involvement in the racist Willie Horton ads from George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, which promoted racist fears about black men as rapists of white women, is only mentioned quickly (without any explanation, assuming the audience will know what it’s code for) in the explainer-y intro of him.
The types of power dynamics the explainer movie foregrounds in the narrative (sexism against white women) and what it considers background information (racial politics) speaks to how it manufactures the — imagined mainstream and white — audience identification. Presumably, representing the network’s racial politics would be too controversial and make the protagonists too “unlikable” for the broad moviegoing audience.
Bombshell isn’t just about Carlson’s or Kelly’s stories. In order to be a more universal, 2019-style story, the movie knows it can’t just focus on two rich, powerful straight white celebrities. So the narrative includes a third character, a fictional composite aspiring producer Kayla (Margot Robbie). As a neophyte associate producer (and, as we later learn, a queer woman), she helps expand the film’s depiction of power, both in terms of its identity palette and in giving a view from someone of a lower status. But in many ways, its use of white queerness does help us better understand the film’s limitations regarding race and identity.
To its credit, the film attempts to use Kayla to show that “leaning in” doesn’t follow predictable alliances. Gretchen Carlson — in many ways the film’s most unambiguous hero — attempts to make Kayla part of her team, pitching her on a kind of sisterhood to get to the top together. Kayla declines, opting to join Bill O’Reilly’s team, in a moment that implies she’s leaning into, even “selling out” to, the more powerful person to ensure her way to the top.
On O’Reilly’s team, Kayla meets Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), a show producer who is also a (not entirely open) lesbian and liberal Hillary supporter, and they begin an affair. The movie’s introduction of white queerness into the identity mix is important. Because just as the film sidesteps Carlson’s and Kelly’s problematic racist moments, it arguably uses the figure of the white queer to soft-pedal the network’s questionable racial politics. It’s Carr, the white gay producer, who matter-of-factly breaks down the nuances of O’Reilly’s racial politics — supports the wall, but against mass deportation — to Kayla.
Similarly, it’s through Kayla and Carr that we are introduced to Kelly’s white Santa moment. In an interview with the New York Times, Theron mentioned the inclusion of the white Santa moment as one of the ways the film didn’t shy away from Kelly’s complexities. Tellingly, though, it isn’t a significant part of the film’s actual narrative — it’s just included when Kayla watches a YouTube clip with Carr. “We don’t love Megyn Kelly because she thinks Santa’s white,” Kayla explains later, “we love her because she says it.” In this way, she parrots the allegedly nonideological, tell-it-like-it-is narrative that allowed for Kelly’s mainstream media rehabilitation.
The film’s depiction of harassment and the fallout from it is an important reality that many women experience, and that, until MeToo, rarely found its way into the mainstream cultural conversation. But it’s necessary to question the ways Bombshell uses white femininity and queerness to create audience identification.
Carlson is an unambiguous hero in part because she is seen as refusing to sell out to Fox News’ politics, which is only possible because her racial and trans politics aren’t represented in the film. Bombshell suggests Carlson is fired because she refuses to toe the company’s sexist party line. She tells her lawyers that Ailes has made comments like “You’re sexy but you’re too much work” and “to get ahead you have to give a little head.” Not incidentally, during her meeting with her lawyers, they bring up that she graduated summa cum laude from Stanford to emphasize her toughness in the battle ahead, credentials seemingly meant to remind viewers that she’s more impressive than she’s given credit for. (Rather than suggesting, for instance, how her elite education might have aligned her with the network’s, and broader media’s, class politics.)
Carlson is an unambiguous hero in part because she is seen as refusing to sell out to Fox News’ politics, which is only possible because her racial and trans politics aren’t represented in the film.
“You will be muzzled, Gretchen,” her lawyer warns Carlson in the final scenes. “Maybe,” she says, suggesting she’d ultimately break through that muzzle, while also presenting her as the heroic voice that made Bombshell possible.
Kayla, who is harassed quite graphically and invasively by Ailes in one of the film’s most sensitively rendered scenes, tries to confide in Carr as soon as it happens, but Carr asks her not to involve her; she can’t help, because she’s a “lesbian at Fox News.” Kayla hesitates coming forward, and after Carlson goes public, she calls Carr for advice while on a date with a man, but their conversation becomes about Kayla not being openly gay (in contrast to Carr).
We are meant to sympathize with the predicament of these queer white women because of the precariousness of their position at the network. The implication is that because Carr is a Hillary “liberal,” she’s in some ways outside the network’s racial power structure; yet the film could have complicated their worldview by using the narrative to question the way that their whiteness (and willingness to overlook racism) is what allows them to be at the network in the first place.
Kelly, meanwhile, goes back and forth on whether she should reveal that Ailes harassed her a decade earlier. It’s a difficult decision because Ailes ultimately promoted her, she points out, and because when Shepard Smith came out, Ailes told him he “didn’t care where he put his pecker.” Kelly feels like her own advancement and Ailes’ tolerance of a white gay man make Ailes not quite a monster in her eyes. Again, the film makes tolerance of white queerness a kind of litmus test for acceptability.
Both Kayla and Kelly ultimately decide to talk to the lawyers, helping lead to Ailes’ firing, and the framing of the aftermath is important. After Ailes’ firing, the Murdochs are depicted calling Trump after his win, even though they were once against him. This suggests a potentially dark worldview — that nothing has really changed. Kayla comes forward and leaves the network.
But in terms of the world of the network, perhaps the most important moment after Ailes leaves is when producer Carr puts a framed picture of her and her college girlfriend — which she had hidden earlier — back on her desk. It’s a melodramatic moment, implying that the Fox News family now has room for her and is now a potentially gentler, kinder place with Ailes out of the picture.
Every narrative has to create a moral universe, and in order to locate power in this film, it’s important to think about who represents the establishment and why. For Kayla, Carlson and Kelly represent the conservative establishment.
When Kelly is dealing with her post-Trump interview fallout, her husband says, “Honey, get real, you are the establishment.” He seems to be referring to the fact that Fox News has become part of the mainstream media. After her first post-debate interview, Kelly’s husband also tells her that she went too soft on Trump, and Kelly admits she needs to keep access to keep up their lifestyle. Most importantly, though, neither Kelly’s husband nor Kayla mean that Carlson or Kelly are the establishment as powerful white women in media. They are “establishment” in vague terms of class and media positioning, but can never be overtly represented as the establishment as powerful white women because then the film’s message would get too complicated.
To be legible as a mainstream movie, Bombshell has to participate in the kinds of narratives promoted by Fox News and mainstream media itself. Namely, that the distinction of liberal versus conservative, framed through debates about white feminism or homonormative gay rights, are somehow the most important political distinctions. This ignores the fact that, for instance, the overemphasis on those distinctions is itself a reduction of political possibilities, or the way that classism and racism in media cut across such distinctions.
To be legible as a mainstream movie, Bombshell has to participate in the kinds of narratives promoted by Fox News and mainstream media itself.
There is a kind of running theme in the film that you can’t leave Fox News because you’re tainted by association (both Carr and Kelly float that idea). The movie emphasizes the blowback Megyn Kelly receives after the Trump debate, including Trump calling her a bimbo, without also addressing the ways that moment also helped her secure a prominent spot in mainstream media. (Instead, there’s even a melodramatic scene asking us to sympathize with her as a mother, when her children are scared by a paparazzo at their hotel. There are later similar scenes of Carlson as a mother.)
Ultimately, the events depicted in the film helped Carlson reinvent herself as something of an authority on harassment, speaking at “Women at the Top: Women’s Empowerment” conferences, getting a “Justice for Women” television deal with Lifetime network, and even calling the tour for her memoir, Getting Real, “Be Fierce.” Kelly became a hero of lean-in empowerment with her own network morning show, landing a very lucrative deal with NBC after she left Fox News, where she pursued MeToo stories.
Despite lacking any morning show hosting experience, the immediacy with which Kelly was hired by NBC might have been a way of appealing to the time slot’s white minivan majority audience after the election. The fact that longtime network fixture Tamron Hall was passed over in the process is another reminder of the politics about race and gender in the media that Bombshell fails to acknowledge. (Kelly was later fired over a blackface controversy.)
We live in a moment when the complicated intersections between whiteness and gender are made evident by the fact that a majority of white women voted for Trump. But this film is still premised on the idea that conservative white femininity is something of an anomaly and “against women’s interests,” rather than in the interests of plenty of white women.
It would be more interesting if the film had helped explain — rather than participate in — the media’s normalization of radical, right-wing white women with racist, anti-gay, and anti-feminist views. This has a long history, from the era of Phyllis Schlafly (the subject of another current show) and Anita Bryant (subject of a forthcoming biopic), through that of Ann Coulter and Tomi Lahren. There is almost an affirmative action spot for such women on cable news and morning shows — including Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Meghan McCain on The View. There is no counterpart, for instance, of radical, left-wing women of color pundits or media figures given that kind of welcoming treatment by mainstream media.
In focusing on the sensational media mechanics and legal machinations of the Carlson and Kelly stories, the film successfully turns questions of power and harassment into a stylish Hollywood procedural-as-thriller. But its selective story about gender — and its refusal to complicate its racial perspective — missed an opportunity to provide a more nuanced analysis about how power works.
Bombshell was originally titled Fair and Balanced, which is, arguably, a more honest description of the kind of Hollywood-friendly liberal recuperation of Fox News culture that it’s actually portraying. But its new, suggestive title, playing on the double meaning of news scandal and blonde femininity, has helped sell the movie as a powerful, zeitgeist-y story about women speaking truth to power. The fact that it might become the MeToo movie of 2019 might be a more salient critique of the class and racial politics of Hollywood’s versions of women’s empowerment than anything the film depicts. ●