‘The Morning Show’ reveals how #MeToo and sexual misconduct affect work relationships
By Sarah E. Fanning/Mount Allison University
New Apple TV+ series examines sexual inequalities, power imbalances and predatory culture of showbiz
By Sarah E. Fanning/Mount Allison University
There are multiple sides to every story.
Such is the position Apple TV+’s new series The Morning Show takes on the #MeToo movement. Steve Carell and Jennifer Aniston, in leading roles, are nominated for 2020 Emmy awards for outstanding lead actor and lead actress in a drama series.
The show candidly examines the sexual inequalities, power imbalances and predatory culture that have branded the showbiz industry in recent years. The Morning Show, which debuted last fall, is slated for a second season sometime this year (precise timelines are unclear due to coronavirus delays).
The particular similarities between the series’s co-anchor Mitch Kessler (Carell) and NBC’s former Today show co-host Matt Lauer are conspicuous, despite the show’s executive producer saying the series isn’t based on him.
Like Mitch, Lauer shared his morning news show with a female co-anchor, had a hidden button under his desk (for closing his office door) and his sudden dismissal for allegations of sexual misconduct was announced live by his distraught co-host. Aside from this noticeable parallel, the series has attracted particular attention for its complex, daring and somewhat unconventional representation of the #MeToo movement.
It’s a truism that television “has always been a delivery system for morality.” The Morning Show continues this important legacy in generating meaningful and sometimes contentious conversations about the abuse of power in a toxically patriarchal workplace environment.
But it’s often through fictionalized accounts of non-fictional stories that uncomfortable truths are revealed. As film scholar Peter Lehman observes, screen narrative offers one of the most available fields of discourse “to have a conversation about sexual topics that (people) would not otherwise have.”
And this is exactly what The Morning Show does. With its bold and unapologetic approach to sexual misconduct, the series facilitates discussion about the complexities of lives devastated by such offences.
Impact on relationships
Unlike the 2019 film Bombshell, which justly focuses on the victims of the sexual transgressions committed at Fox News, The Morning Show takes the perspective that there are many messy, pervasive impacts of sexual misconduct and abuses of power.
The new series examines various sides of these issues with an emotional range that represents not only the victims and their assailants, but also the residual impact they have on families, colleagues and friends.
The drama also proffers critical insights into the less noticeable resonances of what’s come to light with #MeToo, such as how women come to grips with behaviour perpetrated by men they admire. How they should react? What might it mean for their relationships, both personally and professionally?
In these ways, the series may be seen as part of an emerging body of women-created commentary from literature to drama showing the complexity of #MeToo. As journalist Jill Serjeant notes, The Morning Show is one of many shows exploring “the nuances of sexual misconduct” where men are not “portrayed as monsters and women are more than traumatized victims.”
Ugly, messy truths
With startling honesty, The Morning Show opens with Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) condemning her co-anchor Mitch’s “predatory behaviour” though admitting she’ll “miss the person” she sat next to for 15 years.
The series has provoked criticism for articulating unpopular viewpoints. It has been accused of recoiling from a more politically correct agenda in its “oven-mitt handling of #MeToo,” appropriating it “for relevance rather than examining it.”
This is a missed recognition of the series’s broader standpoint. In depicting the ugly and messy truths, The Morning Show reveals why so much abuse has been tolerated and concealed: bystanders may be reluctant to look too closely at clues that suggest abuse or to support victims, and victims may worry about both personal and professional ramifications if or when they try to expose their abusers.
The Morning Show is one of the most recent in a long line of socio-cultural onscreen and literary commentary engaging with notions of affability, integrity and truth. The show’s themes reveal that abusers may be shielded not only by the ways their power is entwined with other people’s careers and trajectories, but precisely because they may be likeable, charming and admired. But do these qualities point to their humanity or our fascination with or vulnerability to power and charisma, or both?
These are some of the complex lenses through which The Morning Show addresses #MeToo. Director Mimi Leder says the series “isn’t taking sides”: the aggressors “pretty much get what they deserve … but then there’s the flip side: They are human beings; they are people. So I think that’s a really interesting question to present to an audience.” Interesting, yes, but controversial, absolutely.
The Morning Show also illuminates the difficult or negative consequences #MeToo has had on women not involved in allegations or claims of sexual misconduct, and the nervousness of men who worry their consensual relationship(s) could be misconceived as exploitative.
Permanent cultural change?
In an early episode, Yanko (Nester Carbonell) worries about his relationship with younger girlfriend Claire (Bel Powley), a 20-something production assistant. “Did I do those things to you? … Like what Mitch did, did I do that to you?” he asks.
Claire’s response sends the message that his clumsy questioning undermines her agency: “You think because you’re older than me and technically my superior at work I can’t have decided to fuck you without being taken advantage of. What — just because you’re the big powerful weatherman I lose all agency in my sexual choices?”
The scene shows how bringing questions about power and consent into workplace relationships can have the unintentional impact of marginalizing the question of personal agency. It also may raise the uncomfortable and challenging question of how understandings of consent may change over time.
In reflecting on the nature of his relationship with Claire, Yanko instigates an important dialogue in the #MeToo conversation around male behaviour and choices, the role of power and women’s agency and consent.
The Morning Show hammers home that #MeToo is at an important juncture. While women have been empowered to come forward and identify their abusers, there are unintended repercussions that continue to pose questions about women’s agency and men’s intentions.
Now that Harvey Weinstein, the man who to many represents the #MeToo uprising, is in prison serving a 23-year sentence for rape and sexual assault, it’s imperative that the #MeToo movement doesn’t lose momentum. With broader and deeper conversations, let’s hope it pushes forward for permanent political, legislative and cultural change.
Sarah E. Fanning is a lecturer in English and director of drama at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.