Sentiment & Sentimentality: Gendered Credibility in the Kavanaugh Hearings

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court today. The past weeks have been hard, but this moment, despite its inevitability, is especially so. There is bitterness and fear in my stomach. I desperately wanted to believe another ending was possible—to hope against hope for a political outcome that does not make my blood feel like acid under my skin. Instead, I am left with a feeling of disturbing un-surprise. If the insistent testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate is not enough to disqualify Brett Kavanaugh from a generation-long term of oppressive power; if that testimony, with the specter of Anita Hill and the hypervisibility of history standing at her back, is not enough; if the strength and deafening power of the Me Too movement filling the internet and the elevators of the U.S. Capitol Building and the homes and schools and streets of America is not enough—then what is?

If we have any hope in understanding what Kavanaugh’s confirmation means and why men accused of sexual misconduct continue to rise to power over and over and over again, we must look critically at the ways in which emotion and believability are deeply entangled with gender and racial politics in this country. In her 2012 essay “Taxonomies of Feeling: The Epistemology of Sentimentalism in Late-Nineteenth-Century Racial and Sexual Science,” Kyla Schuller traces the history of sentimentality as it was coded into the evolutionary science of the nineteenth century. According to Schuller, scientists of the American School of Evolution believed that, contrary to Darwinism, “sentimental feeling directs the physical evolution of the civilized races” (278). Put another way, Anglo-Saxons were considered more evolutionarily advanced based on their greater capacity for sentiment and feeling, while enslaved African Americans were regarded as less evolved, a threat to more evolved people. In addition to this egregiously racist and wildly incorrect belief, the American School also put forth a gendered idea of sentiment and sentimentality. Men were believed to act according to sentiment, a proportionately “emotional response to a physical impression,” while women acted according to sentimentality, a disproportionate response which “frequently verged on hysteria” (278). Schuller writes, “the Anglo-Saxon female absorbs the instability of impressibility and its tendency to excess, leaving her male counterpart to enjoy the benefits of sentiment while relieving him of the liabilities of sentimentality” (278). In other words, emotionality, seen as a liability and a danger and dismissed as such by men, was something for women (especially in heterosexual relationships) to shoulder, thus allowing men to move through life unburdened.

Even though this pseudoscience has long since been debunked, it was accepted as objective truth by many in its time and, I argue, is still at play today in the way that men and women are viewed as more or less credible. I observe the effects of the American School’s philosophies in the way that women like Dr. Ford continue to be summarily and routinely dismissed for overreacting, being excessively emotional or histrionic, and acting crazily. Under the guise of scientific objectivity, women’s so-called sentimentality and men’s proportionate sentiment have been etched into the way in which society regards emotion, and plays a key role in who is deemed believable or unbelievable.

This gendered conception of emotionality and believability is apparent in the dynamics of the Kavanaugh hearings. Dr. Ford’s testimony was objectively measured, detailed, and keenly felt; Kavanaugh’s responses were childishly angry and defensive. And yet, Senate Republicans considered Kavanaugh’s over-the-top displays of emotion indicators of his innocence. His face, voice, and outright denial of responsibility, though clearly behaviors demonstrating visceral anger, were nonetheless deemed an appropriate display of sentiment; his excessive emotion was absorbed into the masculine realm of credibility. Brett Kavanaugh’s presumed innocence lay in the fact that his emotional response was deemed proportionate to the allegations he was charged with. And though Dr. Ford’s testimony was deemed “credible” by Republican senator Richard Shelby, among others, she was, as a woman, inherently less believable and more easily dismissed (TheHill.com).

Unable to deny that her testimony was compelling, Republican senators instead became determined to erode Dr. Ford’s memory of the night in question. In Maine senator Susan Collins’s speech to the Senate Friday, in which she announced her decision to vote yes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, she said, “I believe that [Dr. Ford] is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life. Nevertheless, the four witnesses she named could not corroborate any of the events of that evening gathering where she says the assault occurred…Judge Kavanaugh forcefully denied the allegations under penalty of perjury” (Vox.com). Ultimately, Kavanaugh’s denial was determined to be more believable, more correct, and more important than Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story.

So where does this leave us? If I’m being honest, I feel, in this moment, hopeless. Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in just a few minutes ago. At 53 years old, he has a good twenty to thirty years on the Supreme Court ahead of him. When I think about this, I feel both furious and powerless. But tomorrow, I think I might start to feel something warmer and more resolute. I will remember those moments that I was filled with pride and admiration when I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford speak with unconquerable courage, when the women held open the elevator and forced Jeff Flake to listen to their stories. These are moments where I felt, mixed into pain and despair, incredible empowerment. I know I will feel this way again in the coming days, months, years, because I sense an undeniable momentum all around me. I believe that out of this disempowering moment will come many moments of storytelling, of whispers crescendoing into shouts, of women and survivors refusing oppressive silence, of being believed.

***

To read more of Schuller’s essay, visit rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/Rutgers-lib/45690/PDF/1/play/

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