#MeToo on screen: From Bombshell to The Assistant, Hollywood's fictional examinations of the movement
The #MeToo and Time's Up movements sparked a paradigm shift, bringing some hope to the stories of survivors. In this two-part series, we look at documentary and fiction films which foregrounded the narratives of survivors while raising questions about the pervasive complicity machines that protected the Weinsteins of the world.
It's been nearly three years since the Pandora's box opened on Harvey Weinstein, and his downfall fuelled a worldwide reckoning on sexual violence against women. The #MeToo and Time's Up movements sparked a paradigm shift, bringing some hope to the stories of survivors. In this two-part series, we look at documentary and fiction films which foregrounded the narratives of survivors while raising questions about the pervasive complicity machines that protected the Weinsteins of the world.
In The Assistant, Kitty Green takes us away from the glamour of show business to a standard desk-and-cubicle production office. The film follows a day in the life of an assistant to a Weinstein-like studio mogul. Always the first to arrive and last to leave, Jane (Julia Garner) is tasked with everything, from photocopying documents to doing the dishes to cleaning the boss's office — the boring and routine tasks her colleagues refuse to do. While cleaning her boss's office, she finds an earring next to the couch. We know, and she knows, what's happened. From the frantic enquiries made by the boss's wife to the small-town waitress staying in a luxury hotel to the revolving door of aspiring actresses in his private office, it is clear this is a man abusing his position of power.
But we never see him or hear his name uttered. By disembodying the sexual harasser, Green highlights this is not an individual instance, but an institutional issue. She reinforces the idea that it is an issue that pervades the whole industry and that this man could be anyone. Green also never shows the act of harassment. The Assistant’s potency lies in its suggestions: the predator's nameless and faceless presence is evoked in every threatening phone call and email to Jane, every joke made about his sexual exploits by her colleagues, and every trace evidence of sexual assault he leaves. The fear and anxiety of these suggestions are reflected in Garner's eyes and wordless gestures, which also capture her internal conflict: whether or not to blow the whistle at the risk of derailing her own career. Herein, lies the power of fiction filmmaking: it finds truth in the unspoken moments, the omissions and even the lies.
Through the experiences of three women, Jay Roach’s Bombshell illustrates the truth of why sexual harassment survivors often refuse to come forward. Before Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) became the catalyst that brought down former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, she feared she might end up being the only one. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) was conflicted because the man who harassed her also championed her career, and she fears testifying might jeopardise everything she worked for. It was even harder for the Kaylas (Margot Robbie), the young ambitious women who were just starting their careers in the industry. In the film, the three characters share one scene together — a quiet elevator ride made all the more powerful because of it — but it reflects the truth about the lack of female solidarity in Fox News.
In a troubling scene, Kayla is summoned to Ailes’ office and she eagerly goes in expecting it to be the perfect opportunity to talk to him about her career. But what's waiting for her is a nightmare she can't possibly be ready for. Under the pretext that "TV is a visual medium", he asks her to stand up and give him a twirl. She complies, and tries not to make too much of it. He then asks her to pull up her dress — a little higher and higher — until we see her undergarments. Roach's staging and sequence of shots do not reflect the dehumanising nature of Ailes’ requests. The way the camera slowly descends on Kayla's body, Roach adopts the gaze of the tormentor rather than the tormented. It's a perfect illustration of the male gaze, one which objectifies and eroticises the female body even during a traumatic event. All he needed to do was keep the focus on Robbie's face, which alone conveyed the horror and humiliation — and would have made for a far more empathetic portrayal.
It's this lack of empathy that prevented Bombshell from having the emotional impact of other emblematic works of the post-#MeToo era. Its execution runs contrary to the spirit of the movement. In this interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Green explains why she was not a big fan of the film, despite its star-studded cast. "I think it's sensational in a way I find unsettling. I feel the way they chose to cover it ignores the broader systemic issues and cultural sexism at that company and focused instead on some high-powered people with problems. We may be rid of Harvey Weinstein, but the culture that keeps these predators in power and allows them to do what they do exists still. We need to unpick that a little more."
Green does exactly that in The Assistant, showing how the casting couch culture is normalised. In the film, everyone in the office is so familiar with the boss’ closed-door meetings with women that they joke about it. When one of them says in jest, "Never sit on the couch," everyone laughs. Except Jane, who can only internalise her shock at their collusion in enabling a serial predator to operate freely in the workplace. Green was a documentary filmmaker before she made her first feature film. So The Assistant feels enriched from the savvy gained from her past output. It is minimalist and realistic in all the right ways.
The same holds true with Jennifer Fox, a documentary filmmaker who made her feature debut with The Tale. Fox was 13 when she was sexually abused by her riding instructor. Thirty-five years later, she stages the story she told herself and the reality of what had happened. This exercise in introspection is reproduced with an unconventional narrative structure: Fox confronts ghosts from her past in an inner conversation, while confronting them in the flesh in the present. The flashback here is not just a narrative device, but a therapeutic one. She tries to recollect every detail, reconstruct every moment in the past to ensure her memory isn't betraying her. However, it isn't a betrayal, but a defense mechanism to prevent her world from collapsing — so, she can move on. Before #MeToo, women often had little recourse but to internalise this trauma. Now, films like The Tale inspire them to recover from it in their own way and at their own pace. Like Fox says in this Blood + Milk feature, "Memory can be protective in a good way and denial can also be helpful. I understand that the mind works in protective ways and people need to take the time they can and face things when they can. There’s no right or wrong speed for facing these things."
In the wake of this cultural awakening, some filmmakers have also integrated #MeToo-adjacent storylines into genre fare. In The Invisible Man, Leigh Whannell turns the classic monster movie into a metaphor for gaslighting and domestic abuse. The #MeToo movement also coincided with a new wave of rape-revenge films directed by women, like Natalia Leite's M.F.A., Coralie Fargeat's Revenge and Emerald Fennell's upcoming Promising Young Woman. Previously, these films — which were usually helmed by men — were often accused of radical feminism and the opposite: the exploitation of a woman's trauma. Now, they are no more collectively dismissed as a subgenre of exploitation films; they are instead marketed as "#MeToo revenge tales", as they have taken on a whole new meaning.
The narrative more or less follows the same three-act structure: rape, resurrection and revenge. A woman suffers an unforgivable act of sexual violence and is left for dead, she overcomes her physical and psychological traumas, and she punishes the perpetrators in brutal fashion. Coralie Fargeat reimagines a similar narrative in her debut feature, Revenge. Jen (Matilda Lutz) and her married boyfriend Richard decide to spend the weekend in a secluded getaway in the middle of a desert, accessible only by helicopter. Their plans are disrupted by the arrival of Richard's friends, Stan and Dimitri, who show up a day early for their annual hunting expedition. When Richard is away, Stan rapes her after she rejects his advances. Dimitri sees them but blithely ignores her cries for help — drowning them out instead by raising the TV's volume. On his return, Richard sees her distraught, realises what has happened and offers her hush money. When she refuses and threatens to inform his wife about their affair, he hits her. She runs, they chase after her, cornering her to the edge of a canyon before pushing her off it.
In her staging of the first act, Fargeat deliberately plays with exaggerated stereotypes. Jen is introduced as a Lolita-type figure: crop tops, short skirts, sucking on a lollipop in slo-mo. But it is still Jen who sets the rules of seduction. Fargeat frames her in the genre's own codes but the subtext is calling out the voyeuristic gaze, which treats women as expendable objects. She does not depict the rape in a graphic way, but uses symbolism which illustrate its grotesqueness: she switches to a close-up of Dimitri chomping on nougat candy and an ant crawling over a rotting apple. Richard, Stan and Dmitri embody the pernicious collusion of three masculinity types in rape culture: Richard is the pathological philanderer who can go from sweet to hostile if threatened; Stan is the "nice guy" who feels entitled to sex and can't tell the difference between friendly and flirty; Dmitri is all the men who turn a blind eye to sexual violence.
The symbolism is anything but subtle — and it is sure effective. When Jen cauterises her wounds with a beer can, its phoenix logo is branded onto her skin. This ritual of resurrection happens in a cave. Fargeat seems to suggest women have been reawakening from their traumas to hunt down their predators since prehistoric times. Unlike in rape-revenge films made by men, the male gaze transforms into a female one post-resurrection in Revenge. Like the title suggests, Fargeat is less interested in the rape, more in the revenge — and it's as bloody, brutal and satisfying as they come.
Indeed, even if these films stage the evolution of a woman from a passive figure to a vengeful angel, some questions still remain: Is subverting the male gaze of the rape-revenge film enough to reverse the tide of female objectification? Is the evolution of a woman from prey to predator enough to overcome the trauma? Can violence inflicted on the predator ever be commensurate with the trauma of the survivor? "Pseudo-empowering femininity" or a "feminist weapon for the #MeToo generation" — the jury is still out.
TV and streaming giants have followed the movies, tackling #MeToo themes across a whole season or a standalone episode. Unbelievable, based on a real life story, exposed a justice system that continually fails women. The Netflix drama traces the investigation of two detectives who eventually arrest a serial rapist, whose first victim was not only forced to recant her statement but charged with filing a false report. The Morning Show examines the notion of consent, after a celebrated news anchor is fired over sexual misconduct allegations. Sitcoms have also been tackling #MeToo in their own distinct comedic ways. In Season 14 of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the Gang is forced to attend a sexual harassment seminar after Paddy's Pub is named in a list of Philly bars hostile to women. The comedy comes from our awareness but their obliviousness to their toxic behaviours: be it Charlie openly stalking the waitress or Dee and Charlie's non consensual encounter. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Season 6 episode, "He Said, She Said", Santiago and Diaz are on opposing sides of an incredibly nuanced argument on bringing the harasser to justice vs accepting hush money. BoJack Horseman's Season 5 forced the titular Hollywood has-been to introspect on his inappropriate behaviours.
More recently, the HBO series I May Destroy You — like The Tale — is an example of how personal trauma can be turned into therapeutic art. Michaela Coel, who based the story on her own sexual assault experience, finds catharsis for herself and her fictional surrogate Arabella, a novelist who is drugged and raped while on a night out in London. But Arabella can't quite remember the details. With each fractured memory, comes a devastating piece of the puzzle of what happened, but she can't say it out loud. Articulating what happened will bring it all back, and she won't be able to suppress the trauma back into the dark recesses of her mind.
Reality and fiction co-exist in all these works. Even in Bombshell, which combines the real stories of several women into the fictional story of Kayla. After all, the epidemic of sexual violence cannot be studied in a single work of fiction or non-fiction. This is why documentary and feature filmmakers both feed off each other — and we need them both to arrive at the larger truth, the truth that diagnoses the epidemic and shapes the future of the #MeToo discourse.
— Featured image: Still from Bombshell
In part 2, analysing documentaries arising out of the #MeToo movement
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