By Emily Elott
Brett Kavanaugh is a monster.
I know a statement like this one probably elicits quite a few different reactions. Some might just blindly agree with me because it aligns pleasantly with their political leanings. They might say “Of course the man is monstrous! That’s stating the obvious.” Others might approach the statement with skepticism: “Monsters are werewolves and goblins and orcs and dragons. Brett Kavanaugh is an ordinary dude.” Still, others might blatantly dismiss my statement as more liberal propaganda. “It’s just the damn liberals again, complaining about their oppression.”
I’m not interested in validating any of these responses. Instead, I want to think about how Brett Kavanaugh actually is a monster, at least in the literary sense of the word derived from the “7 Theses of Monstrosity,” as I’ve learned about in English 10A: Mapping Monsters.
Before I explore this question, however, I want to lay out my vision for this column. In my time at Stanford, I’ve noticed that the fiction-based concepts and ideas I engage with in my English classes tend to draw striking parallels with the events unfolding in our present political climate. Each week, I will pick one of these connections that I see and analyze how we might use literature to better understand the present. These texts are a veritable wealth of wisdom for us to draw from as we navigate an increasingly complex world. I want to debunk the shibboleth that literature’s inherent abstraction — it is, after all, a set of stories about people who never existed, often in worlds that never existed— divorces itself from the messiness of our present reality. I believe that literature has a perennial usefulness. This usefulness is embedded within, and, in many ways, is allowed to exist only because of its very abstraction.
What can Tom McCarthy in “Remainder” tell us about the rise of the service economy and the subsequent pathologizing of experience? What does Virginia Woolf in her feminist treatise “A Room of One’s Own” have in common with the #MeToo movement? And, in this particular piece, how can thinking about monsters in medieval England help us understand the cultural significance of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation?
English Medieval Studies professor Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, theorizes seven requirements, or “theses,” that all monsters must meet. He applies these qualities to monsters like the Blemmyae, headless men found in Old English fiction.
It turns out that Brett Kavanaugh also fits the seven requirements for monstrosity, but not in the characteristic, physically repulsive way we might think about monsters.
Thesis 1: The monster’s body is a cultural body.
Kavanaugh is the embodiment of a culture eternally preoccupied with retaining the status quo. He and his supporters symbolize our culture’s continued hostility toward long-lasting disruptions of the patriarchal order.
Thesis 2: The monster always escapes.
Kavanaugh escaped even the best attempts to catch him. Even in the face of a full testimony by Ford, an FBI investigation, and a blatant demonstration of his explosive and remarkably injudicious temperament, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh. He now sits on the Supreme Court bench, free to help dictate the court’s rulings on the important decisions of our time.
Thesis 3: The monster is a harbinger of a category crisis.
Kavanaugh precipitated a crisis about the identity of the Supreme Court. What role should the Supreme Court play in our society? Certainly, the Supreme Court has had certain political tilts at other times in history. The Warren Court, in particular, comes to mind. The contentiousness of Kavanaugh’s confirmation begs the question — is the Supreme Court another institution handicapped and stunted by political polarization, or is it a bastion for the principles and ideals of a representative republic? Should partisanship bleed over into what was once the least partisan institution? Can we prevent it? This crisis of identity is only growing.
Thesis 4: The monster dwells at the gates of difference.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation is sinister to us because it reminds us not only of what we are (hopefully) not, but what we might become: a culture openly tolerant of powerful men and their proclivity toward the violation of women’s bodies. Within our society there are partially hidden threads of discord sewn, power-mongering and self-aggrandizement, especially along gender lines. Kavanaugh has pulled these threads out of the fabric and made them apparent for all to see.
Thesis 5: The monster polices the borders of the possible.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation seeks to press against the limits of the current feminist uprising in the United States. How far can the #MeToo movement go? Where does it end? What kind of change is it really creating? What is possible for women in this country? The public persecution of Ford evokes the ageless concept of a disagreeable woman discounted on dubious grounds. The Salem Witch Trials, for women, it seems, never really ended.
Thesis 6: The monster is a kind of desire.
Kavanaugh represents a deep-seeded desire in our society for clear answers to the complex issues of gender that face us. We do not really know how to solve the problem of sexual inequality in our society. We want to vilify and cast aspersions and direct our anger because it is one of the few ways we can feel empowered in the face of uncertainty. Kavanaugh creates a clear and comfortable binary. We hate him or we love him.
Thesis 7: The monster stands on the threshold … of becoming.
Kavanaugh stands at the threshold of what our culture could become. The horrific nature of his confirmation for many people in this country forces us to examine our culture and the assumptions we make about our values. Our culture is in danger if we accept without protest the reestablished hierarchies of power.
Undoubtedly, Kavanaugh’s unique position reflects these monstrous theses. But, in thinking about what exactly it means to be monstrous, we can begin to respond to him and what he represents. Through the lens of the monstrous in the medieval and literary sense, we can think more critically about what his confirmation signifies about the current cultural moment. For me, this lens has allowed me to identify the incredible inertia against real change for women in our culture. Kavanaugh demonstrates that our culture is one which seeks to retain its paternalistic and patriarchal hierarchies at all costs. But the monster is out in the open now. Perhaps, now that he is out in the open, we can combat him more forcefully and endeavor to make change that will actually stick.
Contact Emily Elott at elotte ‘at’ stanford.edu.