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Workplace Harassment and Its Portrayal on TV

Written by Kelli Burritt
May 28, 2021

The #MeToo movement that swept the country in 2017 brought a fresh focus on sexual harassment and misconduct that occurs in the workplace. According to the American Bar Association, in response to the movement, fifteen states passed new laws protecting against sexual harassment in the workplace, including California, which is listed as one of the states that led the way with new laws that focused on making sexual harassment training mandatory, softened the federal “severe or pervasive” standard to make it easier to sue in state courts, and banned the nondisclosure agreements that predators use to silence their victims. According to a Times article, audiences only recently began to see the movement portrayed in the media a couple of years later, with movies such as Bombshell and TV shows like Apple + series The Morning Show, which showcased the workplace sexual harassment and misconduct issues people face in the workplace.

The 2019 film Bombshell, which stars Charlize Theron as former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Margot Robbie, and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, co-host of Fox News “Fox and Friends”, follows Carlson’s lawsuit against CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. According to reports, in July 2016, Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes, accusing him of ruining her career and firing her for rejecting his sexual advances. The suit alleged that in response to her complaints, Ailes cut her pay, gave her less favorable time slots, and denied her critical interviews. Both Ailes and Fox News denied the allegations, but not long after it had inspired Megyn Kelly and other women to come forward with their allegations. In an interview with Reuters, actor Charlize Theron described how the movie represented such a difficult issue. “This story lends itself really nicely to the complexities of what sexual harassment really looks like, and how it lives and breathes in very different gray spaces that we might not necessarily have wanted to acknowledge.”

The Apple+ TV series The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell, portrays the issue of a male TV anchor who was fired for reports of sexual misconduct. Although the show’s executive producer denies that the show was based on real-life events, it closely mirrors the allegations made against former host Matt Lauer, who was fired from The Today Show after undisclosed reports of sexual misconduct came to light. According to an article by The Conversation, unlike Bombshell, which focused on the victims of sexual transgressions experienced at Fox News, The Morning Show considered the pervasive effects of sexual misbehavior and power abuses that occur in the workplace and examined the impact it has on the victim’s relationships.

Last month, I was invited to join a Zoom panel for a communication class at Chapman University, where we discussed the legal aspects of sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. The panel also included Kerry Ehrin, who is the showrunner/executive producer of the series The Morning Show, actress/on-air personality Amy Paffrath, head of human resources for entertainment union SAG-AFTRA Tashia Mallette, and Chapman campus crisis counselor Dr. Danielle Smith.

The panelists discussed how The Morning Show portrayed issues of sexual misconduct, how the fictional scenarios in the show compare to real-world situations, and how the series can have a positive impact on societal change. “Having these panelists each bring their unique professional perspectives to the discussion had a dramatic effect on my students, allowing them to explore the many facets of the issues themselves, as well as how the media – particularly entertainment media – can be brought to bear on the way audiences see and act upon what they are exposed to via the media,” said Professor Larry Deutchman. “They recognized that viewing is not intended to be a passive experience and they can change people’s lives by applying entertainment-education practices and communication theory to works intended to entertain.”

Although it is a difficult and sensitive topic to touch on, audiences need to learn about the issues that unfortunately continue to be rampant in the workplace. If the exposure of the widespread sexual abuse allegations continues to populate mainstream media, it may help educate others of the issues that occur, and employers can help their workers feel safe in their workspace.

If you are an employee and have been the victim of any form of sexual harassment or misconduct, you should speak to an attorney. Every case is different and requires the care of an attentive lawyer. At Winer, Burritt & Scott, LLP, we empower our clients, providing them with one-on-one service and a list of potential legal actions against the perpetrator(s) of the harassment. We can investigate, finance, develop, and prepare your case for the best possible outcome. With lawyers recognized throughout California as top performers, choosing our firm for litigation offers many benefits.

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