Outraged by Kavanaugh Confirmation, Social Media Users Cite the Vengeful Women of Art History

Women on the internet have presented their own canon: not of women who were destroyed, but of those who fought back and sought their revenge.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (1530) (via Wikimedia Commons)

After a number of Republicans expressed their angry, full-throated support for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, he was approved by the Committee on Friday, September 28. Many, especially women, responded with rage and references to violence.  

Some people resorted to imagery to channel their sentiments. The art historian Anne Louise Avery explicitly connected moments in art history to reactions to the Kavanaugh hearing.

Indeed, many different works of art have been invoked. The most prominent example is Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” — the biblical story relates that the Israelite Judith entered the enemy’s military camp and killed their general in his drunken stupor. Legend has it that Judith’s features are based upon the artist’s, who had been raped, and that Holofernes’s are based upon her rapist. Another example is Elisabetta Sirani’s Timocleia throwing the Thracian captain down the well — the captain had raped her, and Timocleia had her revenge by drowning him. This picture has been altered to make it explicitly about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh.

Others have invoked the story of Jael and Sisera; Jael is another biblical woman who killed an enemy general, this time by driving a tent peg into his temple. Others showed Luciano Garbati’s statue of Medusa with the head of Perseus, which reverses the ancient story in Medusa’s favor. Saints’ lives are also invoked, such as St. Margaret of Antioch beating a devil with a hammer. To cover many bases at once, some forwarded Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s article about “Women Murdering Men in Western Art History.”

But the pictures themselves point back to a longer tradition, and one with a twist. During the Renaissance and Reformation periods, there was a tradition of recounting the lives of virtuous women often in visual formats, such as paintings and woodcuts. The most well-known source for this tradition is perhaps Giovanni Boccaccio’s Lives of Illustrious Women, although over time the subject morphed from fame to virtue specifically. Pictures of these exemplars were thought to have a quasi-magical effect on viewers, who would emulate their virtue. This may sound absurd, but neurological studies of people and the pictures they view indicate that humans often mentally enact what they see in front of them.

The Renaissance canon of virtuous women, however, was assembled by men, and this simple fact has profound consequences over what was presented as virtuous. A widely depicted example is the death of Lucretia, whose legend is recounted by the Roman historian Livy. Raped by the son of the Roman king, Lucretia told her husband and family of what had happened to her, and then stabbed herself to death; the ensuing rebellion overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic. Standard depictions show Lucretia naked as she prepares to plunge the dagger into her chest. A virtuous woman, then, is implicitly defined as one who is wronged and who then contributes to her own annihilation — all the while shown half-naked for the delectation of the viewer. If this sentiment seems hopelessly alien, reflect that Dr. Ford wondered whether she should testify to her assault, because “why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter”?

Outraged women on the internet have instead presented their own canon: not of women who were destroyed, but of those who fought back and sought their revenge. They wrote of wielding bricks and forwarded pictures of wronged women beheading their persecutors or throwing them down wells. Sometimes they put Kavanaugh and Ford in the place of the original characters. They did it not for the world at large, but for one another, in a bid to build solidarity and resistance in the face of patriarchal resentment.

It is unlikely that women will spur each other on to a murder spree. More likely, this rage will be converted into voting. After Anita Hill was humiliated in the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas, a large number of women were elected to public office in what became known as the Year of the Woman. The backlash took place a year after Hill gave her testimony; now, scant weeks before the midterms where a record number of women are running for office, many women harbor thoughts of revenge. The GOP has confirmed Kavanaugh in the Senate, so they have won their prize, but they should be very worried indeed.

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