Interviews

Images of Truth from Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony and What They Mean

The images emerging from the Christine Blasey Ford hearing tell us a lot, but what?

Dr. Christine Blasey before the US Senate. Image sourced from Wikipedia; originally from C-SPAN.

 

Yesterday, Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate regarding sexual assault allegations made by Ford against Kavanaugh, based on events nearly 30 years ago, while both were in high school. Two images in particular, by Win McNamee, made the rounds: photographs of Ford raising her right hand before testifying. As with many other viral images, they have inspired many remixes.

In this post, I join fellow visual image analysts Ray Drainville and An Xiao Mina to discuss its compositional significance, from Wes Anderson films to depictions of the Pentecost.

An Xiao Mina should be no stranger to Hyperallergic readers, as she first explored the topic of memes on these pages back in 2011 before launching a professional career in the field. She gave a TedGlobal talk in 2013 on the importance of memes and is debuting a new book this January, Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power.

Ray Drainville, who researches iconography and social media at the Postgraduate Arts and Humanities Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University, has written about the visual propaganda of the UK’s “Leave” campaign for Brexit, and both An and Ray have written about the impact of a photograph of Ieshia Evans arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest, and Trump’s new propaganda formats.

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Ray Drainville: Despite its serious nature, Win McNamee’s photo of Christine Blasey Ford testifying screams Wes Anderson. Anderson’s cinematography is so distinctive — with centralised, symmetrical scenes with old-fashioned decor — that it’s turned into a recognized style that people imitate. But more than being reminiscent of Anderson, however, it’s also metaphorically important. Dr Ford is literally at the centre of attention.

 

An Xiao Mina: It’s too easy to compare this image to a Biblical rendering, but the clock really creates this halo effect and the image being taken from below makes her look larger than life, even in what looks like a pained expression.

RD: If we’re looking at religious antecedents, I don’t think that’s a halo. It’s much closer to the image of “divine inspiration” you see in representations of the Pentecost, where the holy spirit descends upon the disciples. This is depicted either as flames above their heads or a divine with rays extending to each apostle.

The point of the passage is that the spirit descends upon the apostles and gives them the gift of many tongues — i.e., languages — so that they could evangelize over the world. In other words, it’s the gift of being able to speak, of testifying.

Titian, “Pentecost” (c. 1545) (image via Wikiart)

AXM: That’s a powerful way to frame her, because of the fact that she says she didn’t want to come forth but did so out of a sense of civic duty.

RD: Virtually everyone I know is fully glued to the hearing, and many women are experiencing a lot of re-enacted trauma: during her questioning it’s as if Blasey is on trial. As in these photographs, she’s the centre of attention, and she’s the one whose credibility will be questioned: an all too familiar experience for many women.

In the second widely-shared photograph by McNamee, Ford has her eyes closed, and it’s really difficult not to see her as reacting traumatically. I wonder if these photographs are shaping the perception of the moment, which seems qualitatively different from the #MeToo movement.

AXM: Yes, that’s something we’re learning today about digital movements. There’s first an outpouring of emotion that is matched later by substantive action. What do you think the qualitative difference is now?

RD: When #MeToo emerged, a lot (a lot) of women I knew outed themselves as having endured harassment and far worse. There was a general feeling of sadness, mourning of what had happened to them, and support for one another; only a few were outright angry for what had been done to them, although of course every one of them had a right to be. This time, there is a real, palpable rage about the stories coming out and the way Kavanaugh is being protected.

A family member — a lifelong Republican — told me how she was in tears during Dr Ford’s testimony and how she wanted to hug Ford. She was especially struck when Ford was asked what she remembered after the assault, and she said “laughter.” That brought back some very painful memories.

Another difference is the response of men. I felt a lot of men stumbled with #MeToo, not knowing exactly how to respond. This time, however, a lot of men are saying outright, “I believe her.”

AXM: Yeah that’s an important shift — rage combined with real organizing power in streets, media, and politics. As author LA Kauffman has pointed out, we should expect to see women’s rage having real effects in the midterms. And I suspect they won’t be alone. The New York Times ad is an important indicator of the nature of male allyship. That men are getting behind it is a notable difference from the days of Anita Hill.

RD: I’m glad you mentioned Hill. It is remarkable that men like Orrin Hatch are making the same mistakes, as if nothing has changed between 1992 and 2018. I think rage was already likely to be a big motivator in the midterms — my question is whether that rage isn’t met by the right wing.

AXM: That’s right. A lot remains to be determined. Regarding the ad, that’s another visual thing going viral and a shift at least among progressives: in Hill’s time it was African-American women taking out an ad in support of her. For Ford, it’s male allies of different races, and they made sure to extend their support to Hill too.

As Emma Gray Ellis at WIRED observed, right-wing and left-wing social media responded as if there were two different events, with support for Kavanaugh running strong. We should be careful not to ascribe too much to these images’ virality, but we should also recognize their power.

Regardless of what happens next, this is a significant moment in American history bringing together federal politics, #MeToo, and social media, and the imagery around it captures some of the strong emotions people of all genders are feeling today.

 

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