Many years ago, I went to a preview screening of a film. I knew very little about it but the premise sounded interesting — a female buddy action flick starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. It started out as a light-hearted adventure, a couple of chicks in a mint-green Cadillac convertible, a weekend getaway.
Some 20 minutes later, after Sarandon’s character Louise had shot and killed a rapist and the two women were on the lam from the FBI, I was changed forever. It wasn’t the rape scene, although I remember the physical shock of that moment cutting a zigzag path down my spine like a small lighting strike. It was the sense that some line had been crossed, and there was no return. As Davis’s Thelma says in the movie, “I can’t go back, I just couldn’t live.”
I had that same feeling again last week when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony about Brett Kavanaugh to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Something shifted. The genie was out of the bottle, and she was ready to smash things. It looked like a new civil war was coming, this time not rebel gray against union blue but a horrible game of boys against the girls, played by adult men and women. The consequences — jobs, money, power and control — were too real.
Divide and Conquer
If you want to assign blame for the current state of American affairs why not start with Roger Ailes, the former chairman and CEO of Fox News who was ousted from the network he created after being accused by more than 20 women of sexual harassment? A new film entitled Divide and Conquer: The Roger Ailes Story makes clear the large influence Ailes still exerts in Trump’s White House, and our culture.
Long before he decided he was “bigger than America,” Ailes was a scrappy kid from Warren, Ohio. Director Alexis Bloom charts the course of Ailes’s career from his high school yearbook to his final humiliating removal from Fox headquarters. What emerges is not simply a portrait of toxic, bullying masculinity, a culture as cloistered and protected as that of Carmelite nuns, but also entrenched patterns of behaviour kept in place by money, power and fear.
In this Bloom’s film forms a companion piece to Michael Moore’s new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9. Both works are ostensibly stories of powerful men, but what they reveal is more complex. They trace a network (quite literally with Fox & Friends) of connection and complicity, a vast rotten iceberg that runs beneath media and politics.
This intermingling is longstanding in the U.S., but Ailes came to an understanding of its succubus power early. While working as a producer on The Mike Douglas Show Ailes witnessed the 1960 election debate, wherein a dashing young John F. Kennedy squared off against a Richard M. Nixon so sweaty and pale his own mother called the TV station and ask if he was okay. Ailes warned Nixon that he ignored television at his peril and offered to serve in his newly dreamed up role of media advisor. Ailes went on to do the same for George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as other political hot potatoes like Rudy Giuliani. Still, Ailes’s most horrifying legacy may be Donald. J. Trump.
If the long road to Trump is the backstory of Bloom’s Divide and Conquer, Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 places the orange goblin at the centre of the narrative, examining how the combination of media, politics, and power could metastasize into something monstrous.
After he was excised from Fox like a malignant growth, Ailes went on to coach Trump, before falling on his head and dying. But the culture that he coaxed from the dark soil of suspicion, rage and intolerance rolls on. Rolling Stone pundit Matt Taibbi described Fox Nation thusly: “We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we’re that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he [Ailes] discovered.”
Hence the title of the film, Divide and Conquer, or in Fox parlance, rile up the crazies so that they’re so spleen-filled they will bay in apoplectic chorus. That mob conferred immense power upon Ailes, which he ruthlessly exploited to feed his own appetites, inviting, as he did, other powerful men in his organization to harass and degrade their female colleagues. Until, that is, the women of Fox had had enough. The first lawsuit against Ailes was brought by then-anchor Gretchen Carlson, but soon enough 20 other women stepped up to tell their stories.
The most striking thing about Bloom’s film is the familiarity of it all. The women’s stories share some common elements: being offered jobs and career advancement in return for sex. If they failed to play ball, or even demurred in the most gentle fashion, they would land on a no-hire list, their career paths scuttled. It’s a common pattern that Moore also highlights in his film, beginning with a staggering parade of media pervs and their accusers including Bill O’Reilly (five women), Mark Halperin (12 women), Matt Lauer (four women), Charlie Rose (35 women), and Ailes himself (20 women).
But one woman, more than any other, sends such boys off the deep end — Hillary Rodham Clinton. On the eve of Clinton’s projected election victory Moore asks, “Was it all just a dream?” When it seemed that America was about to choose its first-ever female president, something weird began to happen, and you know the rest.
Or do you?
Despite the marketing of Fahrenheit 11/9, which refers to the date Trump’s victory was announced, the story is only nominally about him. It is much more about the system that created him, of which Ailes was a major architect. Prior to assuming the highest office in the land, Trump was a frequent guest on Fox and still watches the network obsessively.
It’s a point that Moore picks up and runs away with. Like most Moore affairs, 11/9 is a ramshackle piece of work, taking a bear-paw to everything from gun control to the Flint water crisis to the shambolic shit show that is the current White House. Some sections work better than others, and lord knows Moore is not always the most reliable of narrators. But the man is also one of those classic American types, the big-mouthed bass that bullshits and blarneys his way towards the truth.
Yes, the Russians, James Comey and Ailes all played a part in Trump’s rise, but as Moore asserts, so did Gwen Stefani. Moore explains Trump first decided to run for the presidency because of a contract dispute with CBS over money. Stefani was making more coin on her reality TV show The Voice, Moore says, so Trumpster staged a fake press conference to announce a run for the presidency that became a little too real, or maybe surreal.
A surge of energized women
“The American Dream is dead,” Trump quipped, but after two rallies he had an epiphany. To hell with Stefani and NBC, “I’m going to be King of the World!” The nation’s media turned somersaults as ratings soared. Of the Trump phenomena, Les Moonves, another disgraced media horndog, joked, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I’ve got to say. The money is rolling in and it’s amazing, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
As Trump played the media for suckers, Moore himself was implicated. When he appeared alongside Trump on Roseanne Barr’s talk show, instead of taking the man down, Moore played nice. “I just decided to make a joke,” he says. Quickly enough, it all turned from farce to tragedy.
This week, even as the U.S. president openly mocked Ford and took random potshots at female reporters, his own unsavoury reputation with women kept popping up like an ugly mushroom. Moore illustrates this point in his film with a King Perv montage of Trump leering around his daughter Ivanka, and then asks, “Does this make you feel uncomfortable? I don’t know why, none of this is new.” As the film makes explicit, all of Trump’s crimes were played out in public, the logic being that if you don’t hide anything, people at least think you’re a straight shooter.
In this way corruption becomes no big deal. Sexual assault? Also no biggie. Same with tax evasion. Which brings us to the current moment, as the FBI concludes its investigation of Brett Kavanaugh, and the bodies of women once more become a battleground.
And yet, as Moore asserts, if despotism seeks to control women, women can toss off control and take up the causes of freedom and equality. As Astra Taylor’s recent film What Is Democracy? argues, women entering the political arena are driving change.
In the U.S., hundreds of insurgent candidates, many women, are fighting back hard. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young socialist firebrand from the Bronx, staged an upset victory over her much older and better-positioned opponent. When Democrat Rashida Tlaib was forcibly ejected from a Trump rally, she said, “It was the most American thing I could have done.” In her campaign for Congress, Tlaib is still putting her body where her politics are. And finally, Ford — scared, brave, and heartbreaking in her big glasses and errant strand of hair — is facing down the storm.
Ford has inspired other women to speak up, just as one woman stepping forward to sue Roger Ailes led to dozens more lawsuits. One woman broke the story of Bill Cosby. One can hope Stormy Daniels will bring down Donald Trump, alongside the other 19 women who accuse the president of sexual misconduct.
As Divide and Conquer makes clear, the adversarial tenor of the times — red versus blue, rich against the poor, black against white, men versus women, serves corporate interests above all. Bloom makes the point in her film that rage sells: keep people angry and they will keep watching. But rage often has unintended consequences, as Brett Kavanaugh’s king baby howls made clear. His red-faced squalling that privilege and status be rewarded (right now!) was something to witness. The women doing the witnessing looked singularly unimpressed.
No looking back
The youngest have the most to lose, but also to win, a point driven home in the defining scene of Moore’s film that captures student Emma González standing silent and defiant for six minutes, the time that it took for 34 of her friends and classmates to be killed or injured in the mass shooting at her high school. A stark J’accuse that reverberates across gender, class, race, and generational lines.
Division is not what González and her fellow classmates/activists embody. They stand together as symbols of collective action. They invite us to reject what Ailes and his ilk tried so hard to foster. As the kids say, “We call BS!”
Roger Ailes-like attempts to deny women’s reality and truth continued this week, as Trump rallied his troops with the war cry “Lock her up!” Any her will do, he is betting. But this thing that hid so long in plain view is suddenly being seen, taken apart, and unmade. We see Bill Cosby imprisoned, the Pope reeling from failed damage control, a U.S. Republican party abandoned by women and young people. The aftershocks of cultural change ripple into your own life. You grapple with it in films, books and television, and in relationships with family and friends. You hear — from Blasey Ford and Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib and Daniels and González and so many more — the clarion call to be brave.
This is not easy. Fortunately, as someone noted recently, bravery is contagious. When you witness the stuff in action, your synapses fire off like Pop-Rocks. It’s almost painful, this waking up, this surge to aliveness and vivid attention. Let the entire rotten edifice crack and crumble. As the old American dream withers, something new emerges. The genie, climbing out of the bottle, never to return.
What I and many others are ready to feel is a sense of complete and resolute liberation, something like watching the end of Thelma & Louise, where two women hold hands, and jump. Let’s all scream BS, together, as loud and as long as possible. Until the whole world hears the call.
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