When Kerry Washington announced that she was executive producing and starring in HBO’s Confirmation, a 2016 dramatic reenactment of the Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings, I confess, I wasn’t sure we needed it.
Having watched it last night, in emotional preparation for the next phase of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation drama, I got it.
“Anita Hill was a very reluctant hero,” Washington told The Hollywood Reporter,” a woman who didn’t want to come forward, and yet rose to the occasion when her story was leaked. “But when I think about how it inspired other people to have their voices — that’s moving,” she said.
I hope the same is true for Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto-based professor who has alleged that current Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were in high school. Her version of events is bolstered by notes from a therapist during a session in 2012, and a subsequent lie detector administered by the FBI last month. Like Hill, she decided to come forward after some details of her story became public.
You can read the details of her account here.
For what it’s worth, alumnae of Holton-Arms, the private all-girls school Blasey Ford attended in Bethesda, Maryland, have published a letter of support. “Dr. Blasey Ford’s experience is all too consistent with stories we heard and lived while attending Holton,” it says. “Many of us are survivors ourselves.”
“Survivor” is the right term. This was an era where all manner of assault was common, joked about, planned, even expected. Girls and young women would have been unlikely to tell anyone what happened, and if they had, they’d be equally unlikely to frame it as anything other than a shameful lapse of judgment on their own part.
Don’t believe me? Consider that one of the most popular movies of the era was the John Hughes classic Sixteen Candles, which involves a scene where a drunk and unconscious teenaged girl is handed over by her boyfriend to a teen boy to be raped. But that’s not what it seemed like at the time.
Molly Ringwald, then the tenth-grade star of the film, says, “I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in Sixteen Candles, when the dreamboat, Jake, essentially trades his drunk girlfriend, Caroline, to the Geek [character], to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges…” The scene, along with Hughes’s legacy, goes downhill from there.
Ringwald’s must-read essay about how Hughes’s work both mirrored and informed the culture of the 1980’s is a powerful reminder of how sexual violence against women has long been regarded as both an entitlement and a form of entertainment. Shenanigans, if you will. But through a modern #MeToo lens, these old stories have a new power to shock. “If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight,” she says. “Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time.”
The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation had an extra element of race, which further divided the public: A black man accused, facing down a panel of all-white, male interrogators; a black woman defiled, fighting for the dignity of women in the workplace. Washington’s film was an excellent reminder of just how fraught that dynamic was. Now it’s Blasey Ford’s turn to justify a different twist: Why she wants to keep a powerful man from his dream job because of some teenage “shenanigans” that may or may not have happened.
Regardless of the outcome, her life will be different now.
While Hill has continued to teach, write, and contribute to the broader conversation of race, gender and power in the #MeToo era, she will always be a hero and a target. She still gets a lot of mail and has a team of retired librarian-volunteers who categorize the letters. She’s received thousands since 1991. While much of it is supportive, some of it is vile.
Hill recently offered advice to other outspoken women who are targeted with messages of hate, abuse or threats. Read them, she says. It’s about them, not you. “It’s revealing of a certain kind of anger towards women, and it’s revealing of a fear of equality—a misunderstanding, a myth of what gender equality means, as some sort of unwarranted threat to men,” she told Broadly in 2016. “I do have them, and I do read them. I keep them for a purpose, to learn something.”
I, too, am a survivor of the 1980s. This weekend, I thought long and hard about what those last few minutes of anonymity were like for Blasey Ford, knowing that by coming forward she was agreeing to step directly into the line of a very specific type of fire. (As a reminder, the preternaturally serious Hill was the target of a then-conservative operative named David Brock, a writer who published “virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation,” designed to make Hill appear “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”)
“These are all the ills that I was trying to avoid,” Blasey Ford told The Washington Post about why she’d waited to come forward. “Now I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation.”