the kavanaugh hearings

The Myth of the Perfect Victim

Photo: Melina Mara/Getty Images

On Thursday, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford addressed Republican senator Orrin Hatch with a polite smile after he suggested that she wanted to take a break from testifying. “Does that work for you as well?” she asked, explaining, “I’m used to being collegial.” It was one of several moments where the psychologist and Stanford professor appeared to try to humanize herself to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and to effect. Senator Hatch later described Ford to a CNN reporter as an “attractive and nice person.” “She’s pleasing,” he added.

It’s an unfortunate truth that if there were ever a woman who could be “pleasing” to — and much more crucially, believed by — the overwhelmingly white, male governing body that will decide if Brett Kavanaugh makes it onto the Supreme Court later today, it’s Ford. White and blonde, married with kids, she has the characteristics that tend to drum up sympathy among conservatives. She’s also highly educated, with professional expertise in the very subject for which she was called to testify; the rare person who can detail her assault in one breath and explain how the hippocampus deals with trauma in another. And she does seem nice, in the way only women who have been socialized their whole lives to please can be, showing deference to the men who denied her an investigation that could have saved her from this painful moment.

But more than all of this, Ford is the kind of woman these powerful white men might trust, because she looks and sounds like the women — the only women — who come closest to reaching their status. By not being a woman of color, a gay woman, a trans woman, an immigrant woman, a poor woman, a single mother, Ford at least had a shot, which is a pretty sad commentary on where we are as a country. As the Cut’s Rebecca Traister put it, “Watching the hearings, it was impossible not to think of Anita Hill, and how Blasey Ford’s description of what happened to her would resonate more strongly because she’s a married, white, upper-middle class woman.”

We know now that Ford was not spared the line of questioning we’ve come to expect when women speak up about assault. After an indisputably aggressive and defensive opener by Senator Charles Grassley that questioned Ford’s motive, prosecutor Rachel Mitchell — hired by GOP senators to do their dirty work — began her attempt to chip away at the professor’s credibility. In what felt like a cross examination, Mitchell asked Ford how she got home the night of the alleged assault, even though Ford had already stated that she did not recall. She questioned if Ford was sure-sure and not just kind of sure about the identity of her attacker, trying to substantiate Republicans’ theory that it could have been a Kavanaugh look-alike who held Ford down while she screamed. And then, grasping at the thinnest of straws, Mitchell questioned Ford about her fear of flying, because hadn’t she flown to Washington, D.C., for this very hearing? And therefore, had she lied about that fear, just to get out of an interview with the committee? And therefore, was this whole thing a lie? And therefore, was Ford — a woman who had voluntarily taken a polygraph test and requested an independent FBI investigation into her allegations — a liar, liar, liar?

It was a horror show, not only for Ford, but for all the women watching who aren’t the “perfect victim.” On Twitter (and likely, everywhere else), women questioned what hope this left for victims without the “right” qualities and credentials. “Is there a woman more credible, in the Republican mind, than Blasey Ford? Mom. Blonde. California girl by way of the East Coast. Blue suit. Scientist. Rationalist. She’s the woman they imagine themselves protecting,” wrote author Vanessa Grigoriadis. Similarly, Twitter user @miskeencore posted, “I feel for the women who are watching this unconscionable circus they’re dragging Dr. Blasey Ford through and silently pledging to never let their truth see the light of day…. If a woman with so many ‘credible’ qualities—poised, intelligent, accomplished, wealthy, white—is still being forced to weather a storm like this, what does that tell victims with similar stories who aren’t like her?”

What it tells them is this: There is no perfect victim, because men still hold most of the power in this country, and they’ll protect each other — even if it means humiliating a woman, any woman — in order to maintain it. Before Ford testified, Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already expressed confidence that Kavanaugh would be confirmed, and President Trump was equally eager to discredit her. “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” the president tweeted. “I ask that she brings those filings forward so that we can learn date, time and place!”

Of course, the idea that Trump or Senate Republicans were hoping to get to the bottom of Ford’s allegations is ridiculous. Thursday’s testimony wasn’t about hearing Ford out or finding the truth. It was, at least for the GOP, about attempting to squash her so that they can confirm Kavanaugh, because they don’t really care if he assaulted her or not. Women know this. It’s why the internet bubbled over with visceral rage yet again as Ford testified, women crying in front of their screens watching Ford tear up as she recalled hearing laughter at the very moment she feared for her life. Deep in our guts, the familiar knot twisted — partly because Ford was shouldering the pain of so many women who would never be given the floor, but also because we knew they weren’t really listening. Not even to her.