Gender-Reversed Performance of Trump-Clinton Debates Produces Surprising Results

By Nancy Flory Published on March 9, 2017

An experiment in gender-reversed casting for a performance that replicates the 2016 Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debates — down to gestures and movements of the candidates — produced strong results — but not what the creators had in mind.

Maria Guadalupe, associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD (Paris) watched two of the 2016 debates between Trump and Clinton and wondered if perceptions of the candidates would change if their genders were reversed, reported New York University news. Specifically, she wanted to learn about the ways men and women communicate and how people unconsciously judge them differently.

Guadalupe roped in Joe Salvatore, a NYU Steinhardt clinical associate professor of educational theatre specializing in ethnodrama. They created Her Opponent, which is “a production featuring actors performing excerpts from each of the three debates exactly as they happened — but with their genders switched.” Fellow educational theatre faculty played the parts of Donald Trump renamed Brenda King for the production (Rachel Whorton) and Hillary Clinton renamed Jonathan Gordon (Daryl Embry).

Originally designed to test gender-specific communication and biases, the researchers thought that Trump’s mannerisms wouldn’t be tolerated from a woman and that Clinton’s seeming preparedness would be even more convincing coming from a man. The actual results amazed them.

As the rehearsals started taking shape, Salvatore and Guadalupe realized something unusual was happening. “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,” said Salvatore. “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.”

Both performances on January 28 were sold out.

Alexis Soloski, a New York Times reporter was among the crowd. “Most of the people there had watched the debates assuming that Ms. Clinton couldn’t lose,” he said. “This time they watched trying to figure out how Mr. Trump could have won.”

The audience was given two surveys — one to complete before the performance, which asked questions about the actual 2016 presidential debates between Trump and Clinton, and one to complete following the performance about their reaction to the restaging. There was then an open discussion with Q&A from the audience.

“I’ve never had an audience be so articulate about something so immediately after the performance,” Salvatore said. “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.”

Salvatore heard a lot of “now I understand how this happened.” “People got upset,” he recalled. “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.” Another audience member commented that the male Hillary Clinton character was “really punchable” because of all of the smiling.

Salvatore continued:

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.’ … A lot of people were just very surprised by the way it upended their expectations about what they thought they would feel or experience.

The plan now is to begin filming the debate excerpts in a studio, just as they were televised, shot by shot. Andrew Freiband of the Rhode Island School of Design and producer of the video design for Her Opponent, will take the footage and provide annotated descriptions underneath the debate, allowing viewers to identify nonverbal cues that contribute to messages sent and received through videos such as this. Salvatore told The Stream that he and Guadalupe are working towards an off-Broadway performance and the filming later this spring and hope to make it available for screenings in the near future. 

Rehearsal footage of Her Opponent:

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