Does ‘Bombshell’ (2019) Represent What’s Wrong with Hollywood Today?

Bombshell came out late last year in the wake of numerous #MeToo allegations that have been dominating the film industry headlines since the explosive articles from both the New York Times and The New Yorker in 2017. With the recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein it seems relevant to discuss this, and talk about what women are tired of hearing: what is it like to be a woman in the film industry? As the comic Aparna Nancherla put it, “it’s 1% jokes and 99% answering this question”. 

The perception would be that things are improving, that female roles are increasing and becoming more complex, and that female characters are finally starting to represent what it is actually like to be a woman rather than a pawn in someone else’s story. But when the figures are scrutinised, it is clear that things are not improving, it’s simply a perception – a Hollywood sheen.

 Bombshell’s plot is inspired by the true events of Fox News’ infamous sexual assault allegations of 2016. The film follows News Anchors, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) – both based on real Anchors of the same name – as well as the fictitious character of Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) as they attempt to publically take down the sexual assault predator, Roger Aisles. At least, that is what the film intended to do.

Instead, what emerged in the aftermath of this devastating true story is a soulless film that completely misses the point. It seems more concerned with showing Margot Robbie’s underwear line than seeing the bigger picture. I was more concerned for these women having to re-enact the events rather than the characters themselves who they were portraying. Why is this? Why did they choose to sexualise Margot Robbie during what should have been one of the most traumatic instances of the film: during her sexual harassment? Why was this so sorely misjudged?  Look no further than the writer and director: Charles Rudolph and Jay Roach.

Surprised to hear that two men wrote and directed a film that centers entirely around the female experience? You really shouldn’t be. Despite #MeToo making things ‘feel’ different, the cold hard truth is that we still have a mountain to climb in terms of fair representation.

Although films featuring women increased from 21% in 2018 to 40% in 2019 according to the annuel Celluloid Ceiling Study, the percentage of women as major characters rose only 1% from 2018, to a mere 37%.  When it comes to women working in creative roles behind the camera though, the figures are far worse. In fact, they’re pretty dire. Women working as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers (all the creative decision making roles in film) on the top 100 grossing films of 2018 were a mere 20%.

Now you may be thinking, 20%? Sure 20% isn’t that bad. But when you contrast these figures with those of 1998, the rate of progress is truly revealed and it’s not exactly rapid. The percentage of women directing in the top 250 grossing films were 13%. This fluctuates slightly over the years, up from 8% in 2018 and 11% in 2017 but has only risen from a mere 9% in 1998. That is a ‘rapid’ progress of 4% in over 20 years.

The real shame is that the first teaser for Bombshell was so promising. Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman? All in one film? The teaser was sensational, all three women enter a lift, tense vocals inject this rich sense of suspense while the graphics fading over the top read: “What started as a whisper, will end as a bombshell”. Now that is a clear recipe for one intense thrill ride where women finally stand up to the man who has been harassing them for years and say: enough is enough. 

But instead of making this all guns blazing, punchy, inspiring and empowering film about women standing up ‘the man’ we have a film that instead chose to make jokes at the expense of the only lesbian working at Fox News, a character played by Kate Mckinnon. Just like the opening of the 2018 Golden Globes, these jokes somehow seemed less ‘woke’ when we know that they were ultimately written by a man, and more bordering on offensive.

This film was framed by people who will never be able to comprehend what it is to be a woman in our society. Men can empathise and to try and understand, but they will never truly know what most women have to endure. It’s clear that the world is built to support a certain system. Unless we allow the marginalised and underrepresented to share their voice on a mainstream stage, that system will never change. A film that should have been all powerful and more importantly empowering shrivels into something bordering on weak. The characters are unbelievable, and what should leave you punching some kind of metaphorical glass ceiling as you leave the cinema, instead will leave you deflated. Yet another film reminding us just how regressive the industry is.

In fact, Hollywood is less progressive than the US Senate. That’s a hard statistic to swallow given the dire state of US politics right now, and the fact that it’s not marginal makes it all the worse. In 1999 9% of senators were women, and 4% of directors were women. In 2018, nearly 20 years later, senators had increased to 25% while the percentage of directors stayed the same.

What came next was a barrage of social media campaigns where the three lead actresses innocently asked us “What advice would you give to the generation of women behind you?” with the #BombshellConversation. Now, with the utmost respect to these actresses, one piece of advice that would not go amiss may be along the lines of… work with other women? Ensure the projects you sign on to, especially given how much power such big names must amass in the industry, involve women at the most intrinsic creative level. Maybe make a promise to work with a female writer and/or director for your next project. Maybe, instead of asking the generation behind you that question, you should be asking yourselves? 

What’s more disheartening, however, is that all three leads were producers on the project. They actually did have the power to suggest a female writer/director. Which begs the question, why didn’t they? And if they had, would the outcome of the film be different? Would the outcome have been more empowering? What are they all so afraid of? Making another smash hit like Wonder Woman? In fairness, the contents of these two films are of course entirely different, but it stands to prove that female directed films can perform well in the box office and with critics alike. Of course women can and have made great films, and yet we’re still having to constantly remind everyone of that.

This isn’t to say that men can’t write for women, that is not the issue here. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a brilliant example of this, a film that centres both around complex male and female characters. In fact, some of my favourite films were written and/or directed by men. Bridget Jones’ Diary, Trainwreck, and the absolute perfection that was the first series of Big Little Lies. But what do all of these have in common? They originate from female works. Bridget Jones’ Diary was originally a book by Helen Fielding; Trainwreck was written by Amy Schumer; and Big Little Lies was based on the book by Liane Moriarty. But that’s the difference, isn’t it? All of the works above had women involved, at the very beginning, in fact, women were the driving force of the original story. With Bombshell? They excluded women entirely from the writing process.

So the question is not can men write for women, no we know that they can, the more important, burning, question here is rather should men write for women? Why wouldn’t you get a woman in there to write it when the stats on female writers are so dire? That’s what needs to be evaluated here. Rose Mcgowen’s anger towards Natalie Portman after her dress protest at the Oscars where she wore the names of female filmmakers despite rarely having worked with them, even though she has her own production company, suddenly doesn’t feel so aggressive now. If anything, her anger feels incredibly righteous. 

Hollywood needs to wake up and realise that investing in films about underrepresented groups is what makes box office hits. In 2018, it was found that films starring women actually make more money, and ones which passed the Bechdel test made even more. So what’s stopping Hollywood from making such films? The fact that they masquerade themselves as a business seems baffling when they don’t seem to listen to the market research.  

Margot Robbie’s closing statement in the film demonstrates this strange irony that is ingrained throughout the film:

“Will I be left out? Will I be defined by this for the rest of my life? If I stay do I just have to… put up with it? Will the next place be different? Or, can I make it different?”

Simply put and incredibly powerful. The closing statements in the film could have saved it. But it didn’t, and that is because if the writer has this level of understanding of what it is to be a woman, why didn’t he recognise how important and meaningful it would have been if he had stepped back and suggested a female writer to take his place? The most powerful films are ones written from experience. It’s a simple rule to live by but it’s an important one as, after all, no one can know your experience more powerfully than you. That is what fails this film, it’s makers have no inkling of what it is to be a woman having to navigate a deeply misogynistic working environment and to have your voice constantly silenced. Why didn’t he recognise his own privilege by turning down the role and finding a woman who could write it?

The fact of the matter remains. We may be getting there in terms of seeing women in front and centre, but we’re not necessarily living in a society that’s comfortable with women taking hold of the steering wheel. Which is a grave shame, as recent, astonishing, contributions to cinema are managing to get made, Queen and Slim being a seismic example of this, but they appear at a far slower pace. It’s the rarity of such great films that is gut wrenching. It begs the question, how much more interesting would mainstream films be if big production companies actually sought to make inclusive films?

All we can hope is that the production company sees this lack of women as the reason for the film’s failure, and not the fact that it was a film about women.