One image encapsulated the morning of September 27, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee: a photograph of Ford, eyes closed and right hand raised, taking an oath of honesty in front of the world. In many ways, Ford’s testimony felt like the pinnacle of the #MeToo movement, a visual representation of generations of women’s anger at the systems that ignore sexual misconduct and assault in order to keep men’s reputations intact.
That image circulated on the social media feeds of many people on the day of the hearings because it symbolized the bravery of a woman sharing her story at the risk of her own reputation—even her life. Her words and image were shared across social media in solidarity, and in the hands of illustrators, it became a means to document a historic moment and the massive impact it created.
What we post on social media is a reflection of our identities—what we do, what we care about, what we fear, what we love. For many of us, social-media platforms are also where we react to and contextualize what we see in the world. One widely circulated image, for instance, paired a photo of a protest in support of Anita Hill outside the Capitol in 1991 with a photo of protestors from the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s a meaningful contrast: When Hill testified at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing, there were far fewer channels by which women could show her that her words reached them. In this image-heavy era, easily disseminated visual activism allows them to be heard on a massive scale even when their voices—and their credibility—are being questioned.
Illustrators like Ashley Lukashevsky created pieces in solidarity with Ford on the day of the hearings. Lukashevsky’s illustration, drawn on a white background, shows an interpretation of the now recognizable photograph of Ford being sworn in. A few simple lines make up her face and body; there’s no color, making it a stark outline. Pink flames flicker in front of the group of dark figures. Some of the figures hold on to each other, one holds a baby. Above Ford’s figure, a pink sun surrounding the words “We Believe You.”
Illustrator Sara M. Lyons, known for her tarot cards, pins, illustrations, and murals, also interpreted the photograph of Ford. She used her signature pink background to depict Ford with the words “Dr. Ford, We Believe You.” Recently, Lyons shared an Instagram story in which she described a man slapping her behind while she was walking. Lyons shared her outrage at the incident, although she recognized it might not seem like a big deal to others. Many of her followers responded, sharing that it absolutely was a big deal. Her illustration of Ford emphasizes the need to hear women’s stories instead of downplaying the effect of sexual harassment and assault, no matter how common.
Ann Shen, author of Bad Girls Throughout History, also created a portrait of Ford. In her books, Shen has consistently focused on the forgotten histories of women—and the idea that women are often taught not to shake things up. Shen is drawing a throughline with her work, not only highlighting women of the past but also the stories of women making history right now.
In her illustration of Ford, Shen sets her against a deep burgundy background with a lighter circle that serves as a sort of spotlight. Thick gold lines jump off the background, surrounding Ford’s face. The effect mimics the spread of light, as if Dr. Ford’s raised hand—and implicitly, her promise to be truthful—illuminates the space around her. Even in this illustrated rendering, Shen captures the nervous yet graceful confidence of Ford.
These are only a few examples of the many artists using social media to break through the misogynistic tirades and noise created by the Kavanaugh hearings. The impact of these illustrations is large and reaches past social media in many ways—some artists have even decided to use their work to raise funds for organizations like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Social media is often mocked for the ways in which it comes off as too staged and curated, but in the midst of current events, it can be a loud and important tool. Social media allows for the sharing of stories in a way that’s immediate and allows people to be vulnerable. In the wake of the Women’s Marches of January 2017, institutions including the USC Libraries Special Collections in Los Angeles, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and others collected signs left behind by protestors as a way to archive the words, the images, and the spirit of the historic moment.
In the 2018 book Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists, Martha H. Kennedy writes about the “emergence of the ‘New Woman,’” a figure described by writers in the 1890s and early 1900s as an independent, often well-educated, young woman with more visibility in society than “women of preceding generations.” In addition, this image “provided women with opportunities to negotiate new social roles,” that were more progressive than those of the previous century. Yet women weren’t typically in control of pop culture representations of themselves. The Gibson Girl—seen as “the visual ideal of the New Woman”—was created by male illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Subsequent women’s movements and advances toward independence (suffragettes, flappers, second-wave feminists) also found their images not only crafted for mass media but lampooned.
Another, simpler, image also circulated on social media last week: a text image that reads “she’s someone’s sister/mother/daughter/wife” with everything crossed out except for “she’s someone.” The image, shared on Instagram and also Twitter has been used online before. The same image, although in a different style, appears in entries on sites like Blogger back in 2013. It’s meaningful that even five years later (and longer, perhaps), this phrase has maintained its significance. Through blogs and social media, it encapsulates the anger and frustration at those who still see women in prescribed roles or only in relation to others/men.
These illustrations and the conversations they spark are a continuation of the shift in discourse that happened in 1991 after Hill’s testimony. If 1992 was the Year of the Woman, 2019 might also signify a shift. And these illustrations will remain as visual markers of a time when the internet was aflame with indignation from people tired of hiding of their stories.