The Target of a Man's Laughter 


This is her strongest memory, Christine Blasey Ford testified: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”

“They were laughing with each other,” she added, voice shaking. “I was underneath one of them while the two laughed—two friends having a really good time with one another.”

Cruel laughter has been a defining element of this news cycle. It’s right out there in the open, in Brett Kavanaugh’s 1983 Georgetown Prep yearbook, with its 14 references to a woman named Renate Schroeder Dolphin, including a group photo of nine football players who labeled themselves the “Renate Alumni.” In the hearing, Kavanaugh loudly insisted this was a gesture of fondness, which only goes to show you how stupid he thinks we all are.

Schroeder Dolphin didn’t know about the cruel references until this news cycle dredged them up, an unexploded emotional shell she stumbled upon decades later. “I don’t know what ‘Renate Alumnus’ actually means. I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things, but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue. I pray their daughters are never treated this way,” she told the New York Times.

Sexual violation of women was an open recurring punchline in the 1980s, as Andi Zeisler pointed out at the Washington Post:

There were countless teen comedies, blurred together in an almost indistinguishable mass, about horny, unfulfilled boys whose journey to manhood inevitably included the sexualized humiliation of their female peers. Peeping at girls in showers and locker rooms was a recurring theme (“Porky’s,” “Private School,” “School Spirit”), as was filming them without their knowledge (“Getting It On!”). John Hughes’s 1984 comedy, “Sixteen Candles,” had a teen girl at its center, but it also featured a handsome jock handing off his passed-out girlfriend to a younger nerd after musing that he could “violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.” (That jock was the film’s romantic hero, by the way.)

In fact, this was precisely the milieu that Kavanaugh said his classmates were drawing from when designing their yearbook. (“I think some editors and some students wanted the yearbook to be a combination of Animal House, Caddyshack and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which were all recent movies at that time,” he wrote in his early testimony.) The laughter and the violence and the casual cruelty—ranging from what happens in the dark at a party all the way to the fucking internet fat jokes—aren’t even really about the women they’re inflicted upon. As Jia Tolentino pointed out at the New Yorker: “In high schools, in colleges, at law schools, and in the halls of Washington, men perform for one another and ascend to positions of power.” Women still have to live with the sound of the laughter ringing in our ears, though.

It’s another moment of laughter that will stick with me from these hearings. After delivering her testimony—choosing, in the end, to face a panel of ancient and often hostile men and their handpicked Republican prosecutor—Ford requested some caffeine. Once she got her coffee, she obligingly informed Chuck Grassley that she could both talk and drink. He responded by making an extremely tired joke about how demanding he is with his coffee requirements; she laughed.

I recognize that shaky, watery laugh, the laugh of a woman in a situation light years from funny. Yesterday, near-tears and loud anger were available to Kavanaugh; they were not available to Ford, not if she wanted to remain “credible” to that panel and to the rest of America. Her testimony was woven from deep breaths and slowly composed sentences and patience, so much patience. The only thing she was allowed to project loudly was helpfulness and an eagerness to accommodate. In contrast to the chillingly familiar image of “uproarious laughter,” there was laughter at a man’s dumb joke as a defense mechanism.

I, too, found myself laughing this week. Not because anything was funny, but because it was so far from funny. “Laugh to keep from crying” is the hoariest cliché imaginable; the phrase is so threadbare that it fails to convey that it feels like claws raking the inside of my throat. Without ever having raised my voice, it feels like I’ve spent the whole week screaming.

In the end, of course, the powerful men on the Judiciary Committee got the last laugh.

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