As Christine Blasey Ford’s testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Nina Totenberg, the venerable Supreme Court observer, made an observation that belonged more in the realm of theater criticism than legal affairs. Blasey, she suggested, was “nothing like Anita Hill,” who in 1991 accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Blasey was “shaky, physically shaky,” and thus “a much more typical victim” than Hill, who was “imperturbable and unshakeable” in her appearance before the same committee. All of this made Blasey a “powerful witness for herself.”
Elsewhere, on CNN, Joan Biskupic made a similar comparison, suggesting that Blasey’s testimony, unlike Hill’s, projected a degree of vulnerability that made her seem more credible. “Anita Hill projected strength and control and a real professionalism to match then-Judge Thomas. The vulnerability of this witness is coming through much more. You feel her reliving it, and I think that makes it much harder than what Clarence Thomas faced with Anita Hill ... This time around, the idea that she’s living it on an almost daily basis, the way she talked; I think is tougher, much tougher.”
This is what it came down to, according to our pundit class: whether Blasey had nailed her performance of victimhood, as though she were an actress on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.”
Just who they imagined the audience for this performance to be, the analysts did not say. Certainly, it did not include the people of color who might also identify with the stoicism of a young black woman negotiating a roomful of white men.
But beyond that there was the spectacle of the whole thing. Or more precisely, the acquiescence to the spectacle — a testament to the pure dysfunction that defines how we (actually, y’all) talk about assault, trauma and abusive men, and how we process these things. We like to say that moments like these are opportunities to “start a conversation,” and yet, so often, these conversations devolve into scenarios in which people, overwhelmingly the victims of assault, overwhelmingly women, are forced to perform their trauma as a sordid, sadistic kind of entertainment.
Things Blasey’s testimony hearing was not: a primetime sports event; a courtroom drama; a live TV performance to be critiqued and graded and snarked about. But that’s what it became, an exercise in appraising her role and whether she played that role well enough. Consider this New York Times Opinion poll, posted on Thursday (and then deleted after several complaints):
Is she credible?
That is to say: Is she well cast in the role of victim?
People commended Blasey on her intelligence, on her vocabulary, on her mixture of poise, respectability and sincerity. These are the traits of a “credible” victim, one of Nina Totenberg’s “typical victims” — not so much a believable person as someone who has successfully approximated a figure whom the culture is willing to believe. (As the pundits’ comparisons of Hill and Blasey might suggest, these aren’t the same thing.) But what if she were unpolished, uneducated, unpossessed of shiny credentials? What then? Was there a whiff of the aristocracy in some of the compliments paid to Blasey, as if someone less “impressive” would necessarily be less credible, too?
Horribly, the matter of American sexual violence depends on the credibility of its victims, which means that it turns on this cheap theater of “credibility.” We do not know how to engage with the trauma and pain victims of sexual assault endure without turning it into entertainment. We do not know how to engage with trauma without consuming it as if it’s the latest episode of a gritty HBO drama. We create familiar narratives that make sense of complex situations, which thus absolve us of having to do the hard work, the real work, work that involves letting go of our need to cast a villain and hero, work that means acknowledging that abusers aren’t always monsters and victims aren’t always angels.
Or maybe it was like a game night on ESPN. Just look at how the CNN pundits gathered ’round a news desk, how they discussed the parameters of this case in terms of who wins and who loses, the GOP or the Dems, when it’s Blasey who has lost the most of all.
That’s the thing about entertainment. Ultimately, it isn’t really about the truth. It’s about avoiding the truth. It’s about optics and narratives, about who plays what part and how well. “Dazzling testimony,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews marveled Thursday night, quoting an unnamed expert, almost as if his words were a movie blurb.