If you’re familiar with Brené Brown, you’ve heard the phrase “vulnerability is strength.” The University of Houston professor became a TED Talk sensation in 2010 by talking about the power of vulnerability and the role shame plays in toxic relationships, self-destructive behavior, and more.
Full disclosure: I’m a Brené super fan. But the psychological theory that vulnerability can actually be a superpower never really sat right with me. When you’re vulnerable, you reveal information that can be used against you later. The more you let people in, the more they can hurt you. The way I saw it, vulnerability is a side of yourself you show to those you’re intimate with: the people you love, the people you trust deeply. And even then, there’s risk.
But as I watched Christine Blasey Ford, PhD, testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I got it. At least, I started to.
“Helpful.” That’s the word that pierced my heart every time Dr. Ford uttered it, with eyes around the world focused intently on her.
“Helpful.” That’s the word that pierced my heart every time Dr. Ford uttered it, with eyes around the world focused intently on her. As she recounted the story of her encounter with Judge Brett Kavanaugh at a high school party in the early ’80s—during which she alleges he sexually assaulted her, an accusation he tearfully denied during his testimony later in the day—she had every right to be full of rage. But she wasn’t. (If she couldn’t be angry, the rest of us could, though: There was an army of rage-crying women and men who became Dr. Ford’s personal Anger Translator, a la Luther from Key & Peele.) She was calm—humble, really.
Because vulnerability is mostly still a despised word in our culture—or something that signals weakness or stereotypically fragile femininity—”humble” and “helpful” may actually sound like insults. Or worse, they may sound like a “compliment” given because she “knows her place.” (Talking to you, pundits who praised Dr. Ford while throwing shade at Anita Hill, 27 years later, for supposedly being too strong.)
Just about every woman I know is weeping right now, if my group texts are any indication. https://t.co/UJluUaIcE8
— Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) September 27, 2018
Let’s talk about likability
Yes, Dr. Ford was inoffensive, almost to a fault—if you wanted to find any with a performance that even President Trump reportedly found sympathetic. Thursday’s testimony sparked a lot of conversations about the lengths women have to go to be seen as “credible” to an audience of men—and Dr. Ford’s solicitousness with the senators, viewed from that lens, felt very good-girl.
As feminist author Jessica Valenti said in a tweet, “I hate this, but I do think Dr. Blasey Ford’s sort of traditionally feminine deference and politeness will make her more believable to sexist men.”
But that icky feeling may also have sprung from the fact that likability and success are negatively correlated for women, studies show—so being likable actually makes it more challenging for a woman to convey competence. (For men, by the way, likability and success go hand in hand.) Our discomfort with her smiling, friendly manner may have been because, in some deep dark recess of our lizard brains, we feared it would make her seem less credible.
But the thing is, Dr. Ford was likable and successful today. She was vulnerable but was not weak. She was, simply, undeniable. When you’re truly vulnerable, you show your cards—you have no more moves, no more tactics, no more illusions. You stop trying to outsmart a system that wasn’t built for you, and you free yourself of the worries and anxieties that keep you small. “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt her life,” comedian Hannah Gadsby said in her hit Netflix special Nanette. Finally, Brené, I get it.
Dr. Ford’s story has sparked a cultural conversation about sexual consent as well—and according to new research it’s long overdue.
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