From Stormy Daniels to E. Jean Carroll to Amanda Zurawski, women are finding a way past a very old trope.

BY DAHLIA LITHWICK MAY 01, 2023 *& too good not to share

There was a time when the only good female victim was the bleeding one. The high-water mark for salacious crime reporting—the yellow journalism purveyed in the late 19th century—made sure that every crime story came with an innocent, young, white victim, hopefully in a nightgown stained red. Justice for women inevitably took the form of white male vengeance attacking whomever had sullied the lady.

This vibe has prevailed in recent decades, even when it was lightly subverted; in 1973 Ms. Magazine infamously published a photo of Gerri Santoro bleeding out after a botched illegal abortion, under the headline “Never Again.” Time and again, the stories of lily-white women generously bleeding out for justice take center stage. To be a good crime victim demands youth, innocence, tears, and a life in tatters. It pulls a woman out of one airless box—property/wife/daughter—and pops her into another: ruined angel.

It would be nice if we could transcend this ancient narrative. And lately, finally, the “good victim trope really seems to be faltering, and I am absolutely here for it. Whether it’s Stormy Daniels chortling at the former president’s penis, E. Jean Carroll refusing to designate herself a rape victim (while still suing the former president for rape), or Amanda Zurawski testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week about how her inability to access health care nearly killed her, these women are not broken, defiled, ruined, or asking men to rescue them. They are, rather, pissed off, living their lives, and defying the public imperative to open a vein in public as a testament to their loss and brokenness. They are nobody’s property and nobody’s responsibility, and it is about freaking time we took them extremely seriously.

Zurawski’s testimony is particularly compelling after months spent watching the post-Dobbs reporting on all the women who must brush right up against death in childbirth before anyone can help them. It is a chilling reminder of how very much we love stories of dying women and the men who save them. But Zurawski’s testimony—that despite the fact that her pregnancy was not viable, her Texas doctors “didn’t feel safe enough to intervene as long as her heart was beating or until I was sick enough for the ethics board at the hospital to consider my life at risk”—reworked that story. Rather than center herself as a victim, she centered the men who hurt her (including Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, who didn’t show up for her testimony) and the ways in which she and her husband saved herself. It may not be a story you read in the mainstream press, but it is why abortion won the midterms and the Wisconsin Supreme Court race and will likely keep winning elections for anyone looking to preserve reproductive rights. Nobody is going back to Justice Alito’s halcyon days of witch burnings and Madonna/whore morality tales. Abortion advocates are, again, saving themselves.

Olivia Nuzzi’s recent barnstorming profile of Stormy Daniels in New York Magazine is, similarly, one for the books, not least because of the tarot card reading that opens the piece, and the open roasting of the politics-to-reality-show pipeline that constitutes public life today. But the most arresting part of the story is the grouping of several Trump “victims”—Stormy Daniels, Kathy GriffinMary Trump, and E. Jean Carroll—into a category Mary Trump handily describes as having “no fucks to give.” (Disclosure: As a journalist, I’ve met all of these women in recent years.) Griffin, in a quote, goes one better, describing Daniels as “like a porno Dorothy Parker,” and then goes on to describe the fantasy as “me, Mary, E. Jean, and Daniels and probably her husband and a fluffer.” I love the descriptor, and not just because each of these women is funny, complicated, and comfortable in her skin, as well as generally quirky AF, but also because it signals that perhaps the era of the wan, ruined, long-suffering victim may be well and truly behind us.

I’ve all but given up on the pollsters and pundits who will never understand the seismic change Dobbs brought about in politics. They don’t seem to actually know any women like E. Jean Carroll or Stormy Daniels, and they clearly don’t have any idea about how to pick up the phone and reach one. If you live your whole entire life in 19th-century tabloids or 21st-century Hallmark movies, you can truly fail to understand that for most women, most of the time, sexual harassment, sexual assault, internet death threats, pay discrimination, the absence of a meaningful child and health care network, pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and pregnancy complications are daily facts of life. All those things truly complicate and confound our daily lives, and still we manage to go to our jobs, and buy our yogurt, and call our moms. We’re actually, very few of us, huddled on a velvet couch palely waiting for some legislator to rescue us, or for some ethics board to deem us sufficiently wan and pale to warrant emergency lifesaving medical care. As Zurawski testified Wednesday, she never expected the senators who favored the abortion rules that nearly killed her to show up at a hearing to hear her story. They are as wholly invisible to her as she was to them. She just wants the rest of us porno Dorothy Parkers to be forewarned.

So, too, Carroll sat before a jury that already understands why women don’t report sexual assault the day it occurs, and told Donald Trump’s lawyer, “You can’t beat up on me for not screaming. One of the reasons [some women] don’t come forward is they are asked why they didn’t scream. Some women scream; some women don’t. It keeps women silent.” Indeed, she said, she now fully understands why women don’t report sexual abuse—because they won’t be believed (which is, paradoxically, what Trump’s lawyer kept saying: that she wasn’t believable). But this jury got to hear from a three-dimensional Carroll,who happily went into a changing room at Bergdorf’s with a guy because she was a journalist and he was a story. Her testimony was deeply hilarious and complicated and highbrow and ambitious and not at all designed for anyone’s fainting couch. “I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault,” she testified. “It was high comedy, it was funny, and then to have it turn …”

Welcome to the life of a woman.

It is worth noting here that Donald Trump’s defense in every case involving a female accuser is one-dimensional: She wanted his fame, she wanted his money, she wanted revenge. Women exist solely to steal his light, to cash in on his importance. In this Victorian telling, women are nothing until they can gouge a man.

But so many of the women presently in the world don’t actually believe that Trump is the source of their future greatness. With the exception of his wife and his daughters and some hapless attorneys, most women are smart enough to stay far away from him. To wit: What Stormy Daniels reports wanting from Donald Trump was principally to be left alone. When E. Jean Carroll’s friend Carol Martin advised her not to tell the police she’d been raped, it was because she wanted to spare her from being doubly injured by him. As Carroll put it on cross-examination: “I was afraid Donald Trump would retaliate, which is exactly what he did. He has two tables full of lawyers here today.”

Victims of persistent narcissistic misogyny, whether it emanates from Trump or Tucker Carlson or Harvey Weinstein or someone much less famous, always end up having to be “good” victims. In order to get anything like justice, they have to perfectly embody the trauma of what happened to them as the main plotline of their own life. The narratives always put their attacker, his wants and needs and actions, at the center of the story. Even when the attackers become incidental, or ancillary, or just tiresome, we have to keep behaving as though they are the beginning and the ending of the story.

But these new porno Dorothy Parkers keep making the choice to center themselves, their friendships, and their intricate lives. As Carroll testified Wednesday, “I’ve regretted this 100 times, but in the end, being able to get my day in court finally is everything to me. So I’m happy!” Like so many Trump accusers, she just wants to unstick her life from the sprawling miasma that is Donald Trump. She wants her voice back and her career back and her reputation back. Like Daniels, she just wants him to go away.

The notion that men own the law and women own their pain is so deeply ingrained in our legal system that nothing—not Anita Hill or #MeToo or decades of true crime and decades of obsessing over true crime—has fully shaken it loose. But in this post-Dobbs moment, we may finally have the potential to understand the cost of treating women as mere bodies, vessels, and victims, either perfect or ruined. Because unlike the women who bled out in random hotel rooms or died of infection, these women are surviving their mistreatment, and organizing around it. And they are finding a new way to talk about it—they are making these stories about them.

It is fitting that Trump most likely isn’t going to show up at E. Jean Carroll’s trial. It’s her story, after all. He’s just a bully she met along the way.