A professor of economics named Maria Guadalupe was watching the presidential debates last year and had a thought. What if Trump were a woman and Hillary were a man? How would that change people’s perceptions of the exchanges in the debates?
Guadalupe set up a recreation of sections of the original debates using actors to play the roles of Trump, Clinton and the moderator. All the words the actors spoke were taken from transcripts. The candidates’ body language and delivery were studied and the actors did their best to match it moment-to-moment to video feeds from the actual debates. The only difference was that Donald Trump was now a woman renamed Brenda King while Hillary was now a man dubbed Jonathan Gordon.
Guadalupe and her helper Joe Salvatore had little doubt what the experiment would reveal, i.e. Trump’s behavior would never be tolerated coming from a woman while Clinton’s competence would be even more obvious coming from a man.
When the debate was actually performed, for a crowd of mostly academics, the audience was somewhat bewildered. From NYU News:
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…
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.
In an interview with NYU News, Joe Salvatore described some of the specific reactions he heard from the auidence:
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.
Salvatore says it was personally education for him as many members of his extended family had voted for Trump. “I developed empathy for people who voted for him by doing this project, which is not what I was expecting,” he told NYU News. He added, “I expected it to make me more angry at them, but it gave me an understanding of what they might have heard or experienced when he spoke.”
You can watch a bit of the rehearsal here: