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Una Mullally: Kavanaugh illustrates many tricks and tropes of male rage

Talk of academic prowess and athletic skill, while distancing past self, are classic tactics

If a group of writers sat in room for a year trying to concoct a theatre of male anger, they could never have scripted the Senate hearing of Brett Kavanaugh last week. Their script would be seen as too on the nose, too cliched, too outrageous.

Yet this contemporary theatre drawn along gender lines, where a victim of sexual assault is forced into calmness despite her being the one who suffered the trauma, and where the alleged assaulter assumes the stance of aggression and hysteria, is instructive in how it illustrates many of the tricks and tropes of male rage.

Although he adopted the stance of an everyman being dragged through the mud by a vindictive woman, when you are as privileged as Kavanaugh, requests for accountability feel like threats and injustices. The overarching sentiment of Kavanaugh’s monologue was: why can’t I get what I want?

Kavanaugh used his daughter as a protective shield, mentioning how his 10-year-old asked to pray for “the woman”. This trope some men use as a counterbalance to their sexism – that being the father of a girl means that one cannot be violent towards women – is performative, and also ironically reduces women and girls to an instrument of male enlightenment. It is also a version of seeing women only as fully human when they are in proximity to men – “as a father of daughters”, and so on.


Evoking respect

Kavanaugh repeatedly referred to his academic prowess. This tactic has many uses. It insinuates that an intelligent man would not behave recklessly or badly. It positions someone with academic aspirations as someone who would have much to lose by committing a crime. It is also an attempt at evoking male respect for the so-called smart guy in the room.

Men get to close chapters on their pasts, with boyhood and adolescence viewed as collective experiences

Related to this is Kavanaugh’s repetition about his achievements and activities as a teenage athlete. Men are taught that they must respect good sportsmen. Such deference is one of the reasons for the dominance of male sport in our society. These men are viewed as leaders, heroes, role models, and their technical skill and talent held up as something divine and attractive. Because of this, society constantly forgives sportsmen for poor behaviour, with their talent acting as a magic eraser. One only has to look at how little traction the latest claims that the footballer Ronaldo made an out-of-court settlement with a woman who accused him of rape (which he denies) have received to understand how reluctant we are to pay attention to the negative claims against sportsmen.

Kavanaugh framed his past as dislocated from his current personality. Men get to close chapters on their pasts, with boyhood and adolescence viewed as collective experiences, and are given permission to evolve. No matter how poor a man’s behaviour in the past, the opportunities for “moving on”, for absolution, and for “boys will be boys” excuses are plentiful. In the context of a hearing like this, or in any “he said / she said” scenario, men get to forget their past, women are constantly reminded of theirs.

Spontaneous and emotional is very different to the planned, emotionless stance women are instructed to adopt in order to claim space in patriarchy

This hearing was not just about who is going to be the next American Supreme Court Justice, as significant as that is. It was also about who gets to be believed. But it also exposed something that was not anticipated. When attempting to emulate successful tactics in having women heard and matter, we must look at what works where, and how to do more of that. What worked in this instance was two-pronged; female dignity, and female righteous anger. Blasey Ford’s composure, credibility, calmness and forthrightness worked, but when sexual assault survivors Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher confronted Jeff Flake in the elevator of the building, they flipped the script.

Unwanted attention

Here was a man forced to endure the unwanted attention and visceral urgency of women whose emotions spilled over from the “polite” boundaries we collaborate in maintaining so as not to “cause a scene”. The shout of “look at me when I’m talking to you,” forced Flake to see their pain, their desperation, their survival. No matter how hard anyone tries, it is difficult to argue against someone’s personal experience and their truth when it is articulated in such a raw manner. There needs to be more of that. Never doubt the power of a woman delivering testimony in such a dignified way as Blasey Ford did, but equally, never underestimate the power of women literally shouting about their pain and experiences right up in the face of their oppressor.

Those women broke ranks from the respectability we demand of women when faced with an absolute lack of respect, and it is likely that their spontaneous, emotional intervention had an impact on Flake’s decision to vote for Kavanaugh with the caveat of a brief FBI investigation.

Perhaps that won’t make a difference, but it’s a chink in the armour, and an indication that he knows there is something wrong, and is doing the minimum to ease his conscience.

Spontaneous and emotional is very different to the planned, emotionless stance women are instructed to adopt in order to claim space in patriarchy; dress seriously, speak calmly, don’t cry, don’t lose temper, and so on. Watching the video of the elevator incident, the Audre Lorde quote springs to mind, “Your silence will not protect you.” A lesson for us all.