Written by Ana Garcia
Before writing The Assistant, the new critically acclaimed film that explores gendered workplace oppression in the film industry, director Kitty Green interviewed people for six months, including those who had worked at Miramax and The Weinstein Company. But to say that Green’s film takes all of its inspiration from Harvey Weinstein’s indiscretions is to ignore all the care she put into making a film about women, particularly the role of “women’s work” as a kind of workplace abuse. “Women’s work,” or the exclusive delegation of tasks such as getting coffee rather than sitting in on a meeting to women, is what made women in the film industry leave or feel there wasn’t a path up for them. Through the point of view of the film’s protagonist Jane, the audience performs such “women’s work,” opening mail, emptying the trash, making photocopies, etc. But Jane –and the audience– also discovers a string of suspicious nocturnal events which no one seems to address. Indeed, characters only acknowledge these events with silence or curt implications of what took place the night before. Hidden among mundane workday noises—fluorescent lights, the copier’s hums, grumbling men—there lies a deafening, dangerous silence.
Silence takes on many forms throughout the film. Silence cements Jane’s social and professional position within the company, positioning speech as an indicator of power. When Jane addresses her superiors, even when relaying necessary information, they always receive it as an interruption. When Jane speaks to her male colleagues of the same rank, they either receive it as trivial or talk through her, quite literally dictating the exact words she should use to address their temperamental boss. Her powerlessness over her own words, even when she is with the other assistants, evidences how her gender forces her into a subordinate position in the company. She speaks freely only with other vulnerable women. Gender, then, becomes an important addition to the conflict of speaking out against abuse and powerful men.
Power and professional opportunities are divided disproportionately at Jane’s company. Jane, unlike her male coworkers, is expected to tidy up the boss’s office, open mail, wash dishes, and address the women and estranged wife that visit her boss. Work, conflict, even silence is gendered in this film. This gendering showcases Green’s masterful use of subtext and action to create tensions and highlight unjust societal practices organically through plot.
Among all these nuanced versions of silence, the film pays special attention to the action of being silenced. Being silenced is an act of abuse that implicates others in your crimes. As the trail of hair ties, lost earrings, and strange couch stains build up, so does the tension of needing to speak up but being unable to do so. This tension rises to one of its highest points when Jane must place a new, young, pretty, naïve, Boise waiter turned assistant into a hotel. Jane has been frequently berated by her boss. Yet in this moment she realizes that if she allows whatever might happen to happen, she is as much a victimizer as she is a victim.
Slence’s ability to both implicate and incite, to make one part of the aggrieved party and also an aggressor, contextualizes for audiences how powerful men like Harvey Weinstein exacted their power. Before watching this movie, I thought I would have had the courage to speak out against workplace abuse, if I had suspected it. Twenty-two and just entering the workplace myself, displaced in a new city and under pressure to prove myself, I am not sure if I would be prepared to drown myself and my career for the small chance of saving someone from hurt. If I or Jane would have spoken up, powerless in our positions, what would have changed? We would have left the company, but the line of victims would have continued. I would have quit that job. I know that for certain.
We all wish we could be our bravest all the time, that we could fall under the trope of the unflinching heroine. The Assistant makes an argument for how precarious and frightening being a bystander can be. It also makes a case for the difficulty of finding courage, which takes time to recognize and wield. While the film is certainly not entertaining in the same way as most action-packed blockbusters, it is similar to other movies of the past year (see: Joker) in that it invites viewers to undergo uncomfortable introspection. The audience is meant to see, feel, and hear through Jane, and in so doing so, feel as implicated and as stifled as the main character. Green says of her decision to focus on Jane’s point of view: “I didn’t want to let anyone off the hook essentially. I wanted people to be squarely in her shoes to experience the world the way she experiences it. Seeing how rough that environment can be for a young woman was important.”
Although The Assistant shares some similarities with recent movies, it also differentiates itself from other current films of the same subject such as Bombshell and Thirteen Reasons Why. The prevailing sentiment in Hollywood is to translate shock and anguish exclusively through representing abuse explicitly. Audiences can only understand abuse when it is directly seen and heard. At times, it is only through the perspective of the abuser that the audience catches a glimpse of a victim’s suffering. Despite audience pleas for triggers warnings and removal of graphic, emotionally harmful scenes, the movie industry finds it increasingly difficult to part with villains and their expertly connived crimes. Interestingly, the main antagonist, The Boss, was not written into the script. Green said of the motivations behind making this film, “I thought bad men have had enough screen time and I wanted to make a film about women.” Eventually, Green and her team felt the audience needed to feel The Boss’s presence, the explosive nature of his evil. They wrote him a few lines. But by removing the aggressor and his actions from the equation, The Assistant eschews harmful visualism creating space to understand how abuse takes place.
While I didn’t laugh or cry or shield my eyes with buttered fingers, I feel an immense sense of appreciation for this film. High stakes and crimes and guilt imbued in overwhelming silence—it is a must see if only to experience the film’s timeliness and uniqueness.