Media Narratives of Sexual Violence During the Ford and Kavanaugh Testimonies
In 2018, President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, then a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the DC Circuit, to serve on the Supreme Court. As the Senate confirmation process got underway, a Washington Post article revealed allegations that Kavanaugh had assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during a high school house party when the two were teenagers. On September 27, both Kavanaugh and Ford were called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the allegations. In a new article published in the NCA journal Critical Studies in Media Communication, Madison A. Pollino examines how the media represented the allegations against Kavanaugh a week before and after the Senate confirmation hearing.
Pollino argues that there are hegemonic and counter-hegemonic social positions on sexual violence. By hegemonic positions, Pollino means social narratives that persist over time; in this case, hegemonic narratives around sexual violence focus on whether the victim is credible and the impact of the accusation on the accused, not on the systemic nature of sexual violence. By counter-hegemonic positions, Pollino means narratives that challenge dominant narratives. In this case, counter-hegemonic narratives shift the blame for sexual violence from the victim to the perpetrator and affirm the rights of victims.
Pollino’s analysis focuses on three commentators: Laura Ingraham (Fox), Rachel Maddow (MSNBC), and Brooke Baldwin (CNN). An average of 11 to 13 million viewers watched the hearings on these three networks. Pollino identified four themes: competing narratives of victimhood, sexual violence as a political tactic, sexual violence as a cultural problem, and competing narratives of democracy.
Competing Narratives of Victimhood
The first theme addresses how either Kavanaugh or Ford was depicted as a victim, depending on the media outlet. While Ford was described as a victim of sexual assault by CNN and MSNBC, some news outlets, such as Fox News, described Kavanaugh as the victim of a Democratic conspiracy to undermine Trump’s Supreme Court nomination. For example, Ingraham described Kavanaugh as a victim: “It’s about time all Republicans called out what they [Democrats] have done to Brett Kavanaugh … It’s a total disgrace … Kavanaugh, with no criminal record, and no pattern of abusive conduct, must be destroyed at all costs.” Pollino argues that Ingraham’s characterization of Kavanaugh supported the hegemonic narrative that Kavanaugh’s character proved that he could not be a perpetrator of sexual violence.
In contrast, Baldwin focused on Ford as a victim. When Trump referred to Ford as the “woman” who accused Kavanaugh, Baldwin argued, “Refer to her by her name. She was anonymous— she no longer is. Whether you believe her story or not, the ‘woman’ as you just referred to her, she’s no longer the ‘accuser’— she is Christine Blasey Ford.” Pollino argues that Baldwin gave “Ford back her representation in news discourses beyond being labeled ‘the accuser.’”
Sexual Violence as a Political Tactic
The second theme addresses sexual violence as a tool of partisan ideology. Pollino observes that Ingraham portrayed accusations of sexual violence as a political tool; in Ingraham’s words, Kavanaugh was a victim of “uncivil tactics.” This characterization supports the hegemonic narrative by denying that sexual violence is a systemic problem. In contrast, Maddow argued that Ford’s allegations were not a political tactic: “They [Republicans] said this was a made-up story they would have used against any nominee. No. She came forward about Brett Kavanaugh before he was the nominee. Had the president picked somebody else off the short list, it’s not like her allegation would have morphed to suddenly become about somebody else.” Pollino argues that Maddow’s stance affirmed that sexual violence is a problem, not a political tool.
Sexual Violence as a Cultural Problem
The sexual violence as a cultural problem theme brings the struggle between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic narratives to the forefront. Ingraham presented sexual violence as a cultural problem that harms men: “Among the many ill effects of the Kavanaugh saga are the twisted lessons that some young people might glean from it. Among them: men are presumed guilty when accused by woman… boys should fear or even avoid close relationships with girls or young women in high school and in college.” Pollino argues that Ingraham reinforced hegemonic narratives about victims lacking credibility and about sexual violence as a threat to men’s power and reputations. In contrast, Baldwin presented a counter-hegemonic narrative that focused on sexual violence as a social problem: “This matters,” Baldwin said, “According to the nation’s largest anti sexual violence organization, every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And incredibly, only 6 out of every 1,000 rapists will end up in prison.”
Competing Narratives of Democracy
The final theme addresses the role that Ford’s testimony had in the democratic process. Ingraham accused the Democrats of “jettisoning the principle of due process” by asking Ford to appear before the Senate Committee. In contrast, Maddow affirmed the credibility and importance of Ford’s allegations: “[Ford] jumped in and tried to raise the alarm about Kavanaugh because she had had this experience specifically with Kavanaugh, and she wanted to raise the alarm just in case he might seriously be under consideration.” Pollino argues that Maddow articulated Ford’s testimony as a necessary part of the democratic process, rather than as a threat to it.
Pollino demonstrates that the media offered competing narratives about sexual violence. Although the hegemonic narrative of sexual violence was still largely upheld, Pollino argues that the counter hegemonic narratives presented by some members of media served as a start to changing the hegemonic narrative.