A Look Back at “Why Hasn’t Sexual Harassment Disappeared?”
Sometimes it takes a good, hard look back to see just how far we’ve come—or if we’ve made any strides at all. For the filmmakers at Retro Report, examining the past is precisely how they frame their present—and make sense of it for the rest of us. In late January, we screened a recent film from the team that examines why sexual harassment is still so prevalent today. In it, we learn about the emergence of the term itself, see early iterations of anti-harassment videos for the workplace, hear from the women who first spoke out against it, and come full circle to the present moment, Weinstein and all. We spoke with Bonnie Bertram, the film’s producer, about how the pieces came together.
Watch the full film below.
Brittany Washington: In today’s rapidly-moving news cycle, why is it especially important to add historical context while covering an issue? What exactly does that foundational information do for an audience?
Bonnie Bertram: News is sometimes reported as fast as it can be posted, and in this hothouse environment, often, a more thoughtful perspective gets lost. Events can feel like they’re happening for the first time, and when news is conveyed not just quickly, but in abbreviated forms, it’s easy to miss a sense of context. We aim to answer the questions of how did we get to this moment, what historical events have shaped the day’s news? We try to provide some context, so people don’t just see the narrow slice of what’s happening now, but can see an issue or event more broadly and better understand it.
BW: This piece covers an issue that’s very pertinent to the current national conversation. At what point, when reviewing what’s going on in the world, does Retro Report decide a topic would be well served by a deeper examination of historical context and background?
BB: We try to add a new dimension that might not be known, something surprising that’s relevant but often overlooked. We started working on this story about sexual harassment about 7 months before the Harvey Weinstein story broke. We looked at Trump’s election after the Billy Bush tapes came out and thought about what was fueling the women’s march. We wondered if there was a story that showed women rising up and asserting themselves in a way that made a difference. So we started to look at the roots of how sexual harassment came to be understood and fought, having no idea it would become a headline story. We sort of thought our news peg was going to be a new set of guidelines that the EEOC was going to release in November about how to be a more pro-active bystander in the office. But we didn’t really care because we felt we had unearthed an important part of the history of the women’s movement that was resonating today, with or without the headlines.
BW: How did you decide what information was most relevant to include? I bet you unearthed a lot of material.
BB: There were a lot of interesting aspects to this story that we just had to leave out because it wasn’t advancing our very specific topic of sexual harassment in the workplace. We didn’t address Title IX issues of sexual harassment on campus, for example. We researched how this issue impacts women in blue collar and lower wage jobs and tried to find workplaces that were successfully dealing with this problem. And we discovered that a lot of the early lawsuits on this matter were brought by black women who had come out of the civil rights movement and were not afraid to take on this issue. We also discovered that there were, and are, some deep divisions among the women who fought for women’s rights in the 1970s.
BW: For filmmakers wanting to incorporate more archival footage in their work, can you tell us a bit about your approach for archival research?
BB: We approach every project by casting a wide net to see what’s out there, but this topic was unique in terms of archival. How do you illustrate the evolution of a problem that so often happens in private? We looked for some of the earliest references to sexual harassment that we could find in print and on film, including depictions in movies and workplace training videos. This added some interesting historical context to our piece. Filmmakers would be surprised by the amount of material available at various archives and historical societies. It just takes time to comb through it all!
BW: In the piece, Professor Anita Hill says that “progress is measured in decades, not days.” After all of this research, do you have thoughts on how we, as a society, can progress and ultimately resolve this issue? What needs to be done beyond what’s happening with the current #MeToo movement?
BB: Well, in truth, we sort of paraphrased and that line is actually in narration. What Professor Hill said was that we have to remember where we started on this. It was very sobering to be caught up in the massive groundswell of women embracing this moment, and the energy of “right now” in mid-October, as women’s claims were being listened to and believed. But unlike most other people covering this, we had talked to Professor Hill in June. And we kept hearing her voice, and remembering that her testimony had been considered, at the time, a watershed moment. Her story reminds us there have been successes and setbacks before in the years leading up to this moment of accountability.
BW: How long did this piece take to complete from start to finish? What was the most challenging part of the process?
BB: It was about seven months from when the Associate Producer, Sandra McDaniel, and I figured out we had a story and how to tell it to actually finishing it. We were on schedule to release it mid-November but then things got moved up after the Weinstein story broke. We knew it was critical to get an interview with Anita Hill, and it took us a while to convince her to agree to talk with us.
BW: Retro Report’s mission is to “correct the record” and “expose myths.” Do you, thus, view what you’re making as an antidote to today’s culture of fake news?
BB: Absolutely! When we started Retro Report, fake news wasn’t even really a thing. We were guided by a mission to follow up on stories from the past and to act as sort fact checkers and see how the story was relevant again today. But during the presidential campaign, it became clear that fact checking was the wrong approach. The entire premise of stories was wrong! We watched stories become politicized and narratives get hijacked by agendas. We had some very serious, intense staff meetings and asked ourselves a lot of hard questions — and we did a pivot. We realized the need to add context to the stories that are shaping our news environment, we look for a take on a topic that is slightly off the spine, that illuminates some unique, critical aspect of a story that’s in the headlines. We want to give our viewers a take on the news that will make them smarter and better informed.
BW: At another point in the story, Hill states that “this is more than just a legal problem. We’ve got a cultural problem that accepts the debasement of women.” How do you think we can address the cultural basis of this problem?
BB: That comment came out of a conversation we had with Ms. Hill that was part of a very nuanced, but important, aspect of the story. It was a tremendous gain in the fight against sexual harassment for it to be declared a violation of the Civil Rights Act and sex discrimination. But by making it illegal, it may have had the unintended effect of thwarting real progress in hampering sexual harassment in the workplace. It was imperative that it be made illegal. But that in some way created a false sense of security that the problem would be adequately addressed. It didn’t get at the more systemic cultural problems that contribute to what happens in the workplace. Catherine McKinnon wrote a terrific Opinion piece in the 2/4/18 issue of the New York Times addressing this same issue. My personal belief is that what’s happening now is putting a lot of people on notice that sexual harassment is not a small thing, and that people are no longer going to tolerate it.
I hope we’ll see more women in leadership positions but a lot of these movements—the goal of gender parity, for example—don’t address the larger issue that many working couples face and that is child rearing. That responsibility still falls predominantly on women, and that holds women back at precisely the time in their career they could be considering leadership roles and a more aggressive track. Gender parity is a good goal. Making it easier for employees to be good parents is an important part of achieving that.