Brett Kavanaugh, Willful Ignorance, and the Pop Culture of the 1980s
It was easy to miss in the deluge of news over the last few weeks, but when the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Justice Kavanaugh about the content of his high school yearbook (and, implicitly, about his wider reputation in high school and college), Justice Kavanaugh replied by pointing out that movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House were very popular at the time. His high school yearbook committee was aiming to produce a product “in that spirit,” he said.
This appeal to the film and pop culture of Justice Kavanaugh’s youth had, of course, been discussed in the media for weeks ahead of his testimony. Commentators on both the left and the right have pointed to movies like Porky’s, Caddyshack, and other comedies of the 1970s and 1980s as evidence that the kind of behavior that Justice Kavanaugh was being accused of wasn’t widely considered to be troubling at the time. To some commentators, that highlighted just how badly our culture was in need of a corrective. To others, it highlighted how unrealistic it was to expect people to change their perspectives so quickly. One of the hosts of Vox’s The Weeds podcast put it well when he said that many legacy pundits and public figures seemed to be lamenting the lack of some kind of “#metoo amnesty,” where they agree to abide by the new cultural norms moving forward but don’t think people should be liable for actions they took before these new norms were widely accepted.
While the stories we internalize aren’t the only things that shape how we think about the people around us, they are part of the equation.These appeals to the popular comedies of the 1970s and 1980s make sense—if the specific movies being discussed are the only artifacts of that era we have left to examine. But taking other movies of the time into consideration paints a less simplistic picture.
I watched the movie 9 to 5 recently. It’s a 1980 workplace comedy featuring very mild examples of the type of behavior that is taken to extremes in Revenge of the Nerds and its ilk. Dabney Coleman deliberately knocks his pens off his desk so that he can ogle his secretary when she bends over to pick them up, and he repeatedly orchestrates situations in which he can proposition her and make it uncomfortable for her to rebuff his advances. He doesn’t drill a hole in the wall to watch her shower like in Porky’s or get her blackout-drunk before handing her to another man and saying, “Have fun,” like in Sixteen Candles, or even subtly reveal that he brought a soda can’s worth of Thorazine to a first date like in Ghostbusters. But in our current discourse about sex and sexuality, most people would probably agree that his behavior is on the milder end of the same spectrum—harassment and abuse of power, rather than outright assault.
Here’s the thing, though: 9 to 5 is not Dabney Coleman’s story. The movie is told from the perspective of the women involved, and they absolutely hate his behavior. He’s the antagonist, and an effective one at that. Even though his behavior is much milder than what was on display in other movies of the same era, it was still understood to be repeated and ongoing torture for the women involved. When the story was being told from the perspective of the women on the receiving end of this kind of behavior, it could no longer be presented the way other comedies of the 1970s and 1980s presented it. To find any humor in it at all, it had to be toned down.
The humor of the movie is deeply rooted in catharsis. We watch Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and the incomparable Lilly Tomlin plan and exact unlikely and elaborate revenge against the man who inflicted these (comparatively mundane) indignities upon them, and a sensation of relief and justice washes over us. Watching from the midst of our current discourse about harassment and assault, it’s hard not to notice that the antagonist’s behavior is realistic and easily replicable, while the movie can only offer his female victims implausible and fantastical options for justice.
Movies like 9 to 5 weren’t the majority of movies released in the 1980s, but they weren’t produced and released in secret, either. At a time when programming was, by necessity, far less “niche,” when most movies and TV shows aimed for as broad an audience as possible, pop culture still offered models for a different approach to sex and consent—and some of those movies continue to endure as beloved examples of ’80s cinema right alongside the movies Justice Kavanaugh cited. (Say Anything…’s Lloyd Dobbler may have been a creepy obsessive, but there’s no mistaking how happy Diane Court was when she talked about how he prioritized her comfort and safety above his own sexual satisfaction.)
The existence of these movies belies the notion that men of the ’80s had no choice but to conform to the patterns of the era’s most boorish comedies, which leaves us with the question of how to interpret the behavior and values of the people who did. This is an important question, because the laws and decisions that govern our public life reflect the people who craft them. Our public officials’ visions for right and wrong, their ideas about what’s good and who is valuable and what is persuasive, their definition of flourishing and their hopes for their own lives—these things form the undercurrent of our laws. As our country’s primary hiring and firing committee, citizens in the US must figure out how to respond when a candidate for office points to these stories as context for why they think their judgment or values should be trusted.
The fact that movies like Porky’s existed in the 1980s doesn’t prove that women back then liked sexual harassment or that they were happy to be the victims of what we would now call sexual assault—but it might highlight which men didn’t think it was cool to care about that. And if someone wasn’t taught how to care, or made the choice not to, should Christians consider that a deal-breaker? Should we consider that to be completely morally disqualifying? I’d argue no—provided that, at some point in the intervening years, that candidate recognized the injustice of their cultural influences and did the hard work of repentance.
Instead of saying, “It was a different time and everyone thought those things were okay back then,” I’d be incredibly comforted to hear someone say, “No, back then, I didn’t think there was a problem with that kind of behavior. But since then, like a lot of people, I’ve listened to stories I hadn’t listened to before. I’ve learned that some experiences can be completely foreign to me but still be the day-to-day reality for a lot of my fellow Americans. And it took a while, but I think I understand their fear or pain or frustration now, and their experiences have changed my ideas. I was young, and I was wrong. I won’t try to justify my old attitudes, because in the eyes of a lot of people, they were unjustifiable. But I’ve grown, and I’m trying to do better.”
We’re facing a crisis of enmity in our politics, with many Americans conditioning ourselves to view people on the other side of major cultural divides as threats to be defeated rather than as neighbors to be understood and defended. Surviving this crisis with a functioning democracy intact is going to require many of us to cultivate a different attitude toward our political opponents, a different posture toward social groups we aren’t a part of, and a different relationship to social and political power. We’re going to have to learn to think differently about the people we’re most inclined to ignore or dismiss.
Christians live our lives committed first and foremost to the story of an infinite and glorious God who poured out his glory and divested himself of his power in order to live among, understand and tend to the needs of a twisted and undeserving humanity. We know that humanity functions most healthfully when we are living in ways that reflect that story, whether we know how to name it or not. It’s unrealistic to expect that the Americans who are best equipped for the work of elected office are also the Americans with the most sincere and spiritually ambitious theological visions—but that doesn’t mean devout Christians are the only people in our country who have the opportunity to navigate political power in ways that are consistent with how God intends us to behave.
With the rise of niche programming and the rise of social media that empower us to share our day-to-day thoughts and experiences like never before, people living in the US today have more access to more stories told from a wider range of points of view than we did in the 1980s. This is obviously good for entertainment: It’s easy to get bored of reading similar stories about similar characters over and over again. But it can also be good for our political culture: Our country is very big and very diverse, yet meant to be governed in a representative fashion. That means our elected officials need to govern with an eye toward the values and needs of citizens who might be very different from themselves. And our elected officials are products of our states and counties and towns.
Creating communities that are awash in a spirit of concern for the “other” takes a long time, and it rests on more than just the stories we internalize, the heroes we root for, the climaxes we celebrate. But these things are part of the equation. They do help shape how we think about the people around us. If we want to raise up a generation of public servants who will go on to actually govern in that spirit, we have to be wise about the stories we are training ourselves to venerate. And if we want to at least lower the temperature in the meantime, the stories our candidates discuss—and the way they discuss them—can be one more piece of information that we carry into our votes.
Good examples. The more theological spin on this is the defense of Jonathan Edwards being a slave holder was him being a man of his times.
But members of his community specifically complained about him having a slave as being a sin. And he wrote a defense of slavery in response.
Sins of a culture are rarely universal.
This. Thank you for your thoughtful article.
Comments are now closed for this article.