What does Brett Kavanaugh’s angry testimony say about gender and emotion?

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh speaks at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sept. 27, 2018. Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

It was no surprise that Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh would take the stand at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with the intention of defending himself. No one, certainly, was expecting a mea culpa. But what was surprising was the way in which he delivered his statements, vacillating between tears and angry, aggressive outbursts.

By contrast, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, remained even-keeled and “pleasing,” as Sen. Orrin Hatch noted, throughout her testimony. Aside from some quiet tears and choking up during her opening statement, she was calm, collected and “collegial.”

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Where Ford was self-possessed, Kavanaugh was aggressive, even bordering on belligerent, as he spoke over senators, cut them off, and in one instance, accused them of mockery.

Many noted that it was a textbook display of the double standard that allows men angry outbursts with no repercussions, while the same behaviour works to discredit women. The going argument among critics and observers was that if Ford had responded in the same way as Kavanaugh, she would have likely been deemed “hysterical.”

“Anger and rage are accepted emotions for men,” says Julie Freedman, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and clinical social worker. “These displays are more often than not considered to be masculine. When women express anger, they are viewed and labelled as being overly emotional and hysterical.”

She says that this is due to the fact that anger is not aligned with being feminine. Even in these modern times, we associate gender with certain behaviours.

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“Women and men are both equally capable of anger but permission gets attached to the gender,” says Dawn Binkowski, a registered psychotherapist in Toronto. “That is part of the pervasive misogyny that is still prevalent in many societies and certainly here in North America.”

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She says it all stems from insecurity. When women don’t follow the gendered expectations set out for them — to be nurturers and caretakers — it triggers a sense of insecurity in men. In response, they subvert a woman’s anger and turn it against her in an effort to gain back control.

“One of the easiest ways to control women is to demonize their emotionality. We hear it in language and expressions like, ‘Cry like a girl,'” Binkowski says. “[Anger in women] stirs a fear in men, so they have to shut it down.”

The most effective way of doing that, she says, is to gaslight women and redirect their expression of anger. That’s when terms like “over-exaggerated,” “too emotional” and “hysterical” proliferate.

But it’s impossible to acknowledge that women are demonized for expressing anger without acknowledging that the men who demonize them are also a product of impossible societal standards.

“Men are given the message that they’re not allowed to exhibit anything that can be perceived as weakness, which means sadness, hurt, depression, guilt or shame,” Binkowski says. “They are rarely supported in those feelings, which is why they have a strong reaction to them. Men are also held to a rigid standard.”

READ MORE: Read Christine Blasey Ford’s full statement on alleged Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault

When they feel disempowered through these taboo emotions, their only acceptable outlet is anger, she says. It’s where “shame rage” stems from, the angry reaction that acts as a defence mechanism to shield against feelings of shame, guilt or sadness.

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“It’s a rage that gets triggered when it taps into deep-seated shame, and the deeper the shame, the stronger the defence,” she says. “They can’t tolerate those feelings and the rage response comes up as a way to shield them and turn attention away from it. This gives them back a feeling of power and control.”

Whether Kavanaugh’s anger stems from shame will likely never be known, but what is clear is that he felt justified and entitled to his anger. Ford, on the other hand, testified like a girl, just as society demands.

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