For Christine Blasey Ford to Be Believable, She Had to Be ‘Likable’

The professor’s moving testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee has been, on top of so much else, a reminder of a pernicious stipulation given to women.

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

“Does that work for you? Does that work for you, as well?”

That was the professor Christine Blasey Ford, on Thursday, during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee—and, consequently, before the nation and the world—responding to the possibility, after an hour of being interrogated on live television, of taking a break. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the committee, had suggested the idea of a short recess. Ford’s reply to him would be deeply familiar to the vast collection of people who grow up conditioned to consider the needs of others before their own: Does that work for you, as well? Ford added, by way of explanation: “I’m used to being collegial.”

There’s been a lot of talk, this week, about collegiality. There’s been a lot of talk about respect, about civic duty, about the responsibilities and the apathies of the bystander: the politician who did not say enough. The politician who said too much. The other kids at the long-ago gatherings, attended allegedly by Ford and by the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and what they might have seen, as young people. On Thursday, however, it was the American public at large that was turned into a bystander—a witness, this time around, to the testimony of Ford, who had been coerced into appearing, and who had begun her statement to the Judiciary Committee with a stark confession: “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”

Here is something that Christine Blasey Ford, who is an expert in the workings of the human mind, seemed to know in her bones, just as so many other women know it in theirs: Part of her job, in her Senate testimony as in so much else, was to be likable. If her credibility, as so many pundits argued, was the thing really being cross-examined in that faux courtroom in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, then the thing that would inevitably be tested along with it—the “court” being what it was, the world being what it is—would be her ability to seem pleasant and accommodating and, in general, nice. As Ford was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee (by the members themselves and, in the case of the Republican members, by Rachel Mitchell, the “female assistant” brought in to do their questioning), it became ever more clear: Being believed would require her to convince her interrogators of something that has very little to do with the truth of her allegations. She would have to prove that she is, rather than angry or bitter—these are not the emotions of the credible—approachable, and helpful, and appropriately vulnerable.

Here, then, was one more absurdity among so many others, in the hearings that took place on Thursday: Christine Blasey Ford, in order to be deemed a reliable narrator of her own experience, would also have to be deemed a likable one. As CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, summing up many pundits’ impressed reactions to her testimony: “When we started this coverage, we were all talking about how we didn’t know how credible Professor Christine Blasey Ford was going to be. And now we’re at a point where everybody—I think there was consensus in Washington that she was pretty credible, pretty likable, pretty believable.”

Pretty credible, pretty likable, pretty believable. Because of that conflation—the epistemic dimensions of charm—there was another kind of testimony taking place on Thursday. Ford, as she went through what will likely be one of the most difficult and public and consequential moments of her life, was also engaged in that familiar form of labor: the woman, going out of her way to make everyone else comfortable. Ford, while being questioned by interrogators both kind and hostile, smiled a lot. She apologized about gaps in her memory. She asked—multiple times, with a note of apology in her voice—for a bit of caffeine to help sustain her through the long stretch of questioning. (In response to this meager request, she was initially presented with a small, cardboard cup of coffee, complemented with a packet of sugar.) Ford, through it all, helped things along by making jokes and making light and making things—for everyone else, if not herself—a little easier.

There is, in this, very likely a blend of truth and performance: Ford probably is, as she seems, extremely kind, and genuinely nice. She is, indeed, as a performer on a national stage, extremely likable. What is revealing, though, is how blithely those qualities became the terms upon which her credibility was seen to rest. Another pundit on CNN, assessing Ford’s testimony during a short break in the questioning, reportedly deemed Ford’s performance to be particularly resonant because—unlike Anita Hill, who, questioned by some of the same characters, had projected “strength and poise”—Ford projected “vulnerability.” Orrin Hatch, one of the senators who had questioned Hill, those 27 years ago, dubbed Ford a “good witness” precisely on the grounds of her likability. (“I don’t think she’s un-credible,” he put it, magnanimously. He added: “I think she is an attractive, good witness.” Asked what he meant by “attractive,” the senator replied: “In other words, she’s pleasing.”)

Good witnesses. Model victims. These are deeply pernicious concepts. And yet here they are, making their appearance in a Senate testimony—outgrowths of, among other things, a culture that tells women that they should calm down, that they should be sorry, that they’d really be so much prettier if they smiled. “My motivation, in coming forward, was to be helpful,” Ford testified during Thursday’s proceedings, explaining why she came forward to make her allegations in the first place. Later: “I would like to be more helpful about the date,” she said, explaining why she wasn’t able to remember the precise timing of an event that, she alleges, took place three decades ago. Later: “I just don’t remember. I’m sorry.”

Christine Blasey Ford, of course, should not be sorry. Other people should. Thursday is a hard day for many Americans: It summons sadnesses that had been pushed down into the dark places, disturbing the soil and unearthing the dead. But it is hard, too, because it is a reminder of all the rot that remains in the present, all the demands made of women, still, despite it all: not just to be vulnerable, but also to project and perform the vulnerability. To resist anger, lest the anger disqualify them from claims to rationality itself. To assure those around them that, whatever else they might be—whip-smart or ambitious or articulate or educated or powerful or strong or poised or telling the truth—they are not a threat to the order of things.

On Thursday, Ford, the professor and the scientist, reminded the world how complicated it can be to navigate those demands. Her opening statement to the Judiciary Committee began with a long list of her academic qualifications. She made multiple breezy references to the workings of the human brain, telling the committee with no apology whatsoever about the physiology of the hippocampus, the influence of norepinephrine, the sequelae of assault. In one of the most striking moments of her testimony, all the niceness collided, revealingly, with all the fierceness. Ford referenced Mark Judge, the friend of Kavanaugh who Ford says was the accomplice to her alleged assault, and who, rather than having been subpoenaed to appear before the Senate, is reported to be spending the hearing at a beach house in Delaware, with a pile of Superman comics and a cloak of easy immunity. The professor noted that, in the early 1980s, just weeks after her alleged attack, she ran into Judge in the Potomac, Maryland, grocery store where he worked; she repeated that, were Judge to be questioned, he might be able to help to fill in some of the gaps in her own memory.

“I can’t give the exact date, and I would like to be more helpful about the date,” Ford said, accommodatingly, likably. She added: “If I knew when Mark Judge worked at the Potomac Safeway, I would be more helpful in that way.”