Director Rachel Talalay on Bombshell, Sex Education, The Catch And Kill Podcast, Miss Americana, Tank Girl and #TimesUp.
There’s a revealing moment in Ronan Farrow’s harrowing and brilliant The Catch and Kill Podcast about his hunt for the Harvey Weinstein story. Fergus McIntosh, one of the fact checkers for The New Yorker, is tasked with verifying the details of the women who have recounted to Farrow some of their most intimate and rawest Harvey Weinstein stories. He speaks about the emotion of these calls, admitting that he has friends who had told him their stories and, while he had felt he was appropriately sympathetic and understanding, it wasn’t until he became involved with the Weinstein narrative that he really began to understand the depth and complexity of the damage.
It’s that complexity that has been preoccupying me recently. I started obsessing about the intersection of Bombshell, (Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes takedown movie) Netflix’s Sex Education, The Catch and Kill Podcast, and the women’s panel at 2018 Gallifrey One (Los Angeles Doctor Who convention). Not a likely data set for the Venn diagram to intersect. But the pain of assault/abuse/trauma is all around. [Ask any woman you know well enough, then prepare yourself.]
Let’s start with Bombshell. [Disclosure: I am a fan and friend of Jay Roach.] I do not inherently believe that only women can direct these stories. I was affected by the film. But the following exchange set me off.
Near the end of the movie, Kayla (Margot Robbie’s amalgamated character) approaches Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron):.
Kayla: Did you think what your silence would mean? For us? The rest of us?
Megyn Kelly: Roger is not my fault.
Kayla: I don’t get you. You have power. Why are you still playing by the old rules? You’re Megyn Kelly.
Megyn Kelly: Look around snowflake. How do you think I succeeded? How do you think a woman gets a prime time Fox show?
What the hell? Did they just do that? Miss all the salient points — in one swoop?! Undo the movie in one short scene?
The real Megyn Kelly had nothing to do with the movie. She, her husband, and a group of survivors of abuse at Fox News watched the movie and allowed cameras to catch their responses in real time. Afterwards she recorded half an hour of interviews assessing the reactions in the room.
You can watch here…
At this moment in the screening, her viewing party gasped. “It’s bullshit.” “ Victim Shaming.” “A man wrote that.”
When discussing it afterwards: “It’s unfactual.” “You were a real support system”.
Kelly defends herself: “I look at #MeToo and at no point does victim 17 blame harassment on 1 through 16.”
Yes! Right on! But then I thought, no, that’s because they are too busy blaming themselves. Because I’d heard it on the GallifreyOne Panel. I’d heard it all over The Catch and Kill Podcast. And I’d heard myself say it.
It’s our own Catch 22: If I’d said something, I could have helped others. Maybe I could have stopped it. But if I said something and nothing happened, or I was hurt, then I’ve empowered all the perpetrators (and damaged myself).
And then Megyn Kelly steps on herself and goes right to the guilt space. Her husband asks her if she would remove that scene from the movie. (Yes, I scream). And she says, “No, because when I look back, and I do wish I’d done more, even though I was powerless, even though it would have been suicidal career-wise, what if I had just said screw it? Maybe that wouldn’t have happened.”
There she is – sitting right next to women who did complain or reject Ailes and their careers were ruined. And still she’s finding a way to blame herself. She’s looking at women who did give up their careers — and she’s guilty about that. And she’s wondering whether she could have wielded her power sooner. She’s found another way to let Ailes own her. Even now.
What I really hate about the writing in that scene is that implies that she would have done anything for a hit show on Fox. If you watched that scene without the rest of the movie, you would believe that Megyn Kelly’s only positive ‘hit-show’ qualities were that she ‘performed’ for Roger Ailes.
I believe that scene should have been removed, not only for its lack of truth and its victim shaming, but because it creates guilt that continues to return the power to the abuser. We have to stop that.
At the 2018 GallifreyOne (Doctor Who) Convention in Los Angeles, I unexpectedly witnessed one of these revealing moments. I wish we didn’t need gender specific panels, although we had a remarkable group on stage, so I was curious to hear what the others would say.
If you haven’t read the blogs about the women’s panel at GallifreyOne, here are two detailed reports:
1) Whovian Feminism’s write-up of the panel: https://whovianfeminism.tumblr.com/post/171100560852/a-metoo-moment-unfolds-at-gallifrey-one
2) My observations and follow-up: https://www.denofgeek.com/us/culture/doctor-who/271468/doctor-who-metoo-and-why-gallifrey-is-done-waiting
The moment I want to discuss is when actor Wendy Padbury (Zoe, Doctor Who 1968-9) tells a story of sexual assault when she was new to the business. (This did not happen on Doctor Who.) She reveals secrets she’s been holding since she was 16. She tells a story of being sexually victimised that she has never told in public. The hall falls silent, but for the occasional sob from an audience member. Because the pain is our collection of these stories: those told and those still held in secret.
And Wendy does the same thing. She apologises for not having spoken out sooner. She blames herself for the potential that she could have stopped things from happening to others.
Why are we all guilty about being victims? It is not our fault. Megyn Kelly. Is it that once you had power, you should have done more? And when you didn’t have the power, you wonder if you should have had more spine? But, look at it — neither of these choices should have existed at all. You should not have been abused. That’s the bottom line.
That’s an important theme in Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein story (and Farrow is remarkable at weaving storylines, themes and emotions throughout his episodes, not to understate his incredible investigative reporting), but taken further and deeper (and still on-going). Most of Weinstein’s accusers were looking to get started in Hollywood. He dangled fame and fortune in front of them, then threatened them if they didn’t have stars in their eyes. He also ruined women’s careers.
The stories, as Ronan Farrow reports them, end up in the same place “I felt guilty about the women who were abused after I was”. Not “I’m mad that those who came before me didn’t protect me.” Because we feel empathy or sympathy for those who came before. We know they are living with their pain and the embarrassment that they “allowed it to happen”. Or didn’t stop it fast enough. Or took payouts to keep quiet. They are in court having their integrity and motivations questioned. They continued to talk to Weinstein even after the alleged assaults, so the assaults and rapes are said to be negated. Or they are guilty because they are still too scared to speak up.
So many judges. I wouldn’t have done that. Just say no. Don’t wear those clothes. Report it. Figure it out.
There is so much pain in The Catch and Kill Podcast. So many lives ruined for what they did or didn’t do. I was really taken by the bravery of every woman who had the courage to speak to Farrow. Each brings me to tears.
When the Weinstein story broke – in spite of my circling around indie movies in the 80s and 90s, I never met Weinstein — I found myself evaluating my own performance. Had I called out my harassers, the bullies I saw, the sexism on set, the predation? Had I done enough? Should I have refused to work with assholes and thieves and bullies and assaulters? Was it okay to laugh at sexist jokes on set, to fit in? To keep working? Could I justify my own behavior?
I wasn’t alone in this self-examination. I had numerous conversations with colleagues and friends, questioning our decisions and our behaviors over decades in Hollywood.
I recently had lunch with a director who had found out I had had an unwanted sexual encounter (groping) on a set of one of his movies many years ago. We were discussing how this would have been an actionable ‘thing’ now, but back then, it was just something that happened. For the record, the perpetrator is deceased and I bear no malice.
My 18 year old daughter was with me at lunch. She was curious why she hadn’t heard this story before. I explained that I wasn’t traumatized. I had seen it more like a hazing, a Hollywood thing I had to handle. “It was the way it was in those days,” we justify. I didn’t grow up at a time where ‘consent’ was discussed or required. My challenge had been to keep it from happening again, which I did by never being alone around this person.
When the director asked me why I hadn’t done anything about it, to my own surprise I answered “I thought it was my fault.”
“Every woman says that,” he exclaimed, both in affirmation and also, I sensed, a bit surprised that it came out of my mouth. But it just kind of fell out.
Oh, no, I thought. I’m my own cliche. How curious and unexpected.
So I started the laundry list of encounters I’ve had with sexual harassment. My gender neutral clothing choices (teenage boy-chic? Or desperate fashion violations?) are hardly a man magnet. But it didn’t stop men from letting me know they had interest, which I largely ignored. Sometimes I was later told I lost jobs because I hadn’t reciprocated. I don’t know how true this is. How does one prove those things? Most of my issues were less sexual predation and more simple gender bias. “We don’t want women directors.” But that’s another story. Another long one.
At least I can say that there are two specific times that I stopped the harassment of someone else. I hope there are more than that, but these stand out. It was in the 80s when a powerful executive made sexual advances on a younger production staff member right in front of a group of us. I looked at the target and saw her surprise and confusion. I jumped in and told him to stop. I was lucky it wasn’t Harvey Weinstein. My career would not be a career if I’d been so bold. Later she thanked me and told me it taught her it was okay to say no. Not just okay, it was fine, it was right. Fortunately. Because you don’t always know that you can, especially when the man is powerful and/or you are young or new. (It also doesn’t always work – obviously!)
Once, relatively early in my producing career, I was interviewing production manager candidates. I was surprised to receive a seemingly random phone call from a line producer. He wanted to ‘caution me’ that the candidate I liked was ‘problematic’ and perhaps not up for the job.
I am not sure what made me do the right thing, but instead of rejecting her outright, I brought her into my office and asked her about it. The blood drained from her face and I saw her assessing what she should tell me. It transpired that she had rejected the line producer’s advances and now he had a vendetta. To this day, we both wonder what would have happened to her now very successful career if I had simply listened to him. Because, from our job together, she met her next employers. And so on. Because, of course, Hollywood is all about connections. I’m not taking credit for her success. But even a small glitch could have been the end.
Continuing to assess my own performance, other times, when harassment was gender-based, but not sexual, I allowed it to happen – both to me and in front of me. I did not call out bullying of colleagues. I sat embarrassed and hoped it wouldn’t come my way. I let myself be bullied rather than upset the applecart, seem ‘difficult’ or emotional or complaining. I was accused of many things, told by crew members that they would ‘get me’. I allowed gas-lighting. I shut up.
Even recently, even after sitting through more sexual harassment and workplace behavior training seminars, I did not call HR when I was told by a young female worker about inappropriate behaviour from a man in a position of power. She asked me not to. She told her supervisor, I told another supervisor, but no one took it any further. She didn’t want to lose her opportunities to work and she was well aware of the likely repercussions.
I was angry. Angry that even with all this dialogue, the cycle felt unchanged — that it didn’t seem worth doing anything. I complimented her bravery for saying no. I couldn’t suggest she take the complaint further, because I did not think it would help her and I did think it could hurt her.
At least some stories are being told. I so appreciated watching Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana. Her emotions feel real and raw as she talks about the horror of her harassment trial: how she, who had popularity and money and a photograph and witnesses on her side, was still subjected to so much abuse. And how this led to her appreciation that if she, who has advantage, still went through the demeaning accusations, how can there be any justice for the victims with no power?
Of course, as Swift says, Hollywood is the tip of the iceberg. What about the everyday worker? I have a young friend who was sexually assaulted by another worker at her job. She had a menial job, his was seen as more important.
I evaluated the situation, her newness, her vulnerabilities, and told her what I thought would happen — he would deny it, she would be accused for her clothing, for seeing him outside the workplace. He would say it was consensual. The employers would not want to lose him. Or punish him. And that she risked a bad reputation.
She chose to report to her supervisor and it was downhill from there. She was forced to leave her job while nothing happened to him. It’s a little piece of hell to tell a young woman that she is better off remaining silent than risking losing future recommendations or worse. And now she has trauma. She blames herself. She has PTSD.
I was heartbroken. Where is the change?
We are growing another generation of women who are not believed.
This is everyday life. Breaking girls.
I read the army of comments on social media any time a woman chooses to step forward with a late accusation. The commenters blame and don’t believe: “Why didn’t you just say something? Why didn’t you speak up earlier? It can’t have happened if you still talk to the guy.” And we point to Christine Blasey Ford and we are shattered.
During a break, I binged Sex Education Series 2, the farcical, entertaining, educational, pop cultural romp
through teen hormones. It turned out to include a resonant and important commentary on sexual assault.
(Spoiler alert for Sex Education season two)
When an unlikely, disparate group of girls is put in detention and the teacher wants to find an assignment that will distract them so she can sneak off for a quickie, she ask them to find something that binds them together, knowing that that is a near impossible ask. They can’t even agree on everyone liking chocolate.
Aimee is among the group. In an earlier episode, she is assaulted on the bus by a man who rubs himself against her and ejaculates on her clothing. She’s a B-storyline but we’ve been watching her quietly slip into depression and despair through the following episodes. She isn’t talking about it and she clearly needs help. She has told her friends but she keeps repeating that she is fine.
Finally the group notices her dismay and this leads to each girl telling their own sexual assault story. Sadly, they have finally discovered the one thing they have in common.
Viv tells the simple story that when she was a kid, a man flashed her in a swimming pool. When she told her parents, she was no longer allowed to go to the pool. Yes, telling and true, she is the one who is punished.
She then states the facts: “Statistically two thirds of girls experience unwanted sexual tension or contact in public places before the age of 21.”
At the end of the scene, the teacher returns, having determined that they had been held in detention for a crime none of them committed (of course it was committed by a guy). As they file out of the room, the teacher asks, ‘Did you figure it out, what binds you together?”
The answer is a throw away. “Other than non-consensual penises, Miss, not much.”
The group then decides to ride the bus with Aimee. There’s the sweet sense that we can help each other. That we are not alone. It’s not sentimental nor unrealistic. Aimee is not instantly cured and everyone isn’t fast friends. But she is not alone. And it makes a difference to her.
But I also took away the stories of the others — the collective trauma is something they have learned to shrug away. It happens. To us. Deal with it.
It’s never that simple, of course. Trauma is trauma. But every time we say it is our fault, we empower the perpetrator. The abusers are not feeling guilt. They are denying. Or even celebrating. It feels as if their greatest regrets are not getting away with it… or not continuing to get away with it.
But guilt should be for the wrongdoer – to bring on repentance. And, ideally, apologies. Not denial, then accusations.
We cannot live the Sex Pistols’ “No Future”. We need a new playlist.
My daughter and I debated the music. I love the contemporary rejection of being owned by heartbreak, like Ariana Grande’s thank u next and Taylor Swift’s I Forgot That You Existed. Halsey’s Women March Poem tears me inside. Maya Angelou is always a go-to, and I pushed for Petrol Girls Touch Me Again. Oh, and what about Lizzo reclaiming the word bitch? “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch”.
But she wanted me to use Ice-T’s rap “Big Gun” from my alter ego Tank Girl. Written for the movie in 1994. It’s revolutionary, but a couple of my friends were worried. Is it too much gun-violence? And why give the last word to a guy? So here it is: the gun is a metaphor, we need men in our revolution, rap isn’t evil, we can’t be afraid and I’m not wimping out.
I love that Ice-T wrote this for us in 1994. Lucy, I’m bringing it for you.
The most venomous feminist, homey she ain’t soft
You give her trouble then she might cut your head off
She said she gotta cause she says a lot of ladies won’t
She said she gotta cause she says a lot of ladies don’t
She said she gotta cause she says a lot of ladies can’t
She said she gotta cause she knows a lot of ladies
Romance the thoughts of giving men their own medicine
Electrocute them, light them up like Con Edison
She got no fear, five rings in her ear
Holes in her nose, way out clothes
Living life to the fullest, buckshots and bullets
Triggers she’ll pull it, Earth she wanna rule it
You’ll never know where she’ll coming from
She walks softly but she carries the big gun
Watch out. #Times Up.
Lead image: BigStock
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