Smearing Anita Hill as “nutty and slutty” worked wonders in the ’90s, so conservatives are doing it all over again.
In 1991, when law school professor Anita Hill stepped forward to tell her story about being sexually harassed by then-Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, the right-wing noise machine sprung into action, ready to slander the even-keeled, intelligent Hill as a hysterical bimbo who was lying, delusional and/or perverted. Months, even years, after Thomas was confirmed, the defamation of Hill continued, suggesting that while justifying Thomas’ confirmation was clearly important to conservatives, a larger goal was being served as well: Scaring future women with stories to tell into remaining silent.
The front man of the campaign to smear Hill was David Brock, an American Spectator reporter who published an “exposé” of Hill in 1992 and a book titled “The Real Anita Hill” in 1993. Brock later recanted and did a public apology tour for his role as a right-wing hit man, admitting that his effort to slur Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” was based on false and distorted information fed to him by Republican operatives.
That formulation — “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” — sounds even more offensive and out of touch in 2018, with the #MeToo movement exposing, day by day, how many men in power have serious issues with self-control. But for conservatives desperate to find some way to make the accusations of attempted rape against Brett Kavanaugh go away — well, they’re going to party like it’s 1991. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, hasn’t been in front of a camera yet, but the usual suspects are already dead certain that she is both “nutty” and “slutty” and not worth listening to.
Over the past three decades, raised awareness about both sexist stereotypes and the stigma of mental illness has blunted the ability to simply label a woman as crazy and expect that will be enough to make sure everyone stops listening to her. So the 2018 version of this bit of vitriol is repackaged it as concern for a woman’s health and gentle questioning as whether she is so sure she knows what she knows — and perhaps that a man who wasn’t there would be a better judge of what actually happened.
As Heather Digby Parton chronicled for Salon last week, the idea that Blasey Ford is a bit tetched and must be confused about which guy allegedly groped her at a party has been gaining steam in right-wing circles, and was even floated in a recent column by the deplorable Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post. Last Thursday, Ed Whelan, a conservative lawyer and friend of Kavanaugh’s who has spent days hinting he’s got some blockbuster theory that will exonerate his man, unleashed a series of tweets with a surprisingly thorough amount of information about the lives of the classmates of Kavanaugh and Ford, in which he suggested that some other guy at Georgetown Prep was the likely assailant, but not Kavanaugh. He even posted photos of the man online, making any future defamation lawyer’s job easy.
A number of right-wingers, unable to stomach smearing some random person during the apparently more noble task of speculating about the mental state of a private citizen, blanched at this. But Fox News and various other right-wing media outlets ran with the theory, even if they largely declined to plaster this man’s face all over the TV. Despite Ford assuring reporters that she had not confused the two men (she said she knew the other guy well, and had once visited him in the hospital), Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends” declared there was “zero chance” she knows what she’s talking about. As in 1991, right-wing men with no expertise and no evidence feel confident is declaring they know better than a woman what’s in her head and whether or not she is delusional.
It is worth noting, to make the mansplaining even more painfully obvious, that Christine Blasey Ford holds a Ph.D. in psychology and has done research at Stanford University.
Whelan apologized for sharing the other man’s identity. But so far he hasn’t apologized for putting this evidence-free alternative theory out there. Now, of course, it has a life of its own, which was an entirely predictable outcome and quite likely the intention.
The “nutty” angle has more traction on Fox News and other supposedly mainstream conservative outlets. But if one dares to venture into the swamplands of the alt-right and conspiracy-theory crowd, the “slutty” angle is taking off. Alex Jones, on his Infowars show, showed pictures from the Holton-Arms School yearbook when Ford was a student there, declared that the photos made her look like “captain of the sluts.”
The only labeled picture of Ford in that yearbook depicts her wearing a sweater at a Halloween party. Another photo that, as Media Matters says, “neither the Infowars aggregation nor Cult of the First Amendment identified … as Ford (nor did the original yearbook page, as shown on either site)” shows a girl doing a comical “sexy” pose. The girl in question probably isn’t Ford, but Jones explained the pose as meaning, “I want you to climb on top of me right now,” and demanded “big blown-up poster boards with Christine Blasey Ford spreading her legs in the high school yearbooks,” which, again, are images that do not exist.
Even if such pictures did exist, they absolutely do not constitute permission to assault the woman in the photo. Taking a sexy photo, whether in seriousness or in jest, is not blanket consent to any possible sex acts in the future with any person who may desire them. After all, Jones himself is quite fond of stripping his shirt off on-air, and would certainly blanch at the argument that this means that any random man now has the right, at any point in time, to trap him in a room, stifle his screams, and try to rip his clothes off.
It’s a small mark of feminist progress, one supposes, that more mainstream outlets like Fox News are shying away from pushing the myth that having sex — or even just acknowledging that sex exists — somehow makes a woman unrapeable. So far, only bottom-feeders like Jones have gone there, though there’s always a fear that, as Republicans grow more desperate, they’ll reach for even uglier gambits to discredit Ford.
But what this all makes clear is that the “nutty and slutty” strategy is not something born out of reading a specific situation or information about a woman’s character, much less about actually trying to get to the truth of the allegations. As in 1991, the whole effort is about dialing into old, ugly stereotypes about women and hoping those can be grafted onto a given situation in order to distort and obscure the facts — and to scare away any other women who may be considering stepping forward with their own tales.