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Hysterical men illustrate the profound imbalance in gender dynamics
If a woman fell into a full-scale meltdown in front of Congress, if she shrieked and spit the way multiple men did yesterday, we would not be having even a hypothetical conversation about her confirmation.
Thursday presented us with a tale of two Senate hearings, and what a harrowing tale it was: A parable that laid bare the ways in which gender cleaves our conception of acceptable behavior. Watching Hon. Brett Kavanaugh scream for long hours, many women will have fumed over the double standard. If a woman fell into a full-scale meltdown in front of Congress, if she shrieked and spit the way multiple men did yesterday, we would not be having even a hypothetical conversation about her confirmation. She would be done for.
Women in politics have classically been bound by an emotive paradox: If, like Hillary Clinton, a woman raises her voice on the national stage, she often finds herself dismissed—typically, by men—as shrill. If, like Hillary Clinton, she attempts to adopt a more measured and even-keeled tone to combat that well-worn criticism, she then becomes stiff, unnatural, fake. In the effort to be taken seriously, women must work overtime: Be strong, but not so strong as to threaten your male opponent; not so strong as to become the bitch. Be polite, but not so polite that you become a pushover, or send the wrong signal. Be real, be firm, be charming, be approachable, be whatever ineffable cocktail of characteristics won’t pique male insecurity. Be friendly, and especially when expressing your trauma, be calm, be rational, and you just might be believed. Allow the pain to rise to the surface, and you risk wading into “hysterical woman territory.”
Hysterical men, however, that’s another story. We’ve watched a zillion tantrums in the Trump era, each more volatile than the last. And on Thursday, we got to watch that imbalance play out yet again.
Men convincing everyone they are less emotional and unhinged than women is one of the greatest scams— Alana Hope Levinson (@alanalevinson) September 27, 2018
Christine Blasey Ford appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee first. In an emotional—yet remarkably calm—testimony, she recalled her memory of the party where she says Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982. Pushing through intermittent tears, she retold the same story she’s been telling, in especially vivid detail. Kavanaugh and his best friend, Mark Judge, cornered her when she split off from the group at a small house party. They pushed her into an empty room. Loud music played; they turned it up. Kavanaugh pressed a hand over her mouth, forcing her down onto a bed. He climbed on top of her, “grinding” against her body in a drunken frenzy.
“It was hard for me to breathe and I believed that Brett was going to accidentally kill me,” she recalled, but the memory that stands out in her mind remains one of laughter: “the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.” Although visibly distraught at times, she sat patiently through the questions that followed. Occasionally, she expressed confusion when the prosecutor—a much-hyped “female assistant” Senate Republicans hired, presumably so the internet wouldn’t flood with photos of old white men ganging up on an alleged sexual assault survivor—lacked clarity, but always with a genuine and personable tone. That is an obligation many women will be familiar with: maintain self-control at all costs, or watch your legitimate claim circle the drain.
I don't know what Ford is feeling right now, but I do know the specific sensation of smiling through something painful because you know staying friendly and nonthreatening is crucial to being believed and taken seriously— Katie McDonough (@kmcdonovgh) September 27, 2018
What every girl is taught, from birth. https://t.co/ZCo8sysC6D— Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) September 27, 2018
Ford exuded relatability throughout questioning that often seemed aimless, unnecessary. She voluntarily corrected herself on small misstatements, she maintained poise in even offering her rawest answers, and she showed natural vulnerability. Glasses askew on top of her head, raking back her hair in especially stressful moments, she looked exactly like the person she said she was: a woman just trying to do her unpleasant-if-necessary civic duty. Her uncanny composure in a new and anxiety-making situation proved so compelling that even Fox News analyst Brit Hume acknowledged her testimony as “credible and powerful.”
Then came Kavanaugh.
The embattled nominee huffed into the room, dropped himself heavily into the hot seat, poured himself an angry glass of water, and launched into a furious tirade. He screamed, he bloviated, and he cried—not in the quietly composed way Ford did while recalling her trauma, but in the blustery, red-faced way of a toddler locked in a temper tantrum. His voice notching rapidly up to an all-out shout, Kavanaugh excoriated the Senators for the “national disgrace” they’d wrought in handling the mounting pile of sexual assault allegations against him.
“The Constitution gives the Senate an important role in the confirmation process, but you have replaced ‘advice and consent’ with ‘search and destroy,’” he raved. “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional allegations.” Hammering through his résumé, he went on to highlight a few key themes—sports! His meticulous social calendar! His father’s meticulous social calendar! Beers! Academia! Church! His many women friends!—as his lips tightened into a razor-thin line. “BRETT ISN’T YELLING! YOU’RE YELLING!” is how the Washington Post sardonically summed things up. “HE IS NOT EMOTIONAL! YOU ARE EMOTIONAL! NO, YOU LISTEN!”
His face contorted into various rage positions, Kavanaugh conjured up an incriminating image I’m sure he never intended to: that of the petulant young man who cannot control himself, incidentally the great unifier in the charges against him. He did not, however, take accountability. Instead, he punted on simple yes-or-no questions, dodging the majority and returning always to his talking points: I have never disrespected women, no one remembers this party, look at my calendar, I love beer yes but only sometimes on weekdays. Again and again, he interrupted senators and belligerently shouted down their questions.
The discrepancy between Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s did not go unnoticed:
kavanaugh literally shouting down allegations that—among many appalling things—include a tendency to get belligerent and berate others, sure okay alright— Claire Lampen (@claire_lampen) September 27, 2018
Watching this hearing—her solicitous, patient, him belligerent, interrupting with nonsequitors—is a crash course in how gendered our notions of acceptable behavior are.— Moira Donegan (@MoiraDonegan) September 27, 2018
Please imagine, for a moment, if @HillaryClinton had cried & yelled during her 11-hour hearing. Or if @CecileRichards had angrily shouted at Senators if “they like beer.” Or if Dr. Ford had said her treatment during this hearing was a “conspiracy.” The double standard is insane.— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) September 28, 2018
kavanaugh coming off a little shrill don’t you think— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) September 27, 2018
Unfortunately for everyone watching, Kavanaugh’s conniption seemed only to embolden the committee’s all-male GOP contingent. Once Ford stepped down, it didn’t take long for Republicans to dispense with both with their “female assistant” and the previously collegial discourse. The Republicans let loose. Assuring Kavanaugh he had “nothing to apologize for,” Sen. Lindsey Graham unleashed his impassioned anger on Democrats: “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020,” he screamed, gesticulating wildly and failing to realize that—alleged personal vendetta aside—that’s precisely what his own party did with Obama-era nominee Merrick Garland. Like Kavanaugh, and like many in his outraged male cohort, Graham tore into those who stood in the way of him getting what he wanted. That emotional explosion did not go unnoticed, either:
men are too emotional for politics— Anna Swartz (@Anna_Snackz) September 27, 2018
And now imagine that a female Senator had a complete HISSY FIT like Lindsey Graham and screamed and threatened all of her committee members. How would THAT go down? @LindseyGrahamSC you must have some nasty kompromat on you. So emotional.— Heather Whaley (@HeatherWhaley) September 28, 2018
Ford was not the only foil to Republican hysteria. During her questioning, GOP prosecutor Rachel Mitchell remained cordial, even friendly at moments, in her exchange with the witness. Speaking to Kavanaugh, Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono kept her cool, even joking gently with him when he got worked up. Ranking Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein and California Sen. Kamala Harris anchored their inquiries in deference, keeping their tones even and civil. After the ordeal finally finished, Sen. Amy Klobuchar commented that, if she had approached Kavanaugh’s bench with the attitude he brought to Thursday’s hearing, “he would have thrown me out.”
Many people who watched Kavanaugh and company’s fussy display came away with the impression that they were watching man babies made to stay awake through nap time. As I absorbed the situation, I texted with friends about our shared sense of foreboding déjà vu: The last time we laughed off performative male outrage—peppered with falsehoods—the last time we dismissed it as patently ridiculous, it won the White House. Watching the Senate hearings with two years’ worth of perspective gained, I could not shake the nagging certainty that this was really playing with some people. And indeed, despite his apparent disappointment at his man’s too-soft Fox News performance, President Trump soon gave Kavanaugh his stamp of approval.
Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2018
To his peers—who, incidentally, happen to be the people in power—Kavanaugh’s rage telegraphs as righteous masculinity. His apoplectic indignation is exactly that of the fist-banging, authoritarian patriarch, whose will is simply law and how dare you question it? He embodied, as Rebecca Traister aptly put it, the “Good Boy” robbed of his birthright. His fellow men agreed that his anger, like his position, was deserved.
To those who believe Ford—to those who’ve been pinned down by someone more powerful, and who intuitively understand the thin line they’ll be forced to tread between credible witness and opportunistic liar if they talk openly about the experience—Kavanaugh embodied belligerent privilege that holds its rule by force, crowding out others’ autonomy with sheer volume. Ford never had that opportunity. Across social media, Kavanaugh’s display prompted myriad tongue-in-cheek observations that men may actually be the ones too emotional for political life, and while that objectively seems true—keep it together, men—their emotions also drive the game. And depending on how the Senate votes, we will have to live with the damning implications of that male rage for generations to come.
Claire Lampen is a lifestyle reporter who covers sex, gender, and reproductive rights. Formerly a Fulbright fellow, she has published work with Vogue, Gizmodo, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, the BBC, Vice, Marie Claire, and more.