Two years before the Equal Rights Amendment officially failed, “Nine to Five” (1980), in which Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin lightheartedly battle a serial sexual predator, memorably explored the sheer zaniness of workplace harassment. It was a smash, earning $103 million. It even had a catchy theme song.
It’s almost 40 years later, in the Weinstein-C.K.-Moore-Rose-Tambor-Lauer-Keillor-era, and no film about men mistreating women at the office has similarly captured the popular imagination since. When it comes to sexual harassment, Hollywood seems to prefer stories of women treating men badly — in films from “Disclosure” to “Horrible Bosses” — to ones about damsels in distress. Even though just 17 percent of sexual harassment claims filed in 2016 were filed by men, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Exhibit A is 1994’s “Disclosure,” a box-office smash in which the very vulnerable Michael Douglas is sexually harassed by the very vicious Demi Moore.
The Michael Crichton novel, also released in 1994, is an ideology-fueled, anti-PC thriller by a future climate-change denier married five times before he died in 2008 — one who had already taken on the invincible Japanese businesses exploiting America in “Rising Sun” (1992).
The novel, about a male computer executive whose ex-girlfriend harasses him after getting the promotion he thought was his, starts pushing buttons with its epigraph: “Power is neither male nor female,” a quote attributed to former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. For more than 400 pages, it doesn’t really stop. There’s even an afterword that, to borrow a phrase from President Donald Trump, shows there can be bad behavior on both sides.
“The advantage of a role-reversal story is that it may enable us to examine aspects concealed by traditional responses and conventional rhetoric,” Crichton wrote. “However readers respond to this story, it is important to recognize that the behavior of the two antagonists mirrors each other.”
Starring aggrieved white male specialist Douglas — see “Fatal Attraction” (1987), “Basic Instinct” (1992) and “Falling Down” (1993) — “Disclosure” packs a bit less punch on film. Befuddled in a toothpaste-stained tie, its hero stumbles through the movie like a 1950s sitcom dad adrift in the 1990s, mumbling about CD-ROM speeds and trying to field his daughter’s questions about why her friend has two moms.
Moore, meanwhile, does everything but gnash her teeth as a Gordon Gekko-like corporate manipulator who tries to seduce Douglas and then falsely claims harassment after he turns her down. After an answering-machine tape of their excruciating encounter derails her story, “Disclosure” morphs into a standard thriller, its third act less about sex than about tech. There’s even a virtual-reality showdown.
Released three years after Anita Hill took on Clarence Thomas on Capitol Hill, “Disclosure” made waves among gender theorists. Bonnie J. Dow, a communications professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of “The Sage Handbook of Gender and Communication,” recalled sitting on a panel at a conference where “every paper was about the movie.” She even wrote one herself.
The experts’ conclusion: “This is really not the way to educate people about sexual harassment,” Dow said.
According to Dow, Crichton, as with “Rising Sun,” put a memorable twist on an issue ripped from the headlines in a way that entertained readers and moviegoers. That’s what good fiction writers do.
It was also a total jerk move.
“As a polemic, I don’t like what it does,” Dow said of “Disclosure.” “It sort of pushes aside the people who overwhelmingly suffer this problem.”
George F. Will took a different view of Crichton’s novel, ceding it was “not deathless literature” but nonetheless worthwhile.
“Crichton’s premise — that there is no difference between the sexes regarding abuse of power — may or may not be true,” Will wrote in 1994. “But it certainly is a provocation to ‘victim feminists,’ whose premise is that the world would be pretty much perfect if it were scrubbed clean of all vestiges of patriarchy.”
Despite its mixed reception, the film is among the highest-grossing movies about sexual harassment of all time. “Disclosure” took in $83 million domestically, making it the 14th top-grossing movie of 1994 — less than “Nine to Five” did, especially when you account for inflation, but it also took in an additional $131 million internationally. (Box Office Mojo doesn’t list the equivalent figure for “Nine to Five.”)
And “Disclosure” has a lot of company among role-reversal movies. “Horrible Bosses” (2011), in which Jennifer Aniston plays a dentist aggressively courting her male hygienist, earned $118 million domestically. “Working Girl” (1988), in which Sigourney Weaver sleeps with Harrison Ford before she punishes him for sleeping with Melanie Griffith (whom she also punishes) took in $102 million and netted five Oscar nominations. “Tootsie” (1982), in which Dustin Hoffman — himself now accused of sexual harassment — dodges the unwanted attention of a colleague while in drag, made $177 million.
For a widely seen film to tackle men harassing women at all, it seems, the woman might have to really be a man.
Compare that list with “North Country” (2005), a hard-hitting movie about men harassing women in an iron mine, starring Charlize Theron, that earned $25 million; or Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men,” an art-house hit about rogues torturing a deaf female colleague that took in $3 million.
Nowadays, when male entertainers and politicians are routinely 86-ed for exposing themselves to women, locking women in offices with secret buttons, courting underage girls and/or hiring ex-Israeli spies to cover their tracks, this imbalance seems like a problem.
Of course, movie theaters aren’t necessarily for learning. If mainstream movies’ obsession with harassed men is out of step with reality, at least we can look to real life — like the resignations or firing of people including Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., for lessons.
As Dow put it, “I don’t think that we’ve ever been able to count on, or will be able to count on, Hollywood to educate us.”