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Bombshell: Below the Belt

Bombshell is a below the belt movie. Specifically legs. Even more specifically, shoes. While director Jay Roach does not spend really any time fetishising shoes in the film – no lingering shots of prancing heels or gratuitous leg pans, it is clear that this area of the body is emblematic of how women were objectified by a creepy slug of a man called Roger Ailes (played by John Lithgow), aka former Chairman and CEO of Fox News.

Apparently Fox does not actually have an official dress code, in much the same way as vaping does not officially make you look stupid, but as is evident during one telling scene in Bombshell, when the female anchors change from their ‘civvie’ attire into barely breathable sheath dresses held in with salad lunches and copious Spanx, a look was obviously ‘encouraged’. Basically ‘we can’t tell you to dress this way… but dress this way’. The Fox news audience likes to see a bit of leg, a bit of cleavage, but not too much. This is a conservative viewer base and while a flash here and a flash there is harmless ogling, anything more is just, well, sluttish. Not a station to dabble in irony, Fox – or more accurately Ailes during his tenure there – see this as the brand. How women got ahead in this environment was to play by the sartorial rules, a ‘give the boys what they want’ kind of affair. It’s all harmless fun until Aisles decides he wants oral sex in returned for continued employment.

Bombshell is based on fact, dramatising several accounts of women who worked at Fox that were sexually harassed by Roger Ailes. The main trio focused on in the film, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisill (Margot Robbie) are dressed in an ostensibly similar way, as per the Fox ‘look’. Heels are a must, as is a skirt length that is short enough to reveal a glimmer of skin, but not enough to upset Aunt Aurora in Montana. There is a reason the desks these women sit behind are clear. The heels have to be high, no less than three inches. Elongate the leg for the male gaze, not just in front of the camera but while they stroll through the corridors of their workplace casually deflecting sexist banter and leering stares saved up for a trip to the bathroom. Costume designer for Bombshell, Colleen Atwood, a multi Oscar winner best known for period and fantasy movies such as Chicago (2002), Nine (2009) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2013), researched tape after tape of the lead characters, definitely their clothes and shoes, but their demeanor, too. There is only one way to walk wearing that much Spanx and that’s upright, chest out, bottom out, tummy in.

Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and John Lithgow as Roger Ailes. Costume designer Colleen Atwood recreated most of the outfits worn by the central cast verbatim.

High heels are seen as an oppressive form of footwear. Uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, they are a product of the heterosexual male gaze and its need to preserve women in a time warp of eye fodder. They are the method by which men will accept women in the workplace holding positions of power, because as high as they might rise they could literally and figuratively topple at any moment. Conversely, of course, some women find heels empowering. In the context of Bombshell, when Megyn Kelly marches confidently through Fox News she stands tall and in command, probably as tall as most of the men in the building. Her character in this story is perhaps ‘playing the game’ the most, at least initially. Willing to fall into line after on-air comments about her menstruating from presidential candidate Donald Trump and still zip herself into that stretchy dress every day. Yet, as we see through the eyes of up and coming, and younger, talent Kalkya Pospisill, because Roger has been indulged for so long, he has become more and more of a monster. Insatiable and insulated. He asks to see Kayla’s legs during her ‘interview’ which as a confident and agreeable girl, she gladly does. She’ll play the game, too. But then Ailes asks the hem to be raised further and further until her underwear is exposed and he is practically foaming at the mouth. She leaves the room shocked, promptly mentions the incident to a colleague and is immediately shut down. No-one, it seems, wanted any part of acknowledging Ailes and his behavior. Can we really blame them? They had lives, families, dependents and one nod from Ailes would mean they’d never work in the industry again.

Roger Ailes likes legs, and if there were in any doubt he explicitly mentions it in the movie. What Bombshell does through costume, apart from expertly recreating the actual outfits these women wore, is align our gaze with Ailes’. We may not like it, we may not feel comfortable, but to understand the beast we needed to get down to his level.

Bombshell is currently on general release.

© 2020, Lord Christopher Laverty.