Last weekend I watched the 2019 movie Bombshell. I had not heard about it, and I ended up seeing it for the suggestion of Prime’s “you might enjoy this” algorithm. I had no idea about the story of Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly’s legal battle for sexual harassment against Fox News’ master Roger Ailes. The movie was not very long, but it was intense. It portrayed really well the misogyny expected to be found in such a workplace led by a mighty, egotistic man like Roger Ailes.
A good part of the movie, we join Kayla Pospisil, Margot Robbie’s fictional character, in her quest to become a host in the news. So we go with her into Roger’s office and witness what an interview with that man was. It was about “loyalty” and intended to “prove” that she had what it took to earn a place in one of the most competitive work environments. **Content warning: description of workplace sexual harassment to follow** Obviously, it meant that she had to sleep with him because how else could a woman with a hot body prove she is competent? Immediately she was forced to show him her legs because legs sell good on T.V., and then we get to see her underwear because he was too turned on and couldn’t stop himself. **End Content Warning** Thanks to Robbie, we also feel the panic, surprise, and horror of a naïve girl trying to get a dream job in the real world.
When the movie finished, out of the blue, I burst into tears. I cried for five minutes straight, feeling anger, sadness, and indignation. It could seem silly since the heroines in the movie “won” at the end. Roger had to resign, Gretchen got a public apology with a 20 million compensation, and women could finally wear pants in the Fox News studios. I had a mix of reasons for my reaction, identifying first the amazement of knowing that even powerful, privileged, white women go through that kind of abusive experience. It seems obvious now since multiple scandals related to movie stars, producers, and company owners have been so public worldwide lately. But seeing people’s faces and watching these real women’s stories was striking. They were afraid to talk. Damn it! Being powerful, having contacts and networks, being evidently talented, and having a history in the media, was not enough to prevent them from being afraid of speaking up.
Of course, their fight was against Fox, a monster, but still. They were terrified about losing their jobs and being “that woman,” the one pointed out as a liar, as menopausal, the crazy lady. They had been fighting other monsters and facing terrible critiques before, like Megyn Kelly in the Trump’s interview scandal. But in this particular case they saw their personal fears come true in people’s merciless reactions: “she’s doing this for the money,” “she should have resigned first before suing,” “why she did not speak before?” “I’ve known Roger for years, and he wouldn’t be capable, so she must be looking for personal vendetta since she’s old now,” etc. Their story showed the industry’s true colors, one built on patriarchy, and its extensive influence on ordinary U.S. people’s opinions.
But me, witnessing these women’s struggles was not the main reason for my weeping. It was because it revived my own experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace. I felt indignation because I saw myself in that foreign story. It made me remember my experiences of fighting and resisting all the time in a culture that normalized men’s sexual advances to women in the workplace and turned it into an “it’s just a joke” pile of situations.
So here it goes: I became a psychologist in July of 2011. (Ten years ago, OMG) and my first job was in the Bogotá’s Chamber of Commerce. I was part of a social program aimed to encourage peace projects in schools of Bogotá located in highly violent neighborhoods. My main coworkers were teachers, counselors, and school principals, most of them men. One-on-one meetings with some of these men could turn tense since the conversation sometimes ended up being about my outfit, my age, my background, and my marital status. “A pretty young woman like you should walk carefully in neighborhoods like this.” A good-intentioned statement paired up with bizarre grinning, too-close body proximity, and a look from head to toe. My responses had to be a smile followed by a “thank you” and a “going back to the project goals.” It was exhausting.
But the cherry on the top of that ice-cream job came surprisingly and unexpectedly at the hands of a teacher that I trusted because he was young, graduated from a known university, and had proven to be of great help strengthening the social program in that school. Let’s call him Mr. M. One day, starting the workday, he invited me to his classroom to have coffee while we waited for the kids and other teachers. We were almost alone in the building, but I had no reasons to suspect or be afraid. **Content Warning: description of workplace sexual harassment to follow** Once we were alone, he locked the door, shut the curtains closed, and grabbed me tight towards him. He tried to kiss me. I tried to push him away unsuccessfully while he repeated “I know you want this. It is only one kiss.” I managed to push him away while being completely terrified, almost petrified. **End Content Warning“
I pulled myself together and went back to my schedule because I had a class to teach. At lunch, he followed me and told me to keep the incident secret because speaking could hurt my job. I went back home that night feeling guilty, wondering what I had done that he misunderstood, what signals I had sent to provoke him. Was it my outfit? That I smile too much and make jokes? That I am too inappropriately friendly? I cried that night, unable to tell my husband the truth, fearing that he could get mad at me.
I did not keep “our secret,” though. The next day I told my supervisor at the Chamber of Commerce, who encouraged me to write an official statement demanding a formal investigation and immediate sanctions to Mr. M. We set a meeting with the school’s principal, I shared the situation, he expressed his concern, and that was basically it. He did nothing. There was never an investigation or sanction. They removed me from the project, and Mr. M is still a philosophy teacher in that High School.
I asked a couple of attorney friends what my options were, which were none since there was no physical evidence of his misconduct, and it would become a “she says-he say” case. In fact, he could beat me in court in a case of “slander and perjury.” The few people who believed my story in the school dug a bit deeper and found months later that Mr. M. had had several inappropriate interactions with students in exchange for good grades in past years. If they dared to talk about it, he threatens them with bad grades or reviews. But I had no energy to start the fight again. Mr. M. had said terrible things about me, I had no job, and I was trying to recover from the traumatic experience. I felt miserable for not standing up for those girls, but I was out of hope. I stopped believing in Colombian justice and committed to interceding for God’s justice to come.
The great things about Part 1 of the story are, first, that my supervisor was a magnificent woman who stood by me the whole time. She believed every single word of my story, and once I left the project, she kept fighting for me inside the monster – because the Chamber is a monstrous company worried only about profit and reputation. Second, when I finally told my husband and shared with him the thoughts and guilty feelings I had when I left the school that day, he couldn’t be more accurate and loving when he said, “none of what happened was your fault.” He helped me understand that a sexual assault is never deserved or provoked. Just like in the Bombshell, strong women supporting each other and lovedones are fundamental to remaining alive amid the storm. All my gratitude to them.
Please follow me to Part 2. It doesn’t get better (lol), but I want to share some final reflections and conclusions with you, my beloved FAR community. Thanks for reading me till this point.
Laura Montoya is from Bogotá, Colombia. She is a Psychologist, devoted to work alongside communities affected by the 60 years of war in her country. Currently, she is a second-year student in the Masters of Divinity program at Boston University School of Theology. She is also a FAR intern and Office Assistant in the Anna Howard Shaw Center. Due to the pandemic, she is living in her hometown with her husband, a baby dog named Joy, and two lovely cats, Agustin of Hippo and Consentido.