If Donald Trump were a woman, would you have voted for her?
Did Hillary Clinton lose because she’s a woman?
Just how deeply did sexism affect the politics of the U.S. presidential election?
A pair of researchers teamed up to find the answers. They recreated the presidential debates — with a twist. Trump was played by a woman, and became “Brenda King”; Hillary Clinton was played by a man and called “Jonathan Gordon.” How would audiences react to a female Donald Trump, and to a male Hillary Clinton?
After months of rehearsal, in which the actors painstakingly matched words, speech patterns, and gestures to those of the candidates, researchers got a chance to record the audience’s reaction to Her Opponent during two sold-out shows in New York City.
The experiment had shocking and surprising results.
“People got upset,” researcher Joe Salvatore explained in an interview with New York University News.
“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 researchers suspected that Trump’s aggression would never be tolerated from a woman, and that Clinton’s competence would be even more obvious coming from a man. Instead, shocked audience members found themselves understanding Trump’s appeal and described the male Hillary Clinton as “punchable.”
“The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman — that was a theme.”
The experiment was designed to explore gender bias and how people react to the unconscious communication styles of men and women, and it ended up doing just that — but it shocked the researchers and the audience by throwing light on their own bias.
“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.”
Instead, Brenda King (the female Donald Trump) was more likeable than expected. Salvatore explained the moment he turned to accomplished economics professor Maria Guadalupe, who designed the experiment, with the realization that his perception had shifted.
“I remember turning to Maria at one point in the rehearsals and saying, ‘I kind of want to have a beer with her!'”
This was a major shock to Salvatore who, as a gay man, admitted to having a liberal bias. He was upset to hear even harsher criticisms of “Jonathan Gordon” than he had of “Hillary Clinton” for the exact same behaviors. For example, one audience member described the male version of Hillary Clinton as “really punchable because of all the smiling.”
Salvatore was surprised that masculine behaviors on a woman were not as decried as feminine behaviors on a man — the female Trump was actually better received than the male Clinton, suggesting that if the genders were swapped, Trump would have gathered more votes.
“I had an unsettled feeling the whole way through.”
— Radio Eyes (@SeeingRadio) March 8, 2017
Audience members came to the play expecting to have their biases confirmed, but were instead shocked to realize that it was their own biases that had colored their perception of the candidates.
In the end, it was the ability to hear Trump’s words coming from a woman that allowed the researchers to develop empathy for those who voted for Trump.
“The majority of my extended family voted for Trump. In some ways, I developed empathy for people who voted for him by doing this project, which is not what I was expecting. 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.”
[Featured Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images]