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?
...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...