An Affective, Subjective Reading of the Kavanaugh Trials

Trigger warnings: sexual assault

In trying to process the likely possibility that Kavanaugh will be nominated as a member of the Supreme Court despite multiple women’s allegations of sexual misconduct, it has proven extremely difficult for me to arrange my instinctive thoughts and feelings into a coherent analysis of the trial. Or to make any sort of substantial claim while feeling so emotionally drained by the constant onslaught of media. How are we meant to grapple with the trial in objective terms? It seems impossible to qualify and placate the resulting pain and anger with theory—seemingly, an anti-subjective academic container in which we’re meant to codify our subjective emotions. However, although there have been many times when theory has felt utterly disempowering to me, there are also as many when it’s felt empowering: a vessel through which to name abstract, peripheral experiences and, in doing so, validate them. In that vein, perhaps an analysis of emotion itself, as performed and produced in both parties’ opening statements, can act as a sounding board for this inevitably tedious psychic processing.

Emotions do things, writes Sara Ahmed. Particularly, they “align individuals with communities.” Consider this argument in the context of Lili Loofbourow’s Slate article, in which she situates Kavanaugh’s affective behavior in the cultural backdrop of toxic homosociality and male bonding. Every word in Kavanaugh’s opening statement seems spat, and every sentence—even the ones in which he appears to be (exaggeratedly) staving off tears—is punctuated by an unnerving undercurrent of anger. One might think this behavior antithetical to the calm, judicious attitude a Supreme Court nominee would want to portray. Paradoxically, though, it is precisely Kavanaugh’s melodrama that serves as his most effective and convincing—to other males in the room, at least—denial of allegations. Here, anger works to purport Kavanaugh’s words as authentic, because why would he express such emotion unless he was innocent? This distorted understanding of affect stems from, as Loofbourow puts it, “how much we value male anger, and how little we rate female sadness.” Perhaps this disproportionate valuing stems from our society’s aversion to any man’s expression of emotion; within a patriarchal system wherein stoicism is equated with “being a man,” male emotion is seen as either feminine or as an outlier, and thus as a display that must be taken seriously. In other words, if a man isn’t able to hold back tears or reign in irrational anger, this inability and apparent lack of discipline is then understood as genuine sentimentality.

When asked to identify her strongest memory of the assault, Ford recalls the uproarious laughter shared between Kavanaugh and Judge, laughter that came at her expense. This laughter, which Ford describes as “indelible” and “seared into [her] memory,” can be seen as a violent symbol for a cruel culture of male bonding, one in which boys will do anything to impress and entertain their friends. It seems as if Kavanaugh’s actions had less to do with inflicting violence onto Ford than with performing theatrics to impress Judge, demonstrating the lengths boys go to affirm their masculinity to one another; similarly, Deborah Ramirez remembers that, after Kavanaugh exposed himself to her, someone yelled across the hall, “Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face,” connoting yet another instance of the injurious theatrics of ‘bro culture.’

As much as the adherence of emotions, particularly male insecurity, can cause unimaginable pain, there also exists, in the aftermath of such events, the capacity for a united collectivizing. In working through my own emotions around the trial, I experienced much déjà vu in thinking about my fraught relationship to ‘bro culture’ and how toxic homosociality has impacted me, at drunken high school parties and beyond. My friends, my partner, and my mother have all affirmed to me that they, too, have felt triggered by the trials and the traumatic memories they’ve conjured. In crafting this piece, I dwelled on the plethora of media coverage for almost longer than I wanted to, but, at the same time, thinking through the tumult of my emotions felt somewhat cathartic. Despite the inevitable differences in how we will each process this news, I believe it’s important to recognize the radical potential in communal feelings of sadness, pain, anger and indignation.

I encourage you to read both of Lili Loofbourow’s poignant and clarifying articles by following these links: