Gretchen Carlson never thought she’d be “one of the faces of sexual harassment.” The former Fox News host sued network president Roger Ailes in 2016, alleging “severe and pervasive” sexual harassment. Two months later, she received a $20 million settlement and a “highly unusual” public apology.
In her new Lifetime documentary Breaking the Silence, Carlson talks about standing up to a media giant and becoming part of a movement. The documentary’s aim is to shine light on the “everywoman”—workers across the country who experience sexual harassment, but don’t have access to the same resources or public platforms as A-list accusers. Carlson, who says that she’s been approached by thousands of women since her suit went public, set out to show how the epidemic of sexual harassment affects women of “every race and every class.”
“We really wanted to show a geographically-diverse storyline as well as different professions,” and to center the documentary on “stories that didn’t have a chance of being heard or told in other venues,” Carson explained.
Breaking the Silence’s subjects include former McDonald’s workers Tanya Harrell, Kim Lawson, and Kristi Maisenbach, as well as former veterans home nurse’s aide Lisa Schroeder and Kathleen Stanley, a fire battalion chief. The effort to hold McDonald’s accountable for what employees allege to be widespread sexual harassment is captured in commendable detail. Supported by Fight for $15, a movement for fast food and other underpaid workers, Lawson and Harrell pursued their sexual harassment complaints against McDonald’s and became activists themselves.
“A lot of people have said to me, well, what’s your connection?” Carlson told The Daily Beast during a recent phone conversation. “How could you possibly have any connection to a woman who works at McDonald’s in her twenties making 15 bucks an hour down in New Orleans? And the thing is, when you’ve experienced sexual harassment like both of us have, it’s almost like you have this immediate connection. She trusted me, and I understood what she was going through.”
Carlson, who will be releasing two more documentaries as part of an overall deal with A&E networks, spoke with The Daily Beast about #MeToo comebacks, Surviving R. Kelly, and why sexual harassment is really a “men’s issue.”
I wanted to start out by just asking about the genesis of the project and how it fits into the whole slate of other projects you’ve taken on related to sexual harassment?
I have been doing a tremendous amount of work, trying to pass bills and writing my book. This was actually the byproduct of Lifetime coming to me last spring and doing a production deal with me to do documentaries for them. They knew about my book Be Fierce, and there were so many stories in there about so many women who had experienced horrible situations at work, and their stories had never been told. And they said, we should really bring this to national television. And I wholeheartedly agreed with that. So some of the women that we feature in the doc are in my book and some are not. It’s happening everywhere and it’s a pervasive epidemic, and we wanted to show that no matter where you live or what job you do, it’s there.
And I was reading an interview you did a while ago where you say that it began to really gnaw at you, how someone can be expected to come forward when they don’t have the same privilege of financial security or access to legal resources. I was hoping you could speak more to your personal realization that there was a level of privilege in how you were able to respond to sexual harassment?
In my case, because I was a relatively well-known journalist, I had a national platform, and I had the means to be able to hire a good legal team. No amount of money or a national platform, however, will give you the courage to do what I did or any of these other thousands of women have done in coming forward. But, you know, it did gnaw at me because I kept getting the question after my story broke, well, how do you help the single mom working two jobs just trying to make ends meet? And I really didn’t have a great answer at the beginning. And so the first way in which I tried to fix that was to establish the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Initiative, which is now in its second year. My fund supports it, and it’s a nine-city tour across the country where we provide workshops for free for underserved women to be able to come and get help on this issue. To see the transformation of these women when they come to the workshops feeling not good about themselves at all and when they leave, having participated, feeling empowered and ready to take on the world, I know that my fund and my initiative is working.
The second part of that was to do this documentary, to really put my words into action that I wanted to try to figure out a way to help these women who had no other recourse. And a huge part of that was gaining their trust. The interviews became so raw and emotional and truthful, and they really opened up and took a risk in speaking to me. So I think the doc is so emotional and moving and shocking based on these explosive allegations, but then we go a step further, because I really wanted to get answers for these women. And so you’ll see me jumping out of the car to try and find their bosses, tracking down these companies to try and get some accountability here. Why is it that these women say that they complained and nothing was done? Why does that happen? Why do people not care about this issue?
I hope that when people watch this documentary that they will realize that we have a lot of work left to do and also that we have to hold these companies accountable and responsible so that we can move forward. You can't just continue to get rid of these women and hope that they're going to go away and never work again. That’s not the way America is supposed to work.
I appreciated how this documentary shows these women, particularly the former McDonald’s workers, Tanya and Kim, not just as victims or survivors of sexual harassment, but as activists, which I feel like is something that’s not always afforded to marginalized communities, to women of color or underpaid women. Was that a deliberate decision that you made to really highlight that agency and that activism?
I really appreciate you picking up on that distinction because the journey of the documentary and all the time and effort we put into visiting all of these women on many occasions and kind of following them as they transitioned into more empowerment was exactly what we wanted to show. The raw, emotional, gut-wrenching interviews of what allegedly happened to them, which then transforms into showing, after they found the courage to come forward and do something, then they align themselves with one another. And that’s the first stage of confidence. And then they actually come together and provide trainings for other women, the next stage of confidence. Then they actually go to Chicago and they rally together and they go to Kansas City and they rally together, and that’s the next stage of empowerment. And so you actually watched the transformation of these women growing into wonderful young human beings.
And they could have never imagined that this would be a part of their life, just like I could have never imagined it would be part of my life. And that’s what I love about it: you see in a short period of time how much they’ve grown as individuals and how they’ve been empowered by having the guts to tell their story. That’s essential, because that then empowers other women out there by the thousands and maybe millions who see this, to know that they can do the same thing.
And a lot of the stories stood out to me as—sexual harassment of course, but really more about power and humiliation. I’m thinking particularly about the allegations against the Virginia fire department. My immediate mental connection was to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and this idea of men bonding or laughing over harassing and assaulting women. So I wanted to hear your thoughts on that, and on how we can move forward if the problem is as big as masculinity itself?
Well, the first thing is we need men. And we need to stop calling it a women’s issue. Those are the two biggest things. What I’ve learned over the last two years is, and I’ve known it subconsciously for a long time, but when you call something a “women’s issue,” you get male tune-out. They’ve been socialized to think when they hear “women’s issue”—Oh, I don’t have to deal with that. The reality is that sexual harassment is actually a man’s problem. Predominantly, it’s a man’s problem. So first and foremost, we should be calling it what it is. Secondarily, and even more importantly, we need men to help us in this fight. It’s not going to work if we don’t get men to help us, and the burden of fixing this should not be only on the shoulders of women. So how can men help us? Men can hire more of us, put us in promotions and in the boardroom. Because what definitely does not happen when you have more women in power is sexual harassment. That is a central part of this equation.
We do a really great job of empowering our girls, but we should really be focusing specifically on this issue about our boys. How do we teach them to respect women early on so that when they get into the workplace, they have the same amount of respect for their female colleagues as they do for their mothers? And then the last thing I’ll say is that men who witness this in the workplace—and I know they’re witnessing it every single day—they just pass it off and think, Oh, that was a really bad joke and I should have said something, but I didn’t. We’ve got to encourage them to come forward. They have to stop being bystanders and turn into our allies. So if those things don’t come together, I don’t know if we will be able to fix this.
And then you brought up the issue of power and you’re dead on, sexual harassment is not really about sex as much as it is about power. And that gets lost in the shuffle because you know, hypothetically if a woman’s being sexually harassed on the job and she’s having to endure a bunch of comments and weird behavior, what gets lost in the reporting is that when she rebuffs that, then what happens to her? She gets retaliated against. That part of the story gets lost, the power part of how they can have complete control over your existence in the workplace and they can make your life a living hell, every single day. I think most of [the women in the documentary] would tell you that that was more difficult to endure than the comments. It’s what happens after the fact that is worse than the actual behavior.
There’s a moment in the documentary where you talk about getting your apology, how it was all you really wanted. I was hoping you could expand on why that meant so much to you, and also if you faced what so many women in the documentary, many of whom have still not received apologies, faced in terms of constantly being disbelieved and made to feel like what you know happened didn’t happen.
That was one of the most heartbreaking things for me during this whole process of filming the doc, was knowing that a lot of these women never got an apology and how, especially with Lisa Schroeder, how painful that still was for her. I can relate to that. Getting the apology for me was the most important part of the whole process. And you heard her say that too, and I think 99.9 percent of women who’ve endured this will tell you the same thing, because it’s a vindication. It’s a vindication of years potentially of abuse and harassment, that actually you weren’t crazy and it wasn’t your fault.
For me personally, when the news of my resolution came out, I was all by myself, which was emblematic. I’ve been by myself for a lot of the big things that have happened in my life. I was by myself in a nail salon, waiting for a haircut on the first day of school, and the news started trickling out, and it came earlier than it was supposed to on that day. And tears were just streaming down my face. I’m sure the woman thought I was crazy in the salon, but I was reading all the news reports and the reason I was crying was not because of the settlement but because almost every headline was reading, she got an apology. And the members of the media were honing in on that because that seemed significant to them. And it was significant to me. It was the only thing that mattered. And still to this day, it’s the only thing that matters, and it’s what all these women want, and I wish I could give it to them.
I was wondering if you watched any part of Surviving R. Kelly, what you thought about it and also what you think about the amazing, huge reception it’s gotten?
Yeah, I did, and I was at the screening for it because obviously it’s also a Lifetime project, and it was on purpose that my doc is coming right now after that. I’m extremely pleased by the reception that the R. Kelly doc has received and the action, what’s happening now. And we’re hopeful that the same thing will happen after my documentary with regard to change inside these companies. And it brings home the fact that Lifetime has taken a very big step here in being brave as a company, to air both of these documentaries. Because the truth is that other television networks and companies have looked into this McDonald’s story and they decided not to do it, and if we’re going to shy away from big companies because we’re worried about advertising dollars then we’re never going to get to the bottom of this issue. And so, hats off to Lifetime for doing R. Kelly and for doing my doc!
Were you at the screening that was cancelled because of the violent threats?
Yep. Oh yeah. Speaking of retaliation! I don’t know if they’ve actually pinned all that down, but there’s a tremendous amount of supposition about how that all fit together... But, yes, I was there, and like I said, I think it was Lifetime’s strategy to mix these two things together.
Watching you in this investigative reporting mode, it made me wonder if what you went through at Fox—and of course we know it’s not just Fox—if the widespread nature of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in this industry ever made you feel disillusioned with journalism, or made you feel like you needed some time away from it?
Yes. After my experience, definitely yes. But I’ve also taken this time to watch from afar and I think it’s been really educational for me because I’ve been just working nonstop for 27 years. And you know, it’s a grind in the media business and you’re basically on all the time—you’ve got to keep up with everything. So that’s been fascinating for me to really just take a step back and be an onlooker instead of being a participant. But my life has worked in so many different, mysterious ways and I’ve done so many different things and been on so many different career trajectories. I was supposed to be a violinist and I was supposed to be a lawyer and then ended up in journalism… and whoever thought I’d end up being the one of the faces of sexual harassment?
So, you know, I love the idea of doing something different, and I had a chance to do investigative journalism at my second job back when television stations had more money and it was something that I really enjoyed, doing long-form pieces. And so when Lifetime came to me, I was like, yeah, I have that skill set.
And in terms of the larger Me Too movement, now it feels like we’re in the comeback stage, from people like Louis C.K. to John Lasseter, who was just hired the other day. Are you surprised by the continued success and comebacks of abusers, and how do you motivate yourself to keep doing this work when it can sometimes feel like the culture is just so resistant to change?
[Laughs] I know! But see, I’m a really optimistic person and I guess I have to be on this issue because I am pouring my heart and soul into it. But I have seen great strides. I mean, cultural change does not happen quickly, and when you look at the change that’s happened just over the last two years, it’s been immense. Just even in the reaction to how people handled the Matt Lauer situation versus mine. Like they didn’t malign the woman right away, they didn’t trash her, he issued an apology and he was fired. I mean, it was so different from even a year and a half before. So that showed immense progress.
It’s very frustrating for me to see stories about the comebacks, even if they’re just kind of guessing if somebody’s going to make a comeback, because it kind of plays into what’s already embedded in our culture. Why do we automatically expect that these people will make a comeback? Really, what we should be focused on is all these women who are no longer working anymore, who we may or may not know—the majority we don’t. Why are we not focused on them? We should be focused on making sure that all of them have their careers back before we’re worried about alleged perpetrators being able to make a comeback.