How Gender Shapes Presidential Debates — Including Between Two Men

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President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden’s debate this week was low on substance and high on interruptions and aggression, particularly from Trump.

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SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

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Trump, meanwhile, became inflamed when Biden said he needed to «get a lot smarter» — «Did you use the word smart? … Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me. Don’t ever use that word,» Trump responded, then trying to insult Biden’s intelligence.

And while few are praising Trump’s performance, there is a sense among some that a woman would have paid a bigger penalty for being as over-the-top aggressive as he was.

«If a woman behaved the way President Trump behaved, she would probably be referred to as the ‘B’ word,» said Alice Stewart, a CNN commentator who worked on Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign and former Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 2012 campaign.

«The perception [and] optics of a woman being forceful is offensive to some people,» she added. «I don’t agree with that, but that’s the way the mind of some voters happens to work.»

Stewart also believes that Trump’s debate performance was more overtly angry than in 2016 because of whom he was debating.

«He clearly felt emboldened to let the fire in his belly rage because Joe Biden was a man,» Stewart said.

Moreover, identity can play into what candidates talk about. As 19th News’ Errin Haines noted, they largely didn’t talk about a variety of issues that disproportionately affect women, women of color, transgender and nonbinary Americans.

Gender-swapping the debates

Trying to figure out how a debate would have played out with hypothetical candidates of a different gender is only of limited use as a thought exercise. After all, it’s impossible to know exactly how voters would respond to a theoretical woman version of Donald Trump.

And so researchers have decided to make it not as theoretical. In early 2017, Joe Salvatore from NYU and Maria Guadalupe from the business school INSEAD staged a binary gender-reversed version of the 2016 presidential debates, which they titled Her Opponent.

They replaced Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with the fictional candidates Brenda King and Jonathan Gordon, and they had the actors replicate Trump and Clinton’s debate performances — not just word for word, but gesture for gesture, facial expression for facial expression.

The results were surprising to Salvatore, as well as audience members. Some viewers who didn’t like Donald Trump, it turns out — and who thought his debate performance was objectively bad — unexpectedly liked the female version of Trump.

«That actress could run for president in 2024. I’m not joking,» he said. «I mean that people are so engaged by the way that woman behaves in those clips.»


The fact that some voters liked Brenda King so much also made Salvatore wonder what made her palatable as a woman candidate.

«Is it that they value a woman who has masculine qualities in the way she communicates and behaves?» And if so, he added: «Does that mean that the only women that can really find themselves in sort of high-ranking leadership positions are the ones that embrace masculine qualities or characteristics in the way they communicate?»

That desire for masculinity in a woman candidate wouldn’t be a new phenomenon. When she explored a run for president in 1987, former Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., said she was pushed to do stereotypically manly things.

«People would say, ‘Can’t you go out and play touch football or do something?’ Because somehow you needed to do that,» she said.

The male stand-in for Clinton, on the other hand, was considered off-putting for a number of reasons — he seemed practiced to the point of inauthenticity to some. Most notable to Salvatore in this vein was how viewers felt about his smiling.

«Women, when they saw Her Opponent, repeatedly reported at the post-show dialogues that they didn’t realize how much [Clinton] was smiling until it came out of him,» Salvatore said. «Literally once a night, when we did the show, people would say, ‘Did [Clinton] really smile that much?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, she did.'»

Salvatore and Guadalupe have experimented well beyond gender, for example staging a 2018 dispute between Serena Williams and a male umpire with both black and white men in Williams’ place, as well as a white woman. The unsurprising upshot was that race deeply affected how people experienced the fictional Williams’ anger.

«If a person of color is expressing anger, it’s amplified or exaggerated by the viewer,» Salvatore said. «That’s where, watching a debate, I think Kamala Harris has a very tough job next week debating Mike Pence because she’s going to find herself in a similar situation to Clinton, but also it will be additionally complex, because she is a woman of color.»

It’s impossible to concoct a wholly unified set of takeaways about gender and racial biases in debates, beyond that voters have different expectations for how people of different identities should act on stage.

It may be that a smile is more expected of a woman candidate — to the degree that a smile disappeared on Clinton — whereas a certain sternness is expected of men. It may be that Trump’s 2016 performance, like the way he loomed behind Clinton, seemed less threatening coming out of a woman. It’s definitely true that Clinton didn’t feel comfortable saying what she wanted to say.

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«If you remember when he was walking around Hillary afterwards, Hillary said she wanted to just say, ‘what are you doing?'» Schroeder said. «You know, but again, we’re always supposed to be the nice ones.»

(Clinton was in fact harsher than this: in her book What Happened, she said she wanted to say, «Back up you creep, get away from me.»)

It may also be, as Salvatore pointed out, that because Trump, Biden and Clinton are such well-known quantities in U.S. politics, that it’s impossible to separate their demographics from how people see them.

What we saw from women in the 2020 race

With Harris set to debate Pence next week, there will be entirely new dynamics to watch for, both in terms of gender and race.

One particular moment in the mixed-gender Democratic primary debates signaled that the women candidates felt the need to soften their anger. At a December Democratic primary debate moderators gave the candidates the opportunity to either «give a gift» to a fellow candidate or «ask forgiveness» of them.

Notably, only the two women on stage asked for forgiveness, and more than that, they asked forgiveness for being passionate.

«I know that sometimes, I get really worked up, and sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to,» Warren said.

«I would ask for forgiveness any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt,» Klobuchar said.

Regardless of how voters felt about those candidates’ anger or passion, Warren and Klobuchar clearly felt a need to acknowledge and backpedal them to some degree.

For his part, Salvatore believes that there could be more room for women candidates to express themselves than some might assume.

«I have on multiple occasions, based on people’s responses to the female Donald Trump character and her opponent, [I] have gone back and wondered if Hillary Clinton authentically had an angry response to things that Trump was doing,» he said. «If she had presented it and reacted with authenticity, would we have had a different experience?»

That raises a raft of new questions, though — do women face a higher bar for being perceived as «authentic,» especially when they are expressing anger? (Also, there’s some messiness around what «authenticity» even means. As Rebecca Traister has pointed out, plenty of politicians — particularly Trump, though she also singled out Biden — managed to get a reputation for being «authentic» despite repeatedly saying things that aren’t true.)

It may well be that Clinton could have punched back against Trump harder than she did, with no negative repercussions.

She doesn’t seem to think so, though.

After Biden snapped at Trump Tuesday night, telling him to «shut up,» writer Jill Filipovic tweeted, «I so feel for Hillary right now because I’m positive she wanted to say that and couldn’t.»

Clinton responded: «You have no idea.»


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