It was such an emotional, unexpected moment, and I found myself wondering, not for the first time, what made Conway tick. How did she identify with, or not identify with, the #MeToo movement? Had she ever wondered how she might feel if someone dismissed her experience, as she’s dismissed the testimonies of the 20-plus women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct?
The first big-budget, post-#MeToo dramatization about sexual harassment opens this month in theaters around the country. It’s not about the liberal activists who invented the hashtag or the liberal actors and politicians who championed it. “Bombshell,” starring Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, is about the toppling of Fox News founder and alleged serial sexual harasser Roger Ailes. So really, it’s about the experiences of a group of strong conservative women.
The characters in “Bombshell” suit up every morning in the Ailes-mandated uniform of short skirts and teetering heels because they dearly believe in the channel’s mission. They’re women who, after a producer in one scene mentions the New York Times, utter a collective, vocal “ugh.” In another scene, a devoted employee has a lesbian sexual encounter. Does she feel conflicted about sleeping with a woman? her paramour asks afterward. The Fox employee, noticing a Hillary Clinton poster in the bedroom, replies that she a) wants it to be clear she’s not gay, and b) is mostly horrified she slept with a Democrat.
More than anything, the movie is about women who repeatedly announce, “I’m not a feminist.”
Megyn Kelly’s character says it not once but three times. In a staff meeting about an upcoming presidential debate, Kelly, who will be the debate moderator, shares her plan to ask then-candidate Trump about his derogatory statements toward women. “Is this some feminist thing?” a wary colleague replies — as if only an unhinged misandrist would object to a man calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Kelly’s team immediately runs interference: “She’s not a feminist,” they say in panicked unison.
We could quibble here about the definition of “feminist” and argue that anyone fighting against slamming women for their appearances actually is one, at least on some level. But the relevant information is that Kelly doesn’t see herself that way. Neither does a fictional composite character played by Margot Robbie — an ambitious reporter named Kayla who cites watching Fox News as a cherished communal tradition in her family.
They don’t want to overhaul the system; they like the system just fine. They would simply prefer that as they moved through the system, their bosses stopped demanding to see their underwear.
“Bombshell” is a feature film, not a documentary, but it brings up interesting questions. How should a movement pushing for mass social change fold in women who are happy with the status quo? Who carry tremendous personal pain, but who are lukewarm on policy shifts that might stem pain for thousands of victims? And is feminism an identity or can it be actions undertaken by conflicted figures who drag stubborn institutions toward equality?
“My parents are Fox people,” screenwriter Charles Randolph shared at a recent Washington screening of “Bombshell.” As he figured out how to tell a compelling story of sexual harassment, he thought of his family. His mom and dad might doubt the broader #MeToo movement, but they could identify with Megyn Kelly; They watched her every night. Telling the story from her perspective, Randolph said, “would connect it to the idea that this isn’t a partisan issue. Maybe my parents would pay attention to a woman who doesn’t consider herself a feminist.”
At the same event, Theron talked about her struggle to portray Kelly, whom she finds emotionally inscrutable and politically distasteful, with the right notes of humanity. “I want to believe we can all be terrible, and we can all still have a moment where we shine,” Theron said.
Which is, of course, the way to think about it. Good women, bad women, liberal women, conservative women, black women, white women, rich women, poor ones — none of them deserve to be sexually harassed, ever.
What I appreciated about “Bombshell,” though, was its willingness to let the stories of these women be messy and complicated. Theron’s Kelly is ostensibly the hero, but when she tells Robbie’s Kayla that Kayla will be supported if she goes to HR to report her harassment, Kayla asks why Kelly never reported her own. It would have paved the way, she says, for more junior female employees. Kelly’s face turns stony as she explains she had her own career to think about. Her feelings about Ailes are conflicted. Yes, he grabbed her and forcefully tried to kiss her. He also championed her career and, at times, offered mentoring that was entirely platonic.
This feels right, and true to life. The #MeToo movement isn’t filled with saintly women and individual bad men. It’s filled with complexities — women who turn the other cheek because they don’t want to jeopardize their own success. Women who don’t immediately do the “right” thing because, frankly, it’s not even clear what the right thing is half the time. Women who have been harassed or assaulted themselves, but can’t believe that someone like Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh — or Bill Clinton or John Conyers Jr. — could be guilty of it. Abusers who have been genuinely wonderful friends and advocates to some victims, while making others’ lives miserable.
Even bad men aren’t bad all the time. They’re human, of course. And even “heroes” aren’t good all the time. They’re human, too.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.