Kavanaugh-Ford Hearing: A Dramatic Lesson on Gender Roles

He let his anger flare repeatedly, interrupted his questioners and sobbed several times during his opening statement. She strived to remain calm and polite, despite her nervousness, and mostly held back her tears.

Throughout their riveting, nationally televised testimony on Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh served as Exhibits A and B for a tutorial on gender roles and stereotypes. Amid the deluge of reaction on social media, one prominent observation: Ford, as a woman, would have been judged as a far weaker witness had she behaved as Kavanaugh did.

“Imagine a woman openly weeping like this on a national stage and still getting elected to the Supreme Court. Or any office,” tweeted Joanna Robinson, a senior writer with Vanity Fair.

​Kavanaugh vented fury and tears

Kavanaugh, nominated to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, mixed tears with fury in his statement forcefully denying Ford’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her in 1982 when they were both in high school. He choked up at several points when referring to how his family has been affected by the tempest surrounding allegations by Ford and other women.

Opponents of Kavanaugh’s nomination said his behavior demonstrated a lack of judicial temperament. Some supporters said they were moved to tears when he broke down.

Later, during questioning by some of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members, Kavanaugh aggressively interrupted his interrogators and even asked sharp questions of his own.

“Have you ever drank so much you didn’t remember what happened?” asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat.

“Have you?” countered Kavanaugh.

​Ford cooperative, respectful

Ford, in contrast, sought to present herself as cooperative and respectful, expressing her wish that “we could collaborate in a way that could get at more information.”

“I’m used to being collegial,” she said at one point.

At another, she told the prosecutor, asking about her emotional state: “I think that’s a great question.”

Zoe Chance, a marketing professor at Yale School of Management, said that in terms of winning over public opinion, Ford and Kavanaugh “are both doing the right thing.” She cited research indicating that men could seem more influential and competent through shows of anger, and women less so.

“When women express strong emotions, we judge them to be emotional — or, in the extreme, ‘hysterical,’” Chance said in an email. “When men express strong emotions, we infer that they must be facing extreme situations.”

What was persuasive?

However, Chance was unsure that Kavanaugh’s anger was effective in this case.

“In this particular situation, the emotional display casts doubt on his ability to be dispassionate and objective as a judge,” Chance suggested. “If we value the ability to separate emotion from facts, then Ford has behaved more judgelike than Kavanaugh has.”

Michael Cunningham, a psychology professor at the University of Louisville, said he found Ford’s body language and tone of voice to be persuasive.

“Her generally calm and soft-spoken, yet firm, voice seemed consistent with the feminine sex-role,” he said. “At the end, I believe she retained her credibility.”

As for Kavanaugh, Cunningham said the nominee “was successful in conveying the emotions of a man who has convinced himself that he has done nothing wrong.” But the professor had doubts about the impact of Kavanaugh’s show of emotions.

“Judge Kavanaugh tearing up when mentioning his daughter conveyed a man who was feeling sorry for himself,” Cunningham said. “Society wants men to be sympathetic, and even tearful at times, but not for themselves.”

Glenn Sacks, a commentator who writes often about men’s issues, expressed dismay at social-media derision being directed at Kavanaugh because of his emotional displays.

“The mocking of his demeanor is indicative of the restraints still upon men — no weakness allowed, suck it up or get laughed at,” Sacks said in an email. “Men are taught this at an early age — when women cry, we sympathize. When a man cries, it’s so unseemly we can barely stand to look at it.”

Contrast of emotions

Jo Langford, a Seattle-based therapist who works with men and boys who have committed sexual offenses, said he was struck by the contrast between Kavanaugh’s anger and Ford’s “stable and straightforward cadence.” He concluded that Ford may have fared better in the court of public opinion.

Among those closely following the hearing was Danielle Campoamor, a New York-based writer and editor who says she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker five years ago.

Ford “was calm in a way every sexual assault victim is asked to be, lest they be written off as ‘unhinged’ and ‘emotional’ and, as a result, no longer credible,” Campoamor said. “Kavanaugh, by contrast, was unapologetically angry. … He embodied the anger so many sexual assault victims fear; the anger that keeps so many of us from coming forward.”

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