The Ongoing Iconography of Christine Blasey Ford ( )

On Friday afternoon, Senator Susan Collins of Maine delivered a floor speech to the Senate and to the cable-news cameras situated within its chambers. In it, she made clear what had been, up until that point, likely but not inevitable: She would vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, all but assuring that the Senate overall would elevate him to the bench.

As Collins spoke, she also participated, television being what it is, in a moment of historical image-making: The senator was surrounded, as she delivered her speech, by two other (Republican) women who had supported Kavanaugh in his fight for confirmation: Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Cindy Hyde-Smith. But there was another woman who was part of that image, as well—a woman who has been present, not in body but in spirit, in the debates that have swirled around the late stages of the Kavanaugh nomination: Christine Blasey Ford. The woman who, in stepping forward to allege that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers, had called the judge’s once-breezy confirmation process into question—and who had, in that, re-sparked a national conversation on sexual abuse.

Collins’s decision to confirm Kavanaugh suggests in one way that Ford’s stated fears about coming forward in the first place—“Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” she summed it up—will be proven true: She offered herself up, to be questioned in every sense. The overall result of the confirmation vote, barring an extraordinary development—Justice Kavanaugh, ninth occupant of the Supreme Court’s bench—will be the same as if she hadn’t. But change moves side to side as well as back and forth—and in another way, the coming forward of Christine Blasey Ford changed everything. It touched off, yet again, a desperately needed discussion about sexual violence. It convinced many who had been silent about their own experiences to share them out loud. It insisted that the sharing should not involve shame.

Friday’s procedural vote took place on the one-year anniversary of the day that The New York Times published the first of its investigations into Harvey Weinstein, and the cyclicality is fitting: Collins’s speech, which nodded to the dignity of survivors and the necessities of due process, the significance of judicial precedent and the completeness of an FBI investigation that has been, objectively, curtailed, suggested both progress and backlash at once. It also suggested, however, how much impact Christine Blasey Ford really did have. It suggested that she will be there, in spirit, in so many American images. You can see all that in the three images of her that have, over the past weeks, become iconic—images that will help sear and seal Ford into the rough text of history. A triptych that, in its own way, suggests how far America has come. And how far it has, still, to go.

The way many Americans first saw Christine Blasey Ford was through the image that she had posted, in the time before her life was transformed, on her ResearchGate profile: a woman grinning and wearing sunglasses and embracing a boy, ostensibly her son, in a high place overlooking a body of water, far away from the town of Chevy Chase and from the year of 1982. The woman in that photo is joyful and carefree and, for most Americans, unfamiliar. The picture captures what Ford was—Christine M. Blasey, Ph.D, M.S., the professor and the professional, with 4,733 citations—before she offered herself up to history as Christine Blasey Ford, alleged victim. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh accuser.

The picture also captures what Ford became those several weeks ago: a woman whose personal image was copied from her profile page and used, it seems, without her consent. A woman whose story would be weaponized, and who would be compelled to testify in public against her will. A woman who would later say, “They called my boss and coworkers and left me many messages, making it clear that my name would inevitably be released to the media. I decided to speak out publicly to a journalist who had responded to the tip I had sent to The Washington Post and who had gained my trust. It was important to me to describe the details of the assault in my own words.”

Last week, Ford got the chance to do precisely that: She spoke. She testified. She offered herself—her body, her words—as tribute. The day she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the public image of Ford changed: The grainy image taken from Ford’s profile page was substituted with the professionally shot journalistic images of the national news event. Which is also to say that last Thursday was the first time the American public would see Christine Blasey Ford, as she is now, and, importantly, as she chose to be seen: as an object of public consumption. The suit: navy, plain, the jacket matching the shell, no bright pop of color—the whole outfit, perhaps, in its blue tone, a gesture of respect to Anita Hill, but an outfit that was otherwise strategically unremarkable. A way for Ford to keep the focus on her words.

The image of Ford’s testimony that became the iconic one was captured early on in her appearance: the image of her swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Here, Ford was depicted with her eyes closed, as if captured in prayer: her right hand raised, her body seeming to held upright by an invisible string. The image suggested the beatific: In that small chamber in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Ford was bathed in light from above. The clock on the wall behind her gave the affect of a halo. She projected competence, and quiet confidence, even before she spoke. So help her God.

The testimony in that sense doubled as a kind of ceremony: one in which the old image of Christine Blasey, the carefree, private citizen, was replaced with the new. The private figure became the public one became the historic one. The woman became the icon. She was a metaphor. She was a vessel of meaning, into which the American public felt free to pour their own feelings: about abuse, about due process, about Republicans, about Democrats, about professors, about women. Ford became, over the course of her hours-long testimony, a realization of the theorist John Berger’s observation: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.”

And then, the iconic image shifted once more. On Thursday, a week after the testimony and days before the Kavanaugh confirmation vote, Time magazine shared the cover of its latest issue: the image of Ford’s hand-raised, light-bathed swearing-in, this time rendered in the words she had delivered as part of her testimony. Words, swirling into the strands of her hair; words, forming her closed eyelids—“Panic Attack” on her left; “Anxiety” on her right; words in the space just over her heart: “The same way that I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now.” Time had commissioned the San Francisco–based artist John Mavroudis to create the image; he had drawn each letter by hand. They accompanied an article, written by Haley Sweetland Edwards, that contained this line: “In her courage, many Americans saw the opposite of everything they think is wrong with Washington. Politicians spin, fudge the truth, grasp at power. Ford appeared guileless.”

It is an image that will join the others in the public recollections of Ford’s testimony: a picture composed of words. A rendering of the professor that converts her testimony into a testament: to the power of a voice, raised. To the impact a single person can have on the course of human events. In 1991, Time published another cover pegged to “American’s watershed debate on sexual harassment.” This one featured another woman who would become iconic through the testimony she delivered to the Senate: Anita Hill. Time’s older cover, however, situated Hill’s picture next to a photo of Clarence Thomas. It set the images off each other so as to suggest that the two figures, within the close quarters of the magazine cover, were glaring at each other. It used as its headline “Sex, Lies & Politics.”

The Time of 1991 treated Hill’s testimony as the stuff of soap opera and scandal—and, in that, it refused to take her or her words, fully, seriously. Decades later, in the age of #BelieveWomen, in the time of #MeToo, the woman on the cover is alone with her words. But she speaks on behalf of many others—many more who will keep standing up, keep testifying, keep challenging the order of things, keep making themselves iconic. History has its eyes on you, the line goes. It’s a warning, yes; it is also, however, a promise.