It’s a very, very old and tired Hollywood cliche: The plucky, career obsessed woman using everything—and I do mean everything—at her disposal to get ahead. The latest addition to this dubious canon is Olivia Wild’s character in the new film Richard Jewell. In the movie, she portrays Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs as a woman who attempts to exchange sex for a scoop—a massive fissure of the most basic journalistic ethics. For some reason, Wild thinks there is a feminist defense to be made of this narrative choice.
The movie is based on the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, which killed one person and injured many others. Just before the bomb (which was packed with nails) went off, it was spotted by a security guard, Richard Jewell, who began evacuating the area. Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell was quickly recast in the national media as a villain when Kathy Scruggs at the Atlanta Journal Constitution accurately reported that Jewell was the lead suspect being considered by authorities. But in fact, he was innocent. Eventually, after a long manhunt, Eric Robert Rudolph—who went on to bomb an Alabama abortion clinic—pled guilty. It’s an incredibly messy and sad story, and neither Jewell nor Scruggs ever really recovered from the disaster; Jewell spent the rest of his life attempting to clear his name via a series of lawsuits, and so Scruggs and the AJC were dragged through the courts for years.
For some reason, Clint Eastwood and the other makers of Richard Jewell decided that the tragic story needed a retelling with the addition of a spicy suggestion that Kathy Scruggs fucked for tips. There’s reportedly an exchange in the movie between Scruggs (played by Wilde) and an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm, where she offers to sleep with him, and he responds: “Kathy, you couldn’t f— it out of them. What makes you think you could f— it out of me?”
Scruggs died in 2001 and can no longer defend herself. But in defense of the movie’s deployment of this longstanding sexist trope, Olivia Wilde told Variety that the people who are criticizing the movie are the real sexists:
“I think it’s a shame that she has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film,” Wilde told Variety‘s Marc Malkin on the 2019 Gotham Awards red carpet. “It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious, sexlessness. It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists. There’s a complexity to Kathy, as there is to all of us, and I really admired her.”
Alleging that a dead woman committed the most basic of journalistic ethical breaches is not even a particularly original plot line—a flat characterization suggesting women can be both messy and tough, libidinal and intellectual, all through a handy bit of seduction. The figure of the woman journalist using sex to get ahead has very deep roots, and women have been stigmatized as unreliable and sleazy for as long as they’ve been in the news business. And yet, Wilde continued!
“I did a ton of research, I really embraced her dynamic, multidimensional nuanced personality,” Wilde added. “She was incredibly dogged and intrepid. She was famous to getting to crime scenes before the police. She was also a woman working in the news in 1996; yeah, she had relationships with people she worked with. That’s pretty common in any industry. I don’t see the same thing happening to Jon Hamm’s character, who arguably does the exact same thing. I have nothing but respect for Kathy Scruggs, she’s no longer with us, so I feel a certain amount of responsibility to protect her legacy and tell people: ‘Back off. Don’t reduce her to this one thing.’”
The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the paper where Scruggs worked, is having none of it. Editor-in-chief Kevin Riley told Indiewire in a statement that “there is no evidence that this ever happened,” and called the suggestion “offensive and deeply troubling in the #MeToo era.” In a long piece about Scruggs that acknowledges the complexities of her story and her character—there’s mention of “the time police responded at 3 a.m. when Scruggs refused to get out of a taxi outside a Buckhead hotel. She was drunk, naked and sitting in the driver’s seat”—the AJC is very clear that any wild-child behavior did not cross the all-important line, a sexual relationship with a source, that would compromise the integrity of her work: “She was one of the better reporters I ever worked with. She was really tough and hard-nosed,” said Ron Martz, who worked with Scruggs on the bombing stories. “When she went after a story she did what was necessary to get the story, within legal and ethical bounds.”
If anybody is reducing Scruggs to one thing, it’s the movie for suggesting that a tendency to party is interchangeable with trading sex for tips. It’s not just suggesting that she slept with her sources, but that tenacity, dedication, and complexity in a female character is reducible to sex.