Monday, June 05, 2017

What If Clinton Were a Man and Trump Were a Woman?


A portion of the 2016 presidential debates staged by Professors Maria Guadelupe and Joe Salvatore, in which the Trump character is played by a woman, Rachel Whorton (left), and the Clinton character is played by a man, Daryl Embry (right).

by Gaius Publius

The latest outrage from the Republican Wet Dream Team is Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, cheered by almost every Republican in elected federal office. We have seen and will see plenty of commentary on that world-historical event. It's not hard to be horrified by it, and it may even help, though until real climate hawks — people who are deadly serious about making real and revolutionary changes at the fastest possible rate, of which I see few — get their hands on the levers of American power, it's hard to see how.

My own comment on this announcement was published last December, almost immediately after the election and well in anticipation of the much more recent news. You can read it here. The headline is no exaggeration, and the piece gets fairly specific about why the headline statement is true.

The other topic being bandied about these days is — what's going on in the Democratic Party? Or more specifically, how are mainstream Democrats dealing with being out of power, and how is having lost the White House being post-mortem-ed? The current crop of public questions include — Was it Russia's fault? Was it sexism's fault? Was it Bernie's fault? Was it the fault of the voting mass of the "deplorables"? Or something else entirely?

Among mainstreamers, the question "Was it Clinton's fault?" seems not to be asked at all, at least publicly.

Of these questions, one of the most intriguing in terms of its subtlety is "Was it sexism's fault?" In other words, was it the fault of inbred American sexism that Clinton, who would have been the first woman president, was not elected? The question needs answering even if there were other factors in her loss, including the unpopularity of Clinton herself — a factor that's difficult for many to disentangle from the simple fact of her gender.

For example, if Clinton were a man, would she have been more successful? Answering that would go a long way to disentangling the Clinton-as-Clinton thread from the Clinton-as-woman thread.

We can take that further. If Clinton had been a man, Trump had been a woman, and all other things (or most of them) had been the same, would the electoral results have been the same? If not, how would they have been different?

Testing the Response to Gender in the Presidential Election

We at la Maison are not the first to ask those questions. Two academics pursuing the problem of the role of gender in the last election, Professors Maria Guadalupe and Joe Salvatore, have created an interesting virtual test tube for helping find the answers. They excerpted material from one of the debates between Clinton and Trump, switched the genders while keeping almost all the language — including the body language — the same, and performed the result as a play-cum-research project. You can see a sample of what they did in the video at the top.

There are no simple or clear answers to the above questions — Would the results have been the same? If not, how would they have been different? — but there is suggestive data. Again, the key factors include not just the fact of Trump's behavior as a man, but also as the kind of person he is. Same with Clinton — it's not just that she's a woman that had an effect, but also the kind of person she is. 

Because these elements are hard to separate doesn't mean that they can't be separated, at least on a viewer-by-viewer basis. That is, even if not every person has the same reaction to the gender switch, each person will have some reaction, and that reaction can be instructive.

Try it yourself. If you haven't already watched the video, do this:
  • Ask yourself, what was your impression of Trump — as a person first, then as a male person — before the election? What did you like about him and/or his message? What did you dislike?
  • What was your impression of Clinton — as a person first, then as a female person — before the election? What did you like about her and/or her message? What did you dislike?
Then watch the video and ask yourself:
  • Do you like Trump's manner and message more or less when you see them coming from a woman?
  • Do you like Clinton's manner and message more or less when you see them coming from a man?
Be sure to separate your response to each candidate's manner from your response to her or his message. I myself found the exercise remarkably enlightening.

What Did the Researchers Find?

Obviously this is an ongoing experiment. The professors have staged this as a two-performance play for a select audience entitled Her Opponent, which has now been adapted for performance. The next step is to film it using the exact non-verbal cues, shot by shot, that appeared in the televised debate itself as a way to test audience reaction to those added elements.

So the research is continuing. Some information, though, can be gleaned from their work so far. The following are sections of a discussion of the project plus an interview with Dr. Salvatore published at the website. This is from the article's introduction:
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?
Sticking with the point above for just a moment, ask yourself this. Did you find "Trump’s aggression, his tendency to interrupt and attack" intolerable coming from the woman playing his role? Was "Clinton’s competence and preparedness" more convincing because it came from a man playing her role? I'm not sure either answer is yes.

About the response of the play's initial audience, mainly other academics, the interviewer writes:
Many were shocked to find that they couldn’t seem to find in Jonathan Gordon [the actor playing the male Clinton role] what they had admired in Hillary Clinton—or that Brenda King’s clever tactics [playing the female Trump role] 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.
Put perhaps too simply, it seems that for many, the Trump character actually works when played by a woman, and the Clinton character seems not to work when played by a man. Again, watch the brief segment at the top and decide if you agree.

The implications of the simplified statement above, even if true, are far from simple.

Some excerpts from the interview (emphasis mine):
[Interviewer] What was the rehearsal process like?

[Salvatore] It was really challenging on a number of levels—technically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Especially for Rachel [Whorton], who played the female version of Trump, it was emotionally challenging because of the things she had to say. We started with audio first, so that the actors could listen to it and learn it without the visuals. Then we went back into the room with screens to watch, and they took notes on the gestures to link to the audio that they had already learned.

At some point they were able to do it from memory with the video of Trump and Clinton playing along behind them on a TV, so their level of accuracy was pretty amazing. Once we got into rehearsal and started experiencing Clinton in a man’s voice and body, Maria and I started to think that maybe Daryl [Embry, who played the Clinton-as-man character] had the harder job. We both thought that the inversion would confirm our liberal assumption—that no one would have accepted Trump’s behavior from a woman, and that the male Clinton would seem like the much stronger candidate. But we kept checking in with each other and realized that this disruption—a major change in perception—was happening. I had an unsettled feeling the whole way through.
About the audience reaction:
Based on the conversations after the performances, it sounded like audience members had their beliefs rattled in a similar way. What were some themes that emerged from their responses?

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.” Someone said that Jonathan Gordon [the male Hillary Clinton] was “really punchable” because of all the smiling. And a lot of people were just very surprised by the way it upended their expectations about what they thought they would feel or experience. There was someone who described Brenda King [the female Donald Trump] as his Jewish aunt who would take care of him, even though he might not like his aunt. Someone else described her as the middle school principal who you don’t like, but you know is doing good things for you.
I'm not sure there's real data yet, in the formal sense, to be had from this experiment, but it's certainly instructive. I'll offer two takeaways, then leave the rest to you.

First, Salvatore's comment in the interview summarizes many people's experience of the play: "I was surprised by how critical I was seeing [Clinton] on a man’s body, and also by the fact that I didn’t find Trump’s [aggressive] behavior on a woman to be off-putting." Note that this experiment entirely ignores Trump's obvious sexism outside the debate, most revealed by his "grab them by the pussy" remarks. This experiment does not explore reaction to that kind of aggression.

Second, this play is about the Trump populist performance during the campaign, and does not in any way reflect his decidedly anti-populist actions once he took office. In that sense, the work by Guadalupe and Salvatore is a performance that studies a performance — or two, if you count Clinton's pre-election self-presentation as well.

Nevertheless, fascinating. I hope at some point the entire play, Her Opponent, comes to a Netflix near you. I know I'd be watching if it did.


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At 10:15 AM, Blogger Mark Gisleson said...

I don't think I'd ever be comfortable voting for a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seems to be an experiment about voters who don't have ANY foreknowledge about either "character" so that fresh reactions to what they say and how they say it can be studied. OK as an academic exercise ONLY I suppose. The gender inversions, having traditional gendered mannerisms and syntax purveyed by the opposite, might be unsettling.

But did the stupidity, ignorance, narcissism, hubris and hate of the female drumpfsterfire equal that of the fat fuck?
Did the lying hubris and indifference to the lowest 60% of voters seem more "normal" from a male Clinton than it was from the female version? Did the contrived smiles and overreacted cackles seem more natural in the male Clinton than in the female Clinton?

As it is, we had a very well known crooked fascist/neonazi asshole vs. a very well known lying corrupt warmongering neocon neoliberal.

Their genders were irrelevant. Both could be hermaphroditic, trans or gelded or any goddamn thing. NEITHER was deserving of a single vote from a rational, discerning fully formed human voter. Luckily for both (and their funders), we have a dearth of that kind of voter in this shithole.

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great idea. The woman doing the leaning in, yelling and cutting off the other speaker seems unbalanced here. And it puts the man at a disadvantage. They seem to need a moderator and there is no one enforcing fairness or rules of debate. My gut reaction would be that she has some kind of anger management issues and I don't have enough info to decide about him. Yelling and rude are just creepy behaviors. I'm kind of surprised that it still looks that way, but it does.

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The basis of this "study" was material exceRpted from one of the debates?!?

We would be infinitely better served if the study were about the exclusion of valid candidates from, and the infantilism, obfuscation & abusive irrelevance of, US presidential debates, in general, for decades.

John Puma

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, JP. The study should go back to the '80 election and have each of the candidates played by muppets so that even the kids could participate in the study (IMO, the drumpfsterfire simply HAS to be played by Beaker with the hair of a troll doll added... except Beaker makes a lot more sense).

But nobody's record of (dis)service nor degree of corruption could be known.
And, of course, all bad English syntax and made-up words would seem far more normal coming from puppets.

However, having them played by puppets WOULD lend a healthy dose of honesty to the process. n'est ce pas?


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