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  • 03.13.17

Genderswapping The Debates To Find Out If A Male Version Of Clinton Would Have Won

In a new play, actors restaged the debates with a female actor playing Trump and a male actor playing Clinton. The results were more complicated than you might think.

Genderswapping The Debates To Find Out If A Male Version Of Clinton Would Have Won
[Photos: Richard Termine]

For weeks earlier this year, an actress studied and rehearsed Donald Trump’s 2016 debate performances until she could recreate them word for word and gesture for gesture, including each sniff and interruption. An actor did the same for Hillary Clinton, until both were ready to perform in a play designed to answer the question of how voters might have reacted differently if the candidates’ genders had been swapped.

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In January, the performance–a play called Her Opponent–raised deeper questions about gender than expected.

“Watching the debates in the fall of 2016, I was struck by the different body languages of the two candidates,” says Maria Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD, who co-created the play. “One was aggressive and the other calmer. I thought, what would this look like of we inverted the genders? What would a more aggressive behavior look like in a woman? What would a calmer stance look like in a man?”

She reached out to Joe Salvatore, a professor of educational theater at New York University who specializes in ethnodrama, a type of reality-based performance, and they began to create the play together, choosing excerpts from each debate to include. The experiment aimed to replicate the debate performances exactly as they had happened in real life–including pauses, movement, and tone.

The expectation: Trump’s aggression would seem off-putting in a female candidate; Clinton’s studious preparation would seem more admirable in a male candidate. But in rehearsals, neither seemed to be the case.

“We discovered things that I do not think we would have seen had we not done this,” Guadalupe says. “My [expectation] was that aggression and intensity would look less attractive in a woman. This was not the case. Another big revelation of our piece is that what I saw as ‘calm’ and ‘in command’ in Hillary Clinton appeared as submissive and weak when a man used the same non-verbal language.”

When audiences attended two performances of the play, each person filled out a questionnaire before and after the show–first about their reactions to the actual debates, and then about their reaction to the play. Many were Clinton supporters, trying to understand how Trump had won.

To their surprise, the female version of Trump–a character named Brenda King–seemed more clever and appealing than the real person.

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“I had dismissed [Trump] as having very little technique when I watched the original debates, but my experience of working on this revealed something quite different,” Salvatore says. “I might not like the result of those techniques, but now I can see them and understand them as choices and strategies. His use of simple statements, repetition, and his lower vocal register to make a particular point are all things that come to mind.”

By contrast, the male version of Clinton, a character named Jonathan Gordon, wasn’t seen any more positively than Clinton herself. While some right-wing blogs seized on this as further evidence of her unlikeability, it says more about how gender roles are socialized than her personality. Clinton’s frequent smiles during the debate–a common female expression–struck the audience as more insincere on a male actor. Her measured responses seemed to do the same.

“When we see someone we immediately project an expectation given their gender, race, nationality, and numerous other attributes,” Guadalupe says. “That determines what we think of them even before having any real information on them and also creates a set of expectations on how the person should behave. Somewhat simplifying things: For Clinton, what is calm and in command in a woman becomes weakness and submissiveness. For Trump, what is negatively seen as aggression in a man becomes passion and emotion, and that is maybe more appealing in a woman.”

It might be more appealing, but it’s also less likely to happen in real life. As a post on Jezebel put it:

One great difficulty in analyzing gender inequities is that a world of gender equity is too far removed from our own to properly imagine. A swaggering, fearless woman presidential candidate is appealing in the same way a teenager with the proportional strength of a spider is appealing. They represent a heroic and nonexistent alternate reality.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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