• Politics
  • Congress

The Kavanaugh Hearing Showed Why the Myth of Nice Girls and Tough Guys Persists

6 minute read

Considering that the nation has been awash in a discussion about female empowerment and masculinity for the better part of the last year, the gender dynamics on display at the hearings Thursday — first during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and later during Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s — felt a little on the nose.

Ford, a highly educated professor of psychology affiliated with Stanford and Palo Alto University, was gracious, accommodating and sweet, while Kavanaugh was powerful, aggrieved and incandescent with rage. Where Ford was compliant, Kavanaugh was intractable. Where Ford was soft-spoken, Kavanaugh thundered. Where Ford answered every question, becoming flustered when she didn’t know how to be most helpful, Kavanaugh interrupted the Senators, hurled invectives at Democrats, and demanded that his interrogators answer their own questions first.

This stark dynamic played out again and again throughout the hours of proceedings. In the morning, after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley offered to take a short break, Ford seemed uncomfortable with the concession. “Does that work for you? Does that work for you, as well?” she said, almost pleading.

“Well, we — we’re here to accommodate you,” Grassley said.

“Oh, thank you,” Ford said.

“…not you accommodate us,” Grassley continued.

“I — I — I’m used to being collegial, so,” Ford said. She looked abashed.

On several occasions, Ford laughed to take the sting out of awkward moments and, when describing how she decided to come forward about her allegations against Kavanaugh, she seemed close to apologizing that her decision had not been more convenient. When her interrogator, Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, asked about a document that Ford did not yet have in front of her, Ford apologized and offered self-deprecating excuses for delaying her response. “The last line, is that what you’re — I’m — I’m now just catching up with you, sorry. I’m a little slower. My mind is getting a little tired,” she said, stammering.

When Ford was asked why she did not tell her parents about the alleged attempted rape, she looked humiliated. “I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys,” she said.

Not once did Ford raise her voice. Not once did she interrupt a Senator. Not once did she refuse to answer a question. Like millions of women trained to be Nice Girls, she was always a perfect lady: polite, patient and deferential to the men in the room.

A couple hours later, Kavanaugh entered the same room and the whole mood changed. The federal judge began his testimony at a near yell and it felt as if it got louder from there. Throughout the proceeding, he was visibly furious, the picture of indignation. His voice shook with anger, his reddened face became shiny with tears. He almost never allowed a Democratic Senator to finish a question before interjecting, and on multiple occasions, he flatly refused to answer at all. It was a performance that seemed, at times, tailored to appeal to the current President of the United States’ idea of manly strength.

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein beseeched Kavanaugh to call for an FBI Investigation, if only as a formality to clear his name, Kavanaugh did not wait for her to finish and then talked over her for most of her allotted five minutes. The exchanges were often indecipherable as a result.

None of this is surprising, exactly. Ford and Kavanaugh, both in their fifties, were raised in the same white, privileged, upper-class suburb of Washington, D.C., no doubt indoctrinated in the same country club etiquette. Like many of us, they absorbed their gender roles at a young age.

What makes the dynamic striking is that it worked. At at time when Americans are engaged in a pitched national debate about abusive gender dynamics and sexual harassment and whether the United States has evolved since the days when Anita Hill challenged now-Justice Clarence Thomas, it was clear Thursday how powerful traditional gender roles remain.

One of the reasons Ford’s testimony was so effective, so convincing to a great deal of the American public, is because she did not require anyone to be inconvenienced in any other way. She could not be accused of being “shrill.” She never overstepped. She at no point stomped her feet or demanded her due or spoke out of turn or rolled her eyes. She never did anything that would make a man uncomfortable. She was at all times, perfectly, heartbreakingly nice.

Kavanaugh’s testimony was effective for a parallel reason. To many Americans, and especially Republican politicians — the group that will determine his fate — he came off as a a good, old-school American man standing up for himself in the way that any man would. He evoked football repeatedly. He talked about lifting weights. He rattled off Red Sox players by name. He joked about drinking beer with his pals. He was furious and offended at how he’d been treated and the subtext was, unflinchingly, that he had the right to be. Kavanaugh seized his cultural mantle: unapologetic, loud, the most powerful man in the room.

It’s instructive, perhaps, to imagine today’s proceedings had each of the witnesses played the opposite role. What if Ford had been righteously indignant about having been attacked? What if she’d allowed herself to be furious — truly seething — that a couple of high school boys had behaved in a way that saddled her with decades of trauma? What if she had been shaking, red-faced with rage at a culture that would allow something like that to happen to someone like her? How do you think the public would have responded to that?

The same is true of Kavanaugh. What if he had delivered, a calm, patient, measured testimony. Would he have appeared weak, even contrite? If he had been deferential to his interrogators, would he have appeared guilty? Would President Donald Trump have applauded his testimony as “powerful, honest, and riveting”?

While there’s a good argument to be made that the United States is changing, that the #MeToo movement and other events have unleashed a powerful reckoning, that we are in the process of coming to terms with the sexism that pervades so many American lives. But the Senate hearings Thursday showed that traditional gender norms remain an equally powerful force.

And so long as women and men must fulfill certain roles, to check off traditional boxes to be heard and appreciated, progress will, at best, be meek.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com