As the Brett Kavanaugh hearings illustrate the gendered way we view truth and credibility, Roe McDermott examines how women are frequently dismissed as unreliable narrators of our own lives.
In the 1944 film Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman plays Paula – a woman who believes she is going mad. Items declared missing keep appearing in her handbag, and her husband tells her she stole them. She hears footsteps above her in a sealed attic, but her husband tells her that no-one is there. The gaslights around her dim and flicker for no apparent reason, but her husband tells her that she’s imagining it. When she gets upset and confused and angry by constantly having her experience of the world dismissed, she is declared oversensitive, hysterical, an unreliable narrator in her own life.
As it turns out, her husband was lying the whole time, making Paula question her sanity and perception of reality so that she would be dismissed as unreliable, untrustworthy, a liar. He crafted circumstances to make her question herself, and told the world that she was incapable of observing objective truth.
The film’s depiction of emotional and psychological abuse created a new term: gaslighting. To be gaslit is to be manipulated into believing that your own memories and perception are not accurate; that your sanity is not intact; that your experience of the world is not accurate and therefore not legitimate. To be gaslit is to be told that you are unstable so many times in so many different ways that you start to believe it yourself.
The Brett Kavanaugh hearings have taught us a lot of depressing lessons about the values of the GOP, rape apologism, male rage and entitlement, the damaging divisiveness of America’s two-party system, and the privileges afforded to wealthy white men in elitist institutions. But no matter what happens, one lesson stands out above all else, a lesson that needs to be acknowledged and needs never to be forgotten.
Women, we are being gaslit. And always have been.
What makes a credible witness
"Ford is fulfilling every possible requirement that the hearing could possibly demand for a woman to be believed."
As Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was questioned about her claim that she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she was everything a credible woman is required to be. She was non-threatening, in both person and presentation; meaning that not only was she respectful, she is respectable. Dr. Ford is white, heterosexual and highly educated – the vision of female respectability. But her manner is also the height of feminine dutifulness. She repeatedly stresses her desire to be helpful. She apologises for inaccuracies, and tries to clarify inconsistencies. She speaks calmly and articulately, using the scientific language of her profession to explain her own trauma, stating that she distinctly remembers Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge laughing at her while she was being forcibly pinned down on a bed. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. “The uproarious laughter.” Dr. Ford isn’t just recounting her memories, she isn’t just citing her expertise. She’s fulfilling every possible requirement that the hearing could possibly demand for a woman to be believed.
Because she has to. She is a woman saying that she was sexually assaulted by a powerful man, and the world does not want to believe her.
"Men – particularly white, powerful men – have gifted themselves the inalienable right to dictate reality."
Instead, the world wants to believe Kavanaugh. The man who has repeatedly lied, admitted to drinking heavily all throughout the years in question, had misogynistic friends who have also been accused of sexual violence, was belligerent and aggressive under questioning, spouted conspiracy theories, refused to answer questions, was openly disrespectful to the women at the hearing, and repeatedly stated that he felt that even being questioned about an accusation of sexual assault was beneath him, calling the process a “joke”, a “farce, a “waste of time.”
And his entitled, self-serving perception of reality was supported by the men in the room, as one after another after another, the male Senators gave emotional and outraged apologies to the judge that he even had to be present, bemoaning the loss of his time and comfort and reputation. They loudly, empathetically confirmed his view of the world: he is, indeed, the victim.
The assertion of Kavanaugh and his supporters is not based on evidence. It’s based on the fact that he is a man. And men – particularly white, powerful men – have gifted themselves the inalienable right to dictate reality.
And if only men can tell us what is reality and what is not, they are declaring that women are, by default, unreliable narrators of our own lives.
Hysteria and women's irrational emotions
"Even now, when women still aren’t paid or valued equally in society, when we’re not given the right to bodily autonomy, where our experiences of the world are still dismissed, where feminists’ pursuit of equality still earns them monikers comparing them to Nazis"
This will seem like an extreme idea by many men – ludicrous, even. But women know better. We know how we are constantly questioned, doubted, dismissed, delegitimised. This is not a new phenomenon. This is the status quo, and has been for a very long time
In ancient Greece, writers posited that a woman’s womb could move out of place and float around her body, disrupting her emotions and causing her to lose control. The Greek word for uterus? Hystera – thus the idea of hysteria was born. But hysteria wasn’t just a way of dismissing women’s emotions as irrational or illogical. It was a medical diagnosis, up until the 19th century. Men decided that women’s wombs floated around their bodies and caused emotions – and used that theory to claim that women were crazy.
Freud later declared that hysteria wasn’t a physical ailment but an emotional affliction, telling women in the late 19th century who had no vote and few rights that any negative emotion they felt was not merely an appropriate reaction to an oppressive world, but a psychological disorder creating unhealthy and undesirable emotions and affecting their perception of reality.
This has been the default mode of thinking for years. Men alone are capable of perceiving the world clearly, of being rational, of seeing and understanding objective truth. Women are irrational, emotional, subjective and thus not to be believed.
Even now, when women still aren’t paid or valued equally in society, when we’re not given the right to bodily autonomy, where our experiences of the world are still dismissed, where feminists’ pursuit of equality still earns them monikers comparing them to Nazis – still we’re told on the daily that we’re ridiculous, we’re overreacting, we’re hysterical; that the world is fine as it is.
And this is so depressingly apparent in the era of #MeToo, when women are finally sharing their stories of how much sexual violence they have endured and are still being accused of lying, and where stories like #WhyIDidntReport show how we innately know we won’t be believed.
Because of course we won’t. When the very idea of truth itself has always been gendered, when men have always controlled the narrative, women forced into He Said/She Said situations never stood a chance.
The gendered measure of truth
"Kavanaugh was promised a world where he would get to dictate reality, but now he’s being forced to acknowledge a woman’s narration of her own life."
This is why it took 250 girls coming forward for the USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to be convicted. This is why it took 60 women saying Bill Cosby had drugged, raped and assaulted them to even be questioned. This is why it took 87 women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault and rape for him to finally be held accountable. This is why 22 women accused Trump of sexual misconduct and he was still elected President.
This is the maths of how we measure truth. That is how much more weight we give to men’s perception of the world. That is how much corroboration we demand from women before we take their perception of the world seriously. That is the impossibly high bar that we set for women before we even consider that they could be reliable narrators of their own lives.
No wonder Brett Kavanaugh is furious he has to answer questions. No wonder he is outraged that he no longer has an obstacle-free path to one of the highest positions in the most powerful country in the world. No wonder he thinks this process is a waste of time. He has lived in a world that has constantly, repeatedly, systematically shown him that a single woman’s word would never be treated as equal to his own.
Kavanaugh was promised a world where he would get to dictate reality, but now he’s being forced to acknowledge a woman’s narration of her own life. He wanted to rule in a world based on the tenet of unquestionable male legitimacy, but questions are being asked.
I don’t know if Dr.Ford’s testimony will prevent Brett Kavanaugh from being appointed to the Supreme Court. But I do know that the questioning of patriarchy will continue. The stamina of #MeToo and #IBelieveHer ensures that, as we demand that our experience of the world be acknowledged as reality and truth.
Dr. Ford is an example of who we all need to be, now. A woman living in a world of shadows, refusing to be told that the lights are fully on. They never were. We will not be gaslit anymore.