The great debate experiment

Did Donald Trump somehow defeat Hillary Clinton in their three preelection debates on the merits? Or did Clinton suffer from an irrational prejudice against her because she is of the female persuasion?

Professor Maria Guadaloupe set out to conduct an experiment through a theatrical production. She sought to test the role of sex (“gender”) in shaping perceptions by switching the sex of the candidates: “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?”

Implicit in the experiment is Professor Guadaloupe’s hypothesis that sex was crucial. The reactions of a New York audience to her play would test the hypothesis. Guadaloupe and her colleague Joe Salvatore “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.”

The experiment took the form of a play Guadaloupe developed with Salvatore. Titled Her Opponent, the production featuring actors performing excerpts from each of the three debates with the actors replicating the tone and gestures of their originals—but with the sex switched. Donald Trump was reborn as Brenda King; Hillary Clinton was transformed into Jonathan Gordon.

The video excerpt below is excerpted from a rehearsal.

The show sold out twice for performances in New York City on January 28. According the story in the New York Times, “Most of the people there had watched the debates assuming that Ms. Clinton couldn’t lose. This time they watched trying to figure out how Mr. Trump could have won.”

The audience completed two surveys, one before the show asking questions about their impressions of the real-life Trump–Clinton debates and one after the show seeking to the King–Gordon restaging. Each performance was also followed by a discussion.

The experiment did not exactly confirm the hypothesis: “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.” Eileen Reynolds tells the rest of the story at NYU News.

Quotable quote (Joe Salvatore): “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 [said] 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 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 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.”

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