A Filmic History Of Harassment From 9 to 5: Disclosure to Bombshell

Susan Hopkins explores a filmic history of sexual harassment through films containing an array of representations across film culture. This filmic analysis highlights the changes and consistencies throughout time.

Lived histories of feminism are reflected and reworked in films and popular culture. We can trace the trajectory of shifting understandings of gendered identities through key films as representative texts. Just as gender roles have changed dramatically since the 1980s, filmic representations of sexual harassment have also evolved. This is particularly evident in recent films informed by feminism in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Most recently, the film She Said (2022) directed by Maria Schrader, covered the New York Times and New Yorker investigation into Harvey Weinstein. This case will perhaps be remembered as the apogee of discussion of sexual harassment in Hollywood. However, She Said is only the latest in the recent history of US films on the topic.

These mostly fictional films loosely follow the real life trajectory of feminist activism against sexual harassment. From more radical resistance to hetero-patriarchal capitalism in the 1970s and early 1980s, to resisting the Backlash forces and discourses of the later 1980s and 1990s. To the mainstreaming of commercial and liberal feminism in the 2000s. And finally to the current intersectional post #MeToo and post pandemic era of activism, which is questioning the limits of liberal feminism.

9 to 5: Pop culture’s examination

Looking back, the 1980 film 9 to 5 directed by Colin Higgins included an early attempt to address sexual harassment through popular culture from a female perspective.

The film is first and foremost a comedy. In 1980, feminists were certainly fighting to have sexual harassment taken seriously, instead of being widely viewed as some kind of sleazy joke or mildly embarrassing private matter. The film was also a powerful satire on women’s real historical workplace experiences. It explicitly mentions the lack of unionisation and unequal rates of pay as a key part of the wider narrative. The film was at least in part inspired by the real life ‘9to5’ group, a multi-racial alliance of female office workers who banded together in Boston, Cleveland, and other American cities in the 1970s to organise collectively and improve their working conditions.

The film 9 to 5 includes images of secretaries chained (at one point, literally) to their electronic typewriters in (as one of the characters astutely puts it), a “pink collar ghetto” of low pay, low status work.

We witness unwanted invitations to  ‘conferences’ which turn into ‘dates’, inappropriate physical contact, insults and suggestive jokes. These women were forced to endure these experiences from their leering male boss, Frank Hart. The Hart character is described in film dialogue as a ‘sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot’. However, he is mostly constructed as a joke and the women’s creative ways of managing him are played for laughs.

By the 1990s, liberal feminism had made substantial advances (at least for white, middle-class women). This was not only in achieving legal-judicial redress for workplace discrimination and harassment, but in repositioning sexual harassment as a workplace issue that needed to be taken seriously. Yet, as feminist journalist and cultural theorist Susan Faludi pointed out in 1991, a subsequent, hostile ‘backlash’ emerged. In the movies and real life, dominant men were retaliating against feminist advancement through narratives about evil and desperate women.

Disclosure: a response to 1990’s trends

The film Disclosure (1994) directed by Barry Levinson, attempted to turn the tables to position men as the ‘real’ victims of aggressive career women.

“I Believe Anita Hill” button, 1991. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It remade the old manipulative ‘vamp’ filmic stereotype. A female villain that used anti-discrimination and harassment legislation to advance her career through lies and intimidation. The film reflects and reproduces right-wing political narratives of victim-blaming dominant in the 1990s. This was also evident in media misrepresentations of real life cases, such as Anita Hill’s sexual harassment case against American Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Like other infamous film thrillers of the period (including Fatal Attraction), Disclosure played to male paranoia, fears and fantasies about strong and sexual, independent women at work. It was part of a wider reactionary 1990s trend toward filmic framings which linked female sexuality and ambition to pathology and unbridled “evil.”

The implausible narrative of Disclosure features sexy and ambitious career woman Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore). Meredith forces herself sexually upon a hapless male colleague and innocent family man (Michael Douglas). She proceeds to steal his promotion, ruin his career, and make a false sexual harassment allegation against him out of spite. In the moral-political meaning of backlash narratives, powerful career woman is punished and humiliated. Meanwhile, the heterosexual family man is redeemed in a happy Hollywood ending.

The Guilty & The Assistant: contrasting perspectives

The 1999 film, The Guilty, directed by Anthony Waller, is another American thriller which recycles gender mythologies, presenting female characters as villains or victims. Unlike empowered heroines of later female-oriented films, the female lead of The Guilty is what might be termed a stereotypical, ‘total’ victim of traditional crime thrillers. With no agency, she doesn’t report her abuser (her boss) and is eventually brutally murdered. This illustrates how corporate cultures, even within law settings, can protect powerful men and their secrets.

A more recent film, The Assistant (2019) directed by Kitty Green. does a better job of illustrating how powerful predators are often enabled by their employees. We witness obsequious underlings and competitive colleagues only too happy to frame female complainants as ‘difficult’ or ‘damaged’ troublemakers. Films like The Guilty and The Assistant illustrate how lack of confidence, shame, and fear of economic vulnerability can prevent younger women from speaking up in the first place. When the assistant attempts to raise concerns with the Human Resources Department, the film lays bare uncomfortable truths about the modern neoliberal workplace.

It is a workplace which embraces liberal feminist rhetoric about individual rights and equal opportunity on the surface. In practice, though, it conceals predatory cultures of competition, alienation and failures of leadership.

In The Assistant, the viewer never actually sees the media boss predator on screen. Instead, our attention is directed to the toxic team and transactional corporate culture that supports the boss. The shadowy victim of his harassment also remains unseen in the film. This is a powerful filmic technique, given that the problem is not really about her. It is really about ‘us’– the viewers, the voyeurs and bystanders who prefer not to get involved.

Bombshell: elevating the voices of #MeToo

Bombshell (2019) directed by Jay Roach is another influential film inspired by recent feminist activism and the #MeToo moment.

#MeToo movement protestors. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Credit to Alec Perkins.

Unlike The Assistant’s protagonist, the leading women of Bombshell are glamorous, hyperfeminine media stars. They seem to be constructed as palatable female avengers for mainstream commercial audiences. All three lead female characters (played by Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron) are conventionally attractive, relatively young, white, blonde, affluent women with high-status careers in the culture industries. Most enjoy apparently loving and supportive relationships at home.

The Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron characters in particular are the virtuous superwomen of liberal feminist fantasies. They are willing to challenge dominant white men at work to achieve their individual career goals. But they are also carefully constructed in the film as traditional “good” women. Despite being under pressure at work, these female characters are featured frequently as loving wives and mothers, emphasising their traditional feminine role.

Despite being subject to bullying, intimidation and unwanted sexual behaviour, these Hollywood heroines remain poised, well-spoken and well-connected with middle-class ideals. I confess, these crusading Supermom stereotypes of the 2010s leave me with a guilty nostalgia for the filmic, action antiheroines of the 1990s, who were anything but
maternal and polite.

By the happy Hollywood ending of Bombshell, our heroines are even more famous, wealthy and successful individuals. As affluent and well-educated white women they are able to easily access the legal-judicial system as well as their own social capital. The film ends with the Nicole Kidman character walking away with $20 million. An almost unimaginable sum, even for the privileged minority with capacity to sue or complain about their employer. Similarly, She Said essentially portrays famous or well-educated insiders exposing predatory behaviours of dominant men in media industries.

She Said also emphasises that its leading women are also loving mothers. This is presumably to play to mainstream audiences and their assumed family values. While obviously influenced by #MeToo feminist activism, these US films focus on individualising liberal feminism.

Where does that leave us?

Undoubtedly, these popular films have done important cultural work. They mark significant points in collective memory. These films highlight the sexism and misogyny women still face in the workplace. They trace shifting social attitudes toward sexual harassment.

Films like The Assistant remind us that creating a safe and respectful workplace is everyone’s responsibility.

Bombshell and She Said position women as heroes, not just victims. Critical analysis of these representative filmic texts highlights more radical and inclusive approaches to ensuring workplace respect remain necessary. Approaches that do not place the onus on women to be “good” moral care givers or virtuous victim-survivors as defined by hetero-patriarchal Hollywood.



Susan Hopkins is an Associate Professor of communications based in UniSQ College at the University of Southern Queensland, Springfield campus, Australia. Susan holds a PhD in social science and a Masters (Research) in education. Her research interests include gender and media studies.


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