Maria Guadalupe, an economics and political science professor, and Joe Salvatore, a professor of educational theater, recently put on a pair of performances that restaged the three Presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But this time, they had a woman play the Trump role (as “Brenda King”) and a man play the Clinton role (as “Jonathan Gordon”), with each attempting to portray the precise mannerisms, styles, and speech of the respective candidates. How would audiences react to the gender-switched candidates?
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 audience’s reaction to the performances was surprising.
We heard a lot of “now I understand how this happened” — meaning how Trump won the election. People got upset. There was a guy two rows in front of me who was literally holding his head in his hands, and the person with him was rubbing his back. The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman — that was a theme. One person said, “I’m just so struck by how precise Trump’s technique is.” Another — a musical theater composer, actually — said that Trump created “hummable lyrics,” while Clinton talked a lot, and everything she was was true and factual, but there was no “hook” to it. Another theme was about not liking either candidate — you know, “I wouldn’t vote for either one.”
Here’s a clip from one of the rehearsals:
I think it’s important not to take away too much from this experiment (and perhaps the same should be said of televised political debates in general) but after watching that short clip and hearing about the audience’s reaction, I couldn’t help but think of Al Gore. In the lead-up to the election, I’d never thought of Clinton that way — meaning very smart, compassionate, and supremely qualified but ultimately a bit dull and uninspiring a la Gore — but maybe she did lack a critical charisma compared to Trump.
Since the Kennedy/Nixon debates, we’ve known that how candidates handle themselves on television — in debates, interviews, televised speeches, etc. — is critical to the voters’ perceptions of them. Gore, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, John Kerry…they all were bested by more charismatic candidates (Reagan, Obama, Bill Clinton) that were in some cases not as qualified on paper. Even the Bushes (especially Dubya) had an aw shucks-y folksiness that could charm people sympathetic to their message. Perhaps Hillary Clinton belongs on that list as well. (via mr)