The Legal Brief:
A junior-level executive finds his career in jeopardy when he is the target of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a woman he spurned and is now out to ruin his life.
[Warning: Mature Content Ahead. Possible Triggers for Sexual Assault and Harassment. No Harsh or Frank Language But Discretion Should Be Taken.]
Review and Analysis:
Disclosure was supposed to be one of those films that contains some rather salacious (for the time) sex scenes to get the audience’s attention (like Fatal Attraction before it), but asks a rather important question. For this movie, it was supposed to be “What really happens when you are harassed by someone who has the power?” Except that Disclosure really doesn’t ask this question, no matter how much they try to frame the issue in this way.
Disclosure was released during a time when the term of Sexual Harassment entered into the American Political Discourse. The case that sparked the discussion on Harassment was the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case. [Background: Clarence Thomas was a Federal Judge whom was appointed to the US Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush as a replacement for the late justice Thurgood Marshall. Anita Hill used to work for Clarence Thomas when he was a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ms. Hill came forward to testify as a character witness against Clarence Thomas’ appointment.]
As with most scenarios regarding Gendered Crimes, Sexual Harassment would be primarily defined as “A Man who uses his power and authority to force himself upon a subordinate female employee.” And it is through this lens that Disclosure operates from in its attempt to widen the definitions.
The Fear that Lies Within Many Men:
When you hear men speak of the fear of being (falsely) accused of rape and sexual harassment, many may unconsciously look at this movie and its scenario. A woman who is sexually aggressive attempts to seduce a (married) man who tries to spurn her advances. When she is left frustrated and unsatisfied by the encounter, she uses the legal system to extract her revenge. Thus, the well-worn (and rather tiring) phrase, “Hell hath no greater fury than a woman scorned” is supposed to apply here as well. And because these men believe that the Legal System will automatically take the absolute word of a Woman (even when the belief is false on its merits), then every attempt by Women to seek justice should be resisted, because (in their eyes) it is just another false accusation.
But, it is that fear of even being charged that raises the heckles of many men. And because of this fear, any accusation made by (any) Woman must not only be met with skepticism, but with scorn. And many of these men will adorn you with tales of women who falsely accuse men of rape and sexual assault and explain why such accusations are always lies. Grains of salt and extreme care should be taken when listening to such stories; for the speakers are usually never interested in justice or fairness, but rather a continuation of the current status quo. That status quo means that Women are shamed if they speak up about being sexually assaulted OR raped, unless they are under the age of consent. This environment also has the side-effect of shaming Men in the same situations, under the same circumstances.
More on these dynamics later in the post.
What makes Disclosure interesting (and sad) is that it attempts to create a scenario which tries to hold (All) Men blameless. From the CEO, to Tom Sanders’ friends, to even Meredith’s legal “handler,” none of them are ever held accountable for the business environment which leads to the events of the movie. Even as she tries to place the blame on the men who may have been using her to push Tom out of his job, they are all held blameless and will not face any consequences for their part in this.
The Missed Angle, Part One – The Office:
This scene was supposed to be the “bombshell” scene where Cindy, Tom’s assistant (above, on the left), is being questioned by the company’s attorney over her boss’s treatment. She tells of some of the typical things that Tom would do, like touch her backside or give her a backrub…or even flirt with her. She also makes it clear that she did not want these kinds of advances, but was afraid of speaking up in fear of losing her job because of it.
Later on in the scene, she attempts to apologize to Tom for having to testify against him. In an act of contrition, Tom apologizes to her and she responds by hitting his backside with a file, in what was supposed be in the same manner that he had been doing to her.
The problem, however, is that we do not see enough of Tom engaging in this kind of behavior. The one moment he does early in the film, we never see Cindy’s reaction to being treated like that (that “pause” before continuing wherever she was planning to go, or that slight cringe when it happens).
Secondly, the intention of the scene with Cindy doing the same to Tom was to show that she had exacted her “revenge” on Tom for all the times that he did that to her – and that now all is right with their business relationship. The scene and the wrap-up fail because it is never made clear what Cindy’s intentions really were.
Even more troubling, the insinuation with the end of the scene is that Cindy may have actually enjoyed the harassment that Tom was giving her…and was only acting the way that she was before because of the way that the company lawyer was questioning her. Without really looking at the plot centering around this harassment that Tom performs, Disclosure simply uses a falsehood of women actually liking the harassment on some level, despite any reactions to the contrary.
The Missed Angle, Part Two – The Home Life:
When the discussions extends from the courtroom to the outside, Susan’s point-of-view is the one that is supposed to dominate the framework here. Her attitude regarding the events surrounding the case are similar to those given by Straw Feminists (and Misguided Victim Empowerment); that a Man will always have power and control over an event regardless of the actual circumstances involved.
What Susan’s attitude also highlights is the problem of Truth and Point-of-View. On some level, she believes that Tom was the one who seduced (or forced himself upon) Meredith – and she believes that Tom has been having an affair with his assistant Cindy. What this speaks to is the other side of the Expectations of Male Virility; that Tom (and men in general) are expected to act as sexual predators AND that sexual predation is an inherent character trait almost exclusive to Men. This is nothing more than a a variation of the familiar refrain of “Men are Dogs” or “Men are Pigs.” More to the point, Men can never be weak (or weakened) when dealing with Women, even when sex and seduction are involved.
You see this not only with Susan’s conversations with Tom, but also with Susan’s conversations with Catherine (Tom’s attorney). In it’s own way, Disclosure tries to highlight the problem with relying on traditional gender roles as the main determinant of both claims of sexual harassment AND the ultimate responsibility of “squelching” an improper sexual encounter. This rarely goes further than how it affects Tom Sanders, however, and whatever message Disclosure may have been attempting to send is limited because of it. Thus, the audience has to identify with Tom on any given level and imagine themselves as being in Tom’s shoes.
The Home Life – Second Stage:
Where the movie ultimately derails itself is at this moment. After Susan and Tom get home, Susan attempts to explain how she “deals” with the harassment she receives on her end and implores Tom to “apologize” to Meredith and the company to get his job back. Tom responds to her escalations by accusing her of being a Straw Feminist; he ends up using language like “Patriarchal Urge” and “That Evil White Male” when the argument spirals out of control. At this point, the argument (and the movie) stops being about a single man being wrongly accused and ends up with Tom trying to take on the Weight of Atlas with a touch of Martyrdom.
When you watch the rest of this movie, always keep Tom’s rant here in mind.
The Main Problem, Part One – The Backdrop:
At the very heart of the movie, one of the things that we are shown over and over is that Meredith is, at best, a typical Corporate Middle-Management Type who does everything in her power to cut costs at every level to increase the profits of the company. Further, she has used Seduction Attacks on a number of different occasions, getting immediate subordinates that worked for her transferred away. However, in the context of the movie, Meredith is supposed to be portrayed as being incompetent at being able to do the job at hand, which was to develop a Super-Optical drive for the company.
This is shown at the very end of the film, where Tom and Meredith have a final confrontation at the shareholder’s meeting and Meredith tries one final time to pin the blame on Tom and his handling of the division. If you listen carefully to the words that Meredith uses here, you’ll find that they sound much like those you would hear from Corporate Spokespeople when they talk about changes being made to a company these days. Changes which often involve firing a significant number of workers and/or forcing the rank-and-file to work more hours with no commensurate increase in pay or benefits, or any number of similar “Cost-Cutting” measures.
In Disclosure, these measures are supposed to be evil and shamed. But looking at how Wall Street’s Industrial Indexes react when companies cut thousands of jobs in a single shot, it would seem that this kind of corporate responsibility to its workforce exists only in the fantasy of Hollywood.
And, in an ironic twist, Meredith Johnson’s philosophy would fit right in with another character that Michael Douglas plays – Gordon Gecko of Wall Street (he of the “Greed is Good” mantra).
The Main Problem, Part Two – The Cop Out:
The movie unravels completely when Meredith decides to blame the whole change of events on her being a “sexually aggressive woman.” Sadly, while it seems that any motivation that Meredith takes would not make her an antagonist that the audience would identify with, this trite explanation undercuts the premise it tries to present throughout the movie.
If Tom Sanders’ rant about harassment being about the power was supposed to be the defining quotation, then having Meredith rant about having to be aggressive at men for sex the same way that she has to be aggressive in the work place undercuts the premise. Throughout the movie, it is implied that Meredith herself does not have any technical knowledge or experience in the field in which she is taking over. In fact, she is portrayed as being both corrupt and incompetent at the same time; thus further implying that Meredith only achieved the position that she had at the start of the movie by sleeping with her (male) colleagues and backstabbing them when they aren’t looking.
What is also interesting is the relationship dynamics at work with regards to Tom and Meredith. The two of them used to be lovers, and it would appear that it was a full-blown relationship until it was eventually called off.
In doing so, Disclosure, like Lean on Me, attempts to mask the active role that Privilege takes and foists the entirety of the blame on an otherwise non-Privileged person – in this case, Male Privilege onto a (White) Female.
The Main Problem, Part Three – The Dichotomy:
What Disclosure ends up doing when all is said and done is isolate Meredith Johnson’s position from every other woman in the film (except Susan):
- Stephanie Kaplan, a senior executive, by virtue of her actions as Tom’s secret helper in his struggles against Meredith.
- Mary Anne Hunter, who is a company department head like Tom. When she complains about being passed over, she also lets it be known that she “works” for her accomplishments – and that she is against what Meredith stands for.
- Catherine Alvarez, as Tom’s attorney. She is considered to be the premier legal mind in Seattle concerning Sexual Harassment cases. Whether she may have believed Tom’s story in the beginning or not, she was professional enough to keep the case from becoming a referendum on Tom’s behavior until the tape surfaced that would exonerate Tom in the end.
- Cindy Chang, as Tom’s assistant. If anyone would have been supportive of Meredith’s Sexual Harassment suit, it would probably have been Cindy. However, despite her recorded testimony, she is never seen as being supportive of Meredith.
In the case of Susan Hendler (Tom’s wife), even as she protested and resisted her husband’s attempts to explain the situation, she still supported him in her own way throughout the trial. But the most important thing she did was to help their kids to understand what was happening without implicitly blaming Tom for what happened.
But even as Disclosure tried to make the female roles sympathetic to Meredith without actually taking her side, note that the only people who supported Meredith were all Men.
On “Trading On One’s Looks”:
Disclosure tries to frame Meredith as being the most attractive (and sexually desirable) woman in the film. You see this not only in the attention that is paid to her looks, but also in how the other women in the film are dressed. None of the other women in the film are dressed in clothing that accentuates their own attractiveness; in fact, most of the women in the film are dressed in business slacks or long dresses and skirts. Additionally, none of the other women in the film ever have their competency questioned as part of the plot.
And the Legal Eagle:
Catherine Alvarez (pictured above), is the lawyer that “A. Friend” (in reality Stephanie Kaplan) recommends that Tom go to when he becomes embroiled in the stunted affair with Meredith. In legal circles, one of the tricks of the trade is to get a defense lawyer who is the same race and/or gender as the complainant. Conversely, a prosecutor who “looks” the same as the defendant is supposed to score points here.
In Disclosure, Catherine, by virtue of being a woman of color, is supposed to help buttress the sympathy card that Meredith plays throughout the proceeding.
The Ignorance of Harassment:
The condemnation of male attackers is almost universal and never questioned at gender level when the accusations first arise (the accusations are always questioned on other levels). There is no similar condemnation of female attackers at a similar scale. For many men who look at the situation from the outside looking in, it is merely a fantasy transference – most imagine themselves being “harassed” by the female in that situation, but unlike the victim, these men see themselves as being willing recipients of that attention, thus assuming that harassment is merely about the sex. This is almost a truism especially when the woman in question is considered to be attractive.
For some women, female attackers are not possible – when the formula they rely on for sexual assault and rape depends on a male appendage to do the deed.
Sadly, both of these ideals are 2 sides of the same silly coin. You see these unspoken dynamics in play throughout the movie.
The Unexpected Twist:
The other part of Disclosure‘s backdrop is that in the early 1990s, “Virtual Reality” was the catchphrase for computing, where the “Future” would involve people strapping on gadgets that would interface with human sensory input and create a computer-generated world in which the interaction within it would be similar to the natural movement in “The Real World.” Perhaps the show that takes it to the extreme is Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its Holodeck.
In its own way, Virtual Reality is both the predecessor and the offspring of Social Media, where it works to bring distant people closer together…and works to separate and isolate people in close proximity.
The Corporate World:
It’s easy to Take Mary Anne Hunter’s complaints seriously when you see just how few Women there are in Computers and Engineering at any position. But it is difficult to stand behind them when all of the positions of technical importance have no People of Color, especially Women of Color, in them. All of the Men and Women of Color that you see get fewer than 10 frames, and none of are more than background fodder.
Bob Garvin, as the CEO of Digicom, made the “success” of the merger his overriding concern. In the wake of the publicity that would threaten to undermine the success of said merger, he did everything in his power to sweep Tom’s threatened lawsuit under the rug. Secondly, he provided little assistance to Tom during Meredith’s own lawsuit, and worked to privately undermine Tom Sanders’ position within the company by leaking selective details of the encounter Tom’s co-managers on the project, like Marc Lewyn, before the trial even began.
When it became apparent that there was exonerating witness testimony, Garvin was quick to try to cut a deal in which no responsibility by the company would be admitted. When Tom declined, he supported language in Tom’s contract that would have allowed him to be fired for “incompetence.”
But the final act of cowardice by Bob would come at the shareholder’s meeting. When it became clear that Meredith’s attempt to have Tom fired failed, resulting in the board seeing how inept and out-of-her-league she really was, Bob escorted her out of the board meeting, and subsequently fed her to the wolves (she “resigned”). The speech he gives after the merger where he promotes Stephanie Kaplan to Senior Operations Officer makes it clear that he washed his hands of his involvement with Meredith Johnson without any remorse, nor has learned any lesson whatsoever.
Tom Sanders, as he was making his case against Meredith’s actions, mentioned that the Malaysian Government was appeased when Meredith offered to make the Super-Optical drives using hand-labor instead of machines. Because doing the process by human hand was imprecise and riddled with quality issues, this was supposed to show that Meredith was both incompetent and only cared about “cost-cutting.”
However, one has to wonder why the “Super-Optical” manufacturing plant was not even considered for American soil to begin with. In following the on-going destruction of the manufacturing base within the United States, Digicom just does what other so-called manufacturers had been doing since the 1970s; sending the main fabrication and assembly industries to countries where labor costs are pennies a day; people are forced to work 12 or more hours a day without break or rest; and benefits like sick time, days off, medical care, and the like do not exist.
Yet, among the those who worship the gilded and leisure classes, such conditions are celebrated and seen as virtues to have, even as every single country that has adopted this posture has seen its populace stage sit-in after protest, revolt after resistance to these conditions. At some point, people will need to realize that worship of money and those who have it will not bring about a miraculous improvement in the human condition anywhere except for those who already control said money (whether it’s paper, stone, or “precious” metal).
Talking about sex is fraught with misconceptions and assumptions about Gender and Sexual Orientation. Talking about sexual harassment, assault, and possible rape adds landmines to the equation. Most people charge headlong in one direction or another, holding one gender responsible for all assaults while holding their own incapable of assault. This ignores sexual assault and harassment by people of the same gender AND Transpeople on either end of the spectrum.
Disclosure is a discussion movie. Meaning that in whatever company you watch this film, the implications behind the film should be talked about, and talked about frankly. Beware that the film has lots of pitfalls and sets many traps along the way. There are also corporate truisms that Disclosure accepts without questioning, and that can help to drag the film down. More of the men in the film are seen as helping Meredith’s cause than there are women, as all of them do not like Meredith or her actions.
Watch this movie with caution.