“There’s not only a gender gap in our country. There’s a gender chasm.” —Rep. Nita Lowey, 1991
We will undoubtedly remember Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the image of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford at the moment of her swearing in: hand raised, eyes closed, face turned heavenward, a figure of immense poise. Or, perhaps, for Ford’s description of her alleged sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, egged on by his friend, Mark Judge, when they were teenagers in the 1980s: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” the clinical psychologist said of the incident, drawing on her expertise to explain her own trauma. “The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” But the most telling photograph of Ford’s grueling experience captured it from the Republican side of the dais: Eleven white men arranged in a semicircle around, above, and behind Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, looming over the woman they’d hired to do their dirty work. I cannot imagine a more succinct illustration of the Republicans’ rank cowardice—in contrast to Ford’s courage—or of the “gender chasm” Rep. Nita Lowey identified during the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings 27 years ago.
After all, in the code of omertà that Slate’s Lili Loofbourow recognized among the nominee’s noxious friends, as in his furious opening statement to the committee, Kavanaugh himself has always had the prerogative to choose when to state his case, a prerogative reflected by the men of the Senate (including a number of Democrats). By contrast, in her fear of “annihilation” upon coming forward, as in her accommodating manner in the chamber (“Does that work for you?”), Ford has not had the same privilege, a fact echoed by the men’s frequent interruptions of the committee’s women (all Democrats). Following from #MeToo and #TimesUp, from Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, from the reaction to Hill’s tarring and feathering in Congress and the subsequent “Year of the Woman,” from wave upon wave of feminist organizing and the indignant backlash each has sparked, the entire Kavanaugh affair has hinged, in fact, on this question of voice. Who has one? Who doesn’t? And how, where, when is that voice heard? As such, the widely televised hearings were more than the culmination of a fraught nomination process, or a hyper-partisan political atmosphere, or a decades-long war for control of the Supreme Court. In eight or so hours, rather, Ford, Kavanaugh, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the media apparatus that brought it to us live, “gavel to gavel,” distilled perhaps the central social, political, and cultural divide of our moment: the chasm between those who can speak and those who are silenced.
This theme emerged early, with the committee’s Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley, interrupting its ranking member, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, to complain about her using her opening remarks to introduce Ford—a task Grassley had in fact neglected, delivering instead a long disquisition on Feinstein’s mishandling of Ford’s accusation. (“So what I’m getting is that Grassley is the victim testifying today,” New York’s Irin Carmon quipped on Twitter.) But the day’s most arresting aspect was not, to my mind, one particular difference in men’s and women’s handling of the hearings, whether in the chamber or on TV. It was the profusion of differences, which created an exasperating Russian nesting doll effect: Inside the embarrassing histrionics of Sens. Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn, Ben Sasse, and Kavanaugh himself, performing fealty to their emperor on Pennsylvania Avenue, there was what The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix called “the egotism of the male ally,” long, bloviating speeches from Democratic men intent of displaying their feminist bona fides, which itself encircled the spectacle’s surreal pith, its rotten core—the cowardly silence of the GOP, which has come to define its position not only on the subject of sexual assault or gender discrimination but on any issue of moral import, from healthcare to race relations to education to immigration. The Ford/Kavanaugh hearings were, in a sense, the magnified emblem of party’s rise to power, the flag flying above its Vichy Washington: Eight full hours of Republicans (literally) saying the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud.
The recesses offered no respite to those watching on television, not that one expected the industry responsible for so long protecting Les Moonves and Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose and other serial sex pests to lean in on the topic. In truth, there was a distinct echo of the GOP’s use of Rachel Mitchell—sidelined as soon as she failed to display the requisite obeisance to Kavanaugh—in the network panels, all of which featured gender parity, and nearly all of which were anchored by men. (The PBS NewsHour team, with Judy Woodruff at the helm, is the sole exception.) The broadcast and cable networks’ coverage of the hearings—the largest and most exasperating nesting doll of the set—might be seen as a reflection of the entire experience, and of the only lesson the Senate seems to have learned since Orrin Hatch read from his copy of The Exorcist in 1991: “Optics” matter, insofar as they stave off demands for real, substantive change. And so NBC can continue to sell Megyn Kelly as an independent voice, a leader on issues of gender in the workplace, even though she protested during Thursday’s coverage that the phrase “Believe women” is a “nonsensical statement.” And so CNN’s cast of thousands can evaluate in real time who is “winning” and who is “losing” the sexual assault horse race—Ford out to a lead, Kavanaugh closing fast in the home stretch!—without introducing any facts about how sexual assault actually plays out in America. And so Fox News can cling to “credible” figures (Chris Wallace, Brit Hume) to shore up its claims to being a legitimate news organization, even as the former offered no more trenchant analysis than “the Democrats are scoring points” and the latter practically wrung his hands for the camera while noting, “Republicans are worried, I think, as much as anything, that they’re going to further inflame the #MeToo movement by a lot of hostile questioning.”
Here we were, albeit inadvertently, at the heart of the matter: The Ford/Kavanaugh hearings—the whole confirmation process, at least since Ford’s allegations first emerged—exposed the gaping maw of America’s gender chasm, in which #MeToo, designed to shed light on one of the most traumatic and pervasive symptoms of the disease that is patriarchal culture, has since come to be seen by many of the nation’s men (and some of its women) as an infection in its own right, one that can be “inflamed” or “soothed” by the right topical ointment. A thread of email comments posted by the Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera threw the pattern into sharpest relief—women sharing that they, too, were survivors; men calling such women “sluts” and “skanks”—but it swirled in the Senate chamber, too. There was Grassley whining about an interruption by Sen. Kamala Harris, who had the gall to demand a copy of a neighborhood map Mitchell presented to Ford, or sniping, “You got what you wanted, and I’d think you’d be satisfied,” at Sen. Amy Klobuchar, during an exchange over Ford’s polygraph results. There was Kavanaugh’s bitter, smirking contempt for the women on the dais—for women, period—culminating in his breathtakingly arrogant retort to Klobuchar’s question about whether he’d ever blacked out from drinking: “Have you?” There were the effusive apologies to Kavanaugh from nearly every Republican on the committee, none of whom except Grassley deigned even to speak to Ford, and he primarily in his capacity as chair. In a way so clear, so crisp, that a Law & Order episode cut from the same cloth would be called “on the nose,” the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings thus suggested that the cancers eating away at us—classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.—will remain untreatable until we recognize that white male grievance is the real inflammation here, an itch the Republicans have perfected scratching. “If this is the new norm, you better watch out for your nominees,” Graham threatened. “She’s done a great job of exposing the Democrats playing games,” NBC’s village idiot, Chuck Todd, proclaimed of Ford at one point, turning her into “a victim of the Democrats playing politics.” This is the closed-loop genius of reducing every issue facing the country to an abacus of wins and losses, grades and points, to be trotted out on the Sunday shows: In stripping those issues of their actual content, such logic absolves the man in the host’s seat, the man sitting across the table, indeed the man watching in his pajamas at home of considering for a single, uncomfortable second anyone but himself.
Ford’s determination not to be silenced, the women of America’s refusal to be silenced, has been this week’s, this month’s, this year’s, this presidency’s one solace, and ultimately, one hopes, this cancer’s cure. Because, without grandstanding, shouting, or going red in the face—though they would be eminently justified in doing so—Ford, the Democratic women of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the most astute commentators on this historical moment have become the honest, wrenching, relentless vanguard of the next wave of feminist organizing, the next “Year of the Woman,” the next sea change in American political, social, and cultural life. Because for every John Hockenberry or Jian Ghomeshi bemoaning that serial sex pests don’t have an easy path to “redemption,” there is a Rebecca Traister, a Lili Loofbourow, a Jia Tolentino, a Moira Donegan forcefully applying their scalpels to the tumor of patriarchy with each new piece. Because for every Lindsey Graham or John Cornyn desperate to please the president, and every Ben Sasse or Jeff Flake unwilling, unable, to meaningfully stand up to him, there is a Mazie Hirono or Amy Klobuchar or Kamala Harris posing pointed questions, crawling under men’s skin. Because for every Brett Kavanaugh, for every man of undistinguished record and questionable character elevated to a position of power as a result of his race, his gender, his sexuality, and his class, there is a Christine Blasey Ford, a woman of sterling accomplishments and unassailable character struggling to be heard and deciding to speak anyway.
In this, though Kavanaugh now appears likely to secure confirmation, I suspect Ford’s testimony, following Hill’s, will have long-lasting consequences. As Hill says near the conclusion of Frieda Lee Mock’s 2013 documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, her appearance before the Judiciary Committee was the beginning of the work, and not its end. “The thing that caused me to be fearful, that testimony,” she says, in the midst of a montage of grassroots organizing, of women being elected to office, of changes in discrimination laws and their practical application, “was the right thing to do.” And so it was that a “terrified” Ford did the right thing and offered her own excruciating testimony, quiet, composed, and powerful throughout. As many observers on the networks noted afterwards, the difference between reading it on the page and hearing Ford read it aloud was striking, as was her oft-cited description of Kavanaugh and Judge’s “indelible” laughter, a nastiness the nominee, guilty of this specific allegation or not, betrayed again and again and again on Thursday afternoon. As Ford herself noted, summing up our cultural moment with wrenching precision, the most traumatizing aspect of the experience was Kavanaugh putting his hand over her mouth during the assault, choking off her cries for help—silencing her.
If there is one through line in all the accounts of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault brought to light in the last year, though, it’s not that women fear the “annihilation” of coming forward, though of course they do. It’s that men are responsible for the fear, culpable in the annihilation, guilty of literally or metaphorically muzzling women, even if they are not themselves harassers or abusers. Because for every Christine Blasey Ford who stands before the nation with her hand raised, her eyes closed, her face turned heavenward, there is a man—dozens of them, hundreds, thousands—going about his business as usual, unwilling to risk his job, or his friendship, or his reputation, or his comfort, to confront the serial sex pests that inhabit his own orbit. I am ashamed of the times I’ve gone silent when I should’ve said something, the times I talked when I should’ve shut up, the times I failed to confront the Brett Kavanaughs I encountered because I was afraid I’d become the object of their incandescent rage, of being punched or spat on or called a faggot. Which may explain why the most telling sound of the hearings, for me, came near the conclusion of Kavanaugh’s questioning, in an exchange that emphasized the underlying cause of America’s gender chasm, then and now: At the very moment women have embraced speaking truth to power as a “civic duty,” to quote Ford, it seems that men have abdicated theirs.
“Did you watch Dr. Ford’s testimony?” Harris, batting cleanup for the Democrats, asked as her five minutes came to a close.
“I did not,” Kavanaugh replied, before blubbering out an excuse.
That’s the thing, when it comes to the difference between the optics and the substance, between putting up and shutting up, between courage and cowardice, which the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings underscored with devastating exactitude. In the final estimation, you can’t fake it for long, because you can’t speak and listen at the same time.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.