Steff for SCOTUS

A Yale yearbook; a movie villain

Brett Kavanaugh is almost exactly 6½ years older than I am. Looking at his Wikipedia page, it is possible to infer that he graduated from high school in 1983. His publicly available biography reads like a study in the milkiest, chalkiest white privilege. Not pearly, ivory white like Robert Mueller, but like skim milk, pallid and weak with all the potential benefit stripped away, leaving nothing but the whiteness.

His father was basically a Beltway lobbyist (president of the Fragrance and Toiletry trade association). He went to a boys prep school (at the same time as Neil Gorsuch), but being in the DC area it probably wasn’t considered the same caliber as the old New England boarding schools. I’m sure the boys there considered themselves in every way the equals of the hereditary American nobility who went to places like Phillips Exeter, but I’ll bet you every one of them was also sensitized enough to social nuance to know there was still an “up” from where they were.

Brett (a 60s and 70s bro name if there ever was one) went to Yale for undergrad and straight to its law school. Note that in the fall of 1983, Yale had been admitting women students for 14 years, less than Brett’s lifetime. There Brett stayed, striving to make it with the most privileged of the privileged for seven straight years. We call that a “K through JD.” He did not make the varsity basketball team, having to content himself with the JV. He went to school with lots of men who would go on to be Federal Judges, partners at fancy law firms, law professors, and Justice Department officials. He got multiple federal clerkships, as one (white, male) federal judge after another passed him on with a recommendation. A clerkship of this sort, by the way, is an enormously prestigious job, which he got three of in a row, at successively higher levels. It is commonly occupied for 1 or 2 years by a sparkling new law student who has never had another job. Certainly never any other job practicing law. People who stay in those kinds of jobs for a long time (or in less prestigious state courts) are not the Bretts, Neils, or Robs of the world. They are commonly women, for one thing.

Brett went on to one of the toniest of law firms, and to various partisan positions with Ken Starr and the Bush White house, and finally to another incredibly powerful judicial office in DC. It’s not clear to me that, except for Yale, he’s ever really lived any place than DC — The epitome of a Beltway Insider. And his life reads like textbook “fortuitous accident of birth putting you at third base, so you tell people you hit a homer on your own merits”. The only one more gratuitous is George II.

What else was going on in the world in 1983? Again, an inference: John Hughes working on the 1984 movie, Sixteen Candles. At 12 or 13, I loved Sixteen Candles. It was racy and thus edgy, it depicted adolescent angst and struggle with peer hierarchy, and it featured a male romantic interest of unparalleled beauty. In the intervening thirty five years, the bloom has worn off and the candles have blown out. (although I think as a middle aged adult, Jake retained his pulchritude, if not his interest in acting).

The racism is so open and notorious, I won’t even get into it. The fetishized property destruction in movies of the time (Trading Places, Risky Business, the adventures of sociopathic narcissist Ferris Bueller, or any movie involving a fraternity), always makes me uncomfortable for any number of reasons. Then there’s the sexual messaging. Jake (the soulful, winsome object of the protagonist’s yearning) is dating the rich, popular mean girl Caroline. When she gets drunk at Jake’s debauched and out of control party, he hands her off to the pathetic nerd boy with instructions to drive her home and the clear message that since he — Jake — is no longer interested, the lower status male is free to avail himself as he pleases. The succeeding scenes imply Caroline (who is too drunk to consent) and “Geek” (do we ever learn his real name?) have sex. There has been plenty of recent discussion about how this interaction is date rape and unwholesome in additional aspects.

What else is Hughes doing with this and others of his immensely popular body of work? Consider The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). The first features grotesquely broad stereotypes of class distinctions and gender roles in high school, and the popular “princess” getting together with the burn-out boy after he slut shames her. The second revolves around a cross-class romance in which the boy is the “prince” who rewards the working class heroine with his love in the end, despite judgment from his cartoonishly terrible upper class peers (and judgment from her stalkery, resentful friend, which has also received plenty of “friend zone” exegesis in recent years). The final one, released after Hughes’ preferred stable of actors either out grew his roles or his controlling disposition, is another romance centering around a boy who discovers his faithful friend is his true love, not the more glamorous and popular girl.

Hughes’ publicly available biography makes it pretty clear that he is expressing his life experience of being a “lower-rung” white dude. He was barely middle class (his dad was a salesman, not a laborer), he dropped out of a state university, and married his high school sweetheart. He presumably experienced the world as a place where more aggressive, higher status (either better looking, materially more fortunate or both) males had better access to the premium resources particularly including, I suspect, pretty girls. (Note however, that his wikipedia page identifies his wife as “a cheerleader” — historically a synonym for Popular Girl). Hughes was savvy enough to do a Rule 63 gender scramble with Molly Ringwald, but his basic view of the world is a resentful stand off with the Jakes, Blanes, and Bretts of the world.

I liked Hughes movies because I was always far closer to the bottom of the ladder than the top (or sometimes even the middle), so that perspective echoed my experience. I suspect that was one reason why Hughes’ movies were so successful. Any ecosystem can only contain a few apex predators. The rest of us don’t necessarily view the apex predators as allies, protagonists, or heroes. James Spader’s Steff is the BAD guy, not the hero. Steff and Benny in her poofy pastel prom dresses, are unnuanced villains. Emilio Estevez’s jock and Molly Ringwald’s princess become sympathetic when they pair off with lower status partners, thus risking their own status.

What else was happening in popular culture in 1983? How about “Class” starring Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy (aka Pretty in Pink’s Blane)? This time McCarthy is the scholarship fish out of water, and Rob Lowe’s “Skip” is the old wealth, country-estate rich boy. The two young men ultimately become friends, expressed on Skip’s part by trying to get Jon sexual access to young women, and in Jon’s case (apparently) by forgiving Skip for repeatedly hazing and humiliating him. The big trial that tests their friendship is Jon inadvertently having a sexual relationship with Skip’s lonely, frustrated mother, but the boys overcome that after a good, healthy fist fight. Presumably they went on to college and law school/B-school and are now reminiscing over golf between days at a prestigious law firm or captaining the ships of industry. They would be about Brett Kavanaugh’s age.

Actual prep school boys of the 80s; Hollywood prep school boys of the 80s

How about what was happening in real life between boys and girls in the 1980s? Brett Kavanaugh and a buddy (Mark Judge, who seems like a human trash bin in a number of ways) were at a party, got drunk and trapped one of their female peers in a bedroom and tried to gang rape her, failing only because they were more drunk and less determined than she was. This seems 100% plausible to me. Here’s one reason why: I went to parties with other teenagers in the 1980s. (Not in 1983, but in 1986 and 87 certainly. By about 1988 I figured I need to go to different sorts of parties…I wonder why).

My highschool didn’t feature Blanes, Bretts, or Skips of the sort in John Hughes movies, but I did run across a few now and then. And there were lots of kids who lived semi-unsupervised, and a couple who even lived in their own apartments, either because they lived with older friends, or were semi-emancipated. I saw people drunk and/or navigating presexual encounters on a regular basis. I went to lots of theater club parties where there were no adults around. I certainly had one friend who told me she “woke up having sex” on the bathroom floor and objected, but the objection didn’t work and she cried afterwards. I saw a couple go to another room at a party and another boy pounding on door and providing color commentary. Then the boy came out and said, laughing, “my girl friend just puked on the mattress.” For various reasons, I wasn’t friends with the girl, but I felt so terrible for her in that moment. I tried to comb out her hair as she sat on the couch miserable, smoking in a bathrobe.

At that same party there were three boys and a very, very drunk girl in another room. One of the boys told me later, “Yeah, Kevin and Rob had sex with her. They said I should too, but I didn’t want to, so I said no.” I don’t know what happened to that girl. I don’t even know if she remembers that night. She didn’t go to our school so I think I only ever saw her one more time. She was in some kind of dating configuration with one of the boys who’d put his body on and in hers when she was blind drunk. One of those boys is dead now. (I used his real name). The one who was not a rapist, although did not think to prevent it at the time, is alive and well and a dad. I wonder what he makes of that event now. He loves his daughter and his partner and seems to lead a life of integrity and honorable intent. I’m not sure about the other fellow. He was living in our home town as of ten years ago, and not particularly happy or high functioning as far as I could tell. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to have children.

What do John Hughes, the Brat Pack, and a now dead, drug-addled, mid-western man have to do with Brett Kavanaugh? Brett Kavanaugh is man who walked through life on the most elite, smooth path someone like me (a woman of color, who tried and failed to get even one federal clerkship, and flunked out of a law partnership) could imagine. He is someone who grew up immersed in the culture of status-based entitlement to women’s bodies, of destructive partying without consequences (to ones self, never mind others), of Daddys and mentors and peers who didn’t care what you did “in private”, as long as you wrote a good memo, and authored a passably legible article on sports for your college paper. I wonder if he saw Pretty in Pink and identified with Blane or Steff? That must have been interesting, because you’re very clearly NOT supposed to identify with Steff. Duckie? Sure. Andie? Definitely. Blane. Fine, okay… but not Steff. But Brett Kavanaugh was pretty clearly a Steff, and trying to become more Steff with every basketball try-out, every drunk grope at a party, every golf game, every sleazy sentence about Monica Lewinsky’s dress. Somehow a guy whose strategies for sexual gratification included turning up music so no one could hear her scream spent years getting all worked about about Bill Clinton taking sexual advantage of an intern. WTF…

When we look back at Brett Kavanaugh’s life, and his choices and decisions about his own pleasure, and the integrity of a woman’s body and spirit, we’re learning who he is. Everyone who has shared a room (classroom or dorm room) or a golf game with him, laughed at jokes with him knows what kind of person he is. Most of them don’t care because they’re the Steffs, Blanes, and Skips.

Apparently it’s remarkably easy for men to become rapists. They are surrounded by messages that validate their sexual and other urges, dehumanize women and less fortunate men, and paint their own path in life as a winner-takes-all competition to become more powerful and more consequence-free. Brett Kavanaugh is the ultimate normalization of rape. It’s not our freakish, p**sy grabbing wanna-be dictator who epitomizes the problem. He’s too florid and obvious. It’s Brett Kavanaugh, and the notion that what he did was normal or didn’t happen, or didn’t mean the thing we know it to mean, or doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy, or is outweighed by “character witnesses”. And ultimately he’s entitled to be in charge of the rest of us, because he always has been. His bland normal appearance is like an ulcerated cyst, buried uneasily deep in our national muscle and Chuck Grassley is trying to keep it from bursting open by putting some cheap plastic bandage over it.

We all know the Steffs and the Skips of the world are the bad guys. We know the Socs in Outsider were the Bad Guys. Most of us who aren’t them know it, anyway. That’s why guys like George and Don want to cosplay “outsiders” and suck up to Joe the Plumber. Yet here we are. Out of tens of thousands of high schools in this country, some how we’re going to get TWO guys from a single cohort, at a single prep school where the yearbook features a senior extolling domestic violence in their quotes for posterity (that wasn’t Neil or Brett, it was Mark, Brett’s co-rapist).

Socs (1983); the country club scene from Trading Places (1983)

The internet is blossoming with firecrackers of women’s rage right now: magnesium flashes of white hot incandescence. I’m seeing it in women I went to high school and college with, who came of age with the Steffs of the world and watched John Hughes’ fantasies of being at the top of that heap. But the best we could hope for was getting a Blane who wasn’t a rapist. There was always the risk we’d be stuck in a room with a Brett. Brett is going to share a room now with Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor, whose robes he’s not worthy to kiss. Who fought and scrambled and persisted in the face of implacable sexism while he was floating from one insulated, networked job to another.

Move along, nothing to see here. A rapist frat boy will sit in judgment of the fates of millions. He had every path open up for him and he chose to use that good fortune to reify his obliviousness and reinforce the welfare of the powerful who made him powerful, despite his unremarkable person and deeply repugnant character. He could have developed some sympathy for other humans. He could have noticed that a girl was a human and not just a wet tunnel to dive into, even if there weren’t any in his classroom. But he didn’t. And it’s so unremarkable, so “normal” that we’re going to elevate him to one of the most powerful positions in the country.

I want to burn it all down, throw burning bags of pig shit at motorcades, scream with rage through a megaphone. But as I was fuming yesterday, the office manager gave me our annual pledge drive form. So I signed up for payroll donation to the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and I donated to Jennifer Wexton, running for Congress in Northern Virginia’s 10th Congressional District. Northern Virginia is close enough to the Beltway that I can lift a virtual middle finger to Beltway boys’ prep schools from there.

Originally published at on September 18, 2018.



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