Brett Kavanaugh’s ceremonial swearing-in at the White House this week was a moment of triumph for many conservatives, and agony for liberals who opposed him. There was no reason to assume it wasn’t a joyful day for Kavanaugh and his family. But some viewers speculated otherwise, upon examining a brief clip of Kavanaugh’s wife, Ashley, that was broadcast by Fox News.
The clip captures Ashley leaning in to receive a kiss on the cheek from her husband; at one point Kavanaugh nudges her backward so he can hug one of his daughters, and later she briefly raises her eyebrows while he rubs her back. That’s it.
But to resistance tweeters, it was something much more sinister. The above tweet racked up more than 79,000 retweets and a chorus of expanded analyses pinpointing in Ashley Kavanaugh not a proud wife, but one who is annoyed, repulsed, or even abused. “Did you see that look of fear in her eyes when he squeezed her shoulder? The warning sign between the two of them.” “The way she keeps looking at him—not romantically, but guardedly.” “The oldest daughter knows. It’s written all over her face.” Another “expert” spun a long theory about how Kavanaugh’s stance at her husband’s formal swearing-in—including her possibly turned-in toes—signifies “lower confidence and the need for protection.”
Amateur marital-body-language analysis is a long-standing cultural pastime. That image of Silda Spitzer grimacing alongside her disgraced husband during a press conference became so iconic that it surely helped inspire the pilot of The Good Wife. But it now seems like everyone on the internet has become an expert at parsing stray grimaces and glares from the wives of controversial men in assorted news footage. Take, for instance, the moment Melania Trump’s smile soured when her husband turned away from her at his inauguration, and the time she flicked his hand away on a tarmac in Tel Aviv.
In Ashley Kavanaugh’s case, as with Melania’s, the essential hope seems to be that body language will somehow reveal that these women secretly detest their husbands. In the latter instance, there sure seems to be plenty of evidence that the Trump marriage is in bad shape. But here’s another way of interpreting the 45-second clip at the White House this week: Ashley Kavanaugh is standing next to the president of the United States on national television, trying to make sure she and her two young daughters stand in the right place, move at the right time, and look in the right direction for photographs. What human being, especially someone unaccustomed to cameras, would not betray flickers of awkwardness on her face in that setting? For that matter, what human being would not betray flickers of awkwardness in any setting, if you stare at their face for long enough?
Meanwhile, here’s what we know about Ashley Kavanaugh, no speculation necessary. She sat beside her husband as he defended himself against sexual assault allegations on Fox News, where she bolstered sympathy for him by talking about how difficult the process has been for their children. She also positioned herself behind him throughout his hearings—although her facial expressions in that setting, too, have been analyzed for proof that she was actually appalled by his bitter shouting. It would be comforting to believe that Ashley Kavanaugh secretly loathes her husband as much as liberals do. But it’s surely delusional and unproductive to project that onto this marriage when the only real evidence is a stray flick of an eyebrow.