Tue Mar 07, 2017 11:57 pm
What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Had Swapped Genders?
After watching the second televised debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in October 2016—a battle between the first female candidate nominated by a major party and an opponent who’d just been caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women—Maria Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD, had an idea. Millions had tuned in to watch a man face off against a woman for the first set of co-ed presidential debates in American history. But how would their perceptions change, she wondered, if the genders of the candidates were switched? She pictured an actress playing Trump, replicating his words, gestures, body language, and tone verbatim, while an actor took on Clinton’s role in the same way. What would the experiment reveal about male and female communication styles, and the differing standards by which we unconsciously judge them?
Guadalupe reached out to Joe Salvatore, a Steinhardt clinical associate professor of educational theatre who specializes in ethnodrama—a method of adapting interviews, field notes, journal entries, and other print and media artifacts into a script to be performed as a play. Together, they developed Her Opponent, a production featuring actors performing excerpts from each of the three debates exactly as they happened—but with the genders switched. Salvatore cast fellow educational theatre faculty Rachel Whorton to play “Brenda King,” a female version of Trump, and Daryl Embry to play “Jonathan Gordon,” a male version of Hillary Clinton, and coached them as they learned the candidates’ words and gestures. A third actor, Andy Wagner, would play the moderator in all three debates, with the performances livestreamed. Andrew Freiband, a professor in the Department of Film/Animation/Video at the Rhode Island School of Design, provided the video design. (Watch footage from a Her Opponent rehearsal below.)
Salvatore says he and Guadalupe began the project assuming that the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression—his tendency to interrupt and attack—would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.
But the lessons about gender that emerged in rehearsal turned out to be much less tidy. What was Jonathan Gordon smiling about all the time? And didn’t he seem a little stiff, tethered to rehearsed statements at the podium, while Brenda King, plainspoken and confident, freely roamed the stage? Which one would audiences find more likeable?
The two sold-out performances of Her Opponent took place on the night of Saturday, January 28, just a week after President Trump’s inauguration and the ensuing Women’s March on Washington. “The atmosphere among the standing-room-only crowd, which appeared mostly drawn from academic circles, was convivial, but also a little anxious,” Alexis Soloski, a New York Times reporter who attended the first performance, observed. “Most of the people there had watched the debates assuming that Ms. Clinton couldn’t lose. This time they watched trying to figure out how Mr. Trump could have won.”
Inside the evening’s program were two surveys for each audience member to fill out—one for before the show, with questions about their impressions of the real-life Trump–Clinton debates, and another for afterward, asking about their reactions to the King–Gordon restaging. Each performance was also followed by a discussion, with Salvatore bringing a microphone around to those eager to comment on what they had seen.
“I’ve never had an audience be so articulate about something so immediately after the performance,” Salvatore says of the cathartic discussions. “For me, watching people watch it was so informative. People across the board were surprised that their expectations about what they were going to experience were upended.”
Many were shocked to find that they couldn’t seem to find in Jonathan Gordon what they had admired in Hillary Clinton—or that Brenda King’s clever tactics seemed to shine in moments where they’d remembered Donald Trump flailing or lashing out. For those Clinton voters trying to make sense of the loss, it was by turns bewildering and instructive, raising as many questions about gender performance and effects of sexism as it answered.
And this was just the first phase of the project: Her Opponent’s creators envision adapting the recording as a classroom teaching tool to explore the complex ways our personal biases influence how we receive messages. The gender-swapping technique, Salvatore suggests, could also be used to explore the communication styles of different political figures in other charged confrontations.
NYU News talked with Salvatore about the painstaking process of re-gendering the presidential candidates, and about why the Gordon–King debates seem to have struck a nerve.
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