In the U.S., stories of sexual harassment of women by their powerful male bosses have been proliferating for decades. The more sensationalist stories, involving high-profile men, continue to proliferate. But, in Spain, a woman accusing her powerful boss of harassment was unheard of until as recently as 2000. In that case, Nevenka Fernández sued her boss, the mayor of a small city in León province and went public with his harassment. Twenty years later, she’s speaking out about the details of the harassment for the first time.
Opening Shot: A meeting room in an old hotel is set up like there will be a press conference. Then we flash to March 26, 2001, where Nevenka Fernández resigned from her council position in the city of Ponferrada due to sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of the town’s mayor, Ismael Álvarez Rodríguez.
The Gist: In 2000, Nevenka reported that Rodríguez, her boss, had been sexually harassing her and threatening her because she kept rebuffing his advances. In 2001, she resigned and filed suit against Rodríguez, the first suit of its kind in Spain. In Nevenka: Breaking The Silence, Nevenka talks at length for the first time about the case since her resignation 20 years ago.
The first part of the three-part docuseries sets things up: Nevenka was just 24 when she was added to the ticket for Rodríguez, a charming hospitality executive running for mayor of the small city of 69,000 in Spain’s León province. She was a grad student studying economics, and after she graduated, she came to know some of Rodríguez’s political allies. They were tasked to add women to the ticket, and Nevenka fit the bill: Young, smart, and attractive. The third thing started to become the most important thing, as chauvinism ran rampant in Spain in 1999.
After Rodríguez and his ticket won, Nevenka saw the mayor as a guy who liked to exert his power but a dynamic person to work with. Almost immediately, though, rumors started flying about the two of them having a relationship, as if that’s the only reason why a young woman such as herself could make it to the city council. He started confiding in her as his wife’s illness got worse, meeting her at a midway stop between Ponferrada and Madrid, where Nevenka was finishing her grad studies and visiting her boyfriend.
After Rodríguez’s wife died, though, the pressure on Nevenka got worse. Nevenka did go out on a few dates with her boss, but immediately realized it was not a good idea. But the more she tried to keep her distance, the more he wanted to get closer, leaving her pleading and threatening letters. He ultimately went to her parents to let them know that she was irresponsible. When Nevenka told them what was really going on, her mother went to the council and said that Nevenka would speak up if they didn’t let her resign.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Nevenka: Breaking The Silence feels like a bit of a higher-end version of any number of interviews with women in the U.S. that have been sexually harassed by their high-powered bosses.
Our Take: The story that Nevenka Fernández is telling in Nevenka: Breaking The Silence, isn’t new, unfortunately. The 3-part docuseries, directed by Maribel Sanchez-Maroto, gets down to business. It’s the first time Nevenka is telling her story since she resigned in 2001, and most of the focus is on her, though Sanchez-Maroto also interviews journalists and people in the government of Ponferrada who were familiar with how Mayor Rodríguez would operate.
What’s remarkable to us, watching from here in the U.S., is the fact that what seems to be a standard, albeit horrific, case of sexual harassment in the years after Anita Hill but well before #MeToo was massive news in Spain. It was the first time that a woman had sued her high-powered boss, someone who was an up-and-comer in Spanish politics, because of his history of harassment. The fact that this was big news in the 2000-01 timeframe points a glaring-hot spotlight at just how chauvinistic the atmosphere was in Spain at that time.
It’s a window into a country that seemed to discount the contributions of women far more than nations like the U.S., whose track record was bad enough. Observations about women and their ability to do their jobs had evolved a bit by the beginning of the 21st century here, but in Spain they seemed to be stuck in the ’80s. Obviously Nevenka slept her way into her job. Obviously, because she went on a chaste pity date or two with Rodríguez, the abusiveness he was heaping on her was her fault. Heck, even when she met King Juan Carlos I, the first words out of his mouth were how pretty she was.
This was something that was so far ingrained in Spanish society that it now doesn’t seem all that surprising that no woman dared to take on a powerful harasser until 2001. It’ll be interesting to see what price she had to pay to speak out when no one else would.
Sex and Skin: In the first episode, nothing. But the coming attractions show that Rodríguez’s harassment got far worse in the year in-between Nevenka’s first complaint and her resignation.
Parting Shot: Nevenka’s daughter tells her to leave the council, or “They’ll make your life hell.”
Sleeper Star: Since this is Nevenka’s story, there really is no sleeper star in this show.
Most Pilot-y Line: The first episode should have had a bit more varied a roster of interviewees. But the filmmakers can only talk to who agrees to talk to them.
Our Call: STREAM IT. There’s nothing fancy or all that shocking about Nevenka: Breaking The Silence. But it’s runtime is brief and it gives a very good insight into just how horrible things were for women in Spain’s corridors of power, even until recent years.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.