Elaine Benes. Nineties feminist icon. Terrible dancer. Urban sombrero-wearer. Sponge-worthy decider and a no bullshit-giver-or-taker. In one Seinfeld episode, Elaine gets asked by her friends, Beth and Arnie, to be a character reference in their adoption case. She lets it slip with the agency officer that once when they were all at a movie, Arnie lost his temper with Elaine because she wouldn’t stop talking during the film. Their adoption request gets denied. Arnie screams at Elaine that it’s all her fault. “See, again with the yelling,” Elaine says. “Not a fan of the yelling. That’s why you’re not getting a baby.” It’s hilarious and satisfying to watch Elaine diffuse Arnie’s outburst by leaving him no where to hide from his infantile behavior. This was always part of Elaine’s superpower: able to rhetorically kneecap someone with the same effort it takes a machete to slice through Jello.
I thought about Elaine when the recent story broke about the heated confrontation between Secretary of State Mike “Rapture Ready” Pompeo and Mary Louise Kelly, seasoned journalist and co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered. After refusing to answer questions about Ukraine, Pompeo cut the interview short. He had his formal aide (probably not at all suffering from Stockholm syndrome), request a meeting with Kelly in his private quarters. There he unleashed a 9-minute tirade excoriating Kelly for asking questions that Pompeo would have really, really, really preferred not to answer, okay? This is also known as a journalist doing her job. Life is hard, Mike. But the Rapture awaits, so hang in there, buddy.
I can’t imagine what it was like for Kelly to have the full force of rage coming from a nearly 6-foot tall man with a line-backer’s build trained on her. Then again, Kelly is someone who has reported from the Afghan-Pakistan border and from Kosovo refugee camps to name just a few tight spots where intimidation and fear are not in short supply. Having circulated in global circles around so many different world leaders and power elites, Kelly no doubt kept her composure through the ordeal, which also included Pompeo shoving an unlabeled map in her face and demanding she point to Ukraine. She did. “Now you get your president to do the same, pal,” she said, in my version of the story, channeling her inner-Benes. “Not a fan of the yelling. That’s why your guy is gettin impeached.”
If only women could puncture male anger that cleanly. If only we didn’t have to consider that for men, women’s anger is often a nuisance to be handled and contained, while for many women, male anger is fatal. This is our bleak reality. It’s also leverage that men sense either explicitly because they are amoral, criminally-minded garbage barges who feel their behaviors have no real consequences (they can bully, intimidate, and inflict violence at will. Cough Mr. Weinstein) or because they implicitly understand their anger to be an extension of their masculine privilege. In other words, white men are free to express their anger, to dispense their rage because the physical risk of challenge from women is typically minimal. The physical is not where most of the power behind men’s anger lies. It’s what destabilizing or undercutting this anger does to their ego, their psyche, their terra firma sense of manhood and masculinity that matters; that’s where it really hurts, that’s the sucker punch that results in internal bleeding. Women know it. Powerful men are hemorrhaging.
Pompeo is just the latest white man to use outrage to bully and diminish only to have that anger neutered by a woman who refused to be the gasoline to his match. We saw another version of this dynamic in the Brett “I Love My Calendar” Kavanaugh hearings. Dr. Ford’s exemplary composure in the face of a highly emotional, deeply personal, overwhelmingly traumatic experience—both testifying and Kavanaugh’s assault—revealed a woman who might have been the object of male scorn and anger, but she was not going to be its incubator. The contrast between her level testimony and Kavanaugh’s nearly hysterical acrimony that seethed through his statement like steam from a busted pipe was telling. Dr. Ford could not afford to express her anger fully or at all, in public. In keeping it on lock, she denied Kavanaugh a chance to paint her as unglued, unreliable, as a woman swept up in the eddies of righteous indignation. He took that brush to himself instead.
In just the handful of days since Pompeo’s exchange with Kelly, he has not deescalated his anger. He released a statement criticizing Kelly, again, and saying, in part, “This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration.” Your guy thinks windmills cause brain cancer and he can buy Greenland like it’s on sale at Target, but, sure, reporters are the real ding-dongs here.
A story broke on January 27 that Pompeo had NPR Diplomatic correspondent Michele Keleman removed from his State Department plane. Keleman was part of the press pool covering Pompeo’s trip to Kiev and, like Kelly, simply trying to do her job. It’s comforting to think that the global relationships tentatively keeping countries from nuking one another rest in the hands of someone with the maturity level of a seventh grader. It’s almost as if the price of not being angry for most of these men is too high. Maybe they feel it’s all they have left in this brave new world of shifting borders and beautiful, powerful new identities. And they are so good at it, too! To wave the white flag on their rage is to open themselves to challenge that they cannot deflect with privilege alone.
I was once in a terrifying confrontation with a man who was a friend of the family, a person we had all known since elementary school. He was built like a bulldozer. At one point he had worked as a bouncer. I do not doubt he was very good at his job. We were in a small room and his hulk took up most of it, growing, it seemed, along with his fury, which registered around me in humid waves.
I wanted to take responsibility for the hurt that I understood I had caused. I apologized. I meant it, I really did. He refused it outright, mocking me, telling me I wasn’t sincere and I didn’t get to say I was sorry. My anger traded places with my fear. In my own Elaine Benes moment, I broke off my sobbing to say: “Really? Who throws an apology back in someone’s face? Who does that?!” This did not go over well. There was a pause. The smallest breach in the energy like those few seconds after a thunderclap fades. He seemed slightly stunned by my audacity to point out that he wasn’t being gracious or fair or maybe he was caught off guard because I called out his anger, circling it in bright red marker like a teacher singling out an egregious error, a careless mistake that could have been avoided.
The moment slid by. He doubled down on his rage, snatching it back, his coveted, white, masculine right that no one was going to wrench away. There was more yelling, a lot more yelling. Still scared, but still not a fan, I endured another couple of minutes before racing out of the room. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry,” I called out as I ran outside, a last ditch effort; I pulled the words around me like rhetorical shields to ward off the blows I am still surprised never arrived.