This Play Turns Clinton Stereotypes On Their Head
Many of us probably thought it at one point during the election — something to the effect of "If Hillary was a man, she'd be treated so much differently." And when a highly accomplished pubic servant with decades of political experience lost the presidency to a reality TV star with decades of failed business ventures, it seemed all too easy to pin the loss on gender bias. With female and male candidates running against each other, it was unlikely that the election would escape any gender dynamics. But how exactly was Hillary Clinton affected by gender stereotypes in the election?
That is what one professor, Maria Guadalupe, set out to explore, using theater to reverse the presidential candidates' genders but keep their rhetoric — and it has culminated in Her Opponent, which will begin an off-Broadway run at the Jerry Orbach Theater in New York on March 22.
Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at France's INSEAD business school, tells Bustle that she found the inspiration for the show — which she calls more "experiment" than play — after the second presidential debate on Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis.
What initially struck Guadalupe most about the debate was the "aggression" displayed by Trump. "Many people were saying ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be crazy if Hillary was a man and Trump was a woman. Would it be different? What are the standards for communication? Trump wouldn’t get away with some of the things he does or says as a woman. Hillary is beaten up because she is a woman,'" Guadalupe says.
And that response got Guadalupe started on what eventually became Her Opponent. "There was this thought, what if she wasn’t a woman? And that was the prompt."
After that debate, Guadalupe began on the "script" for the show, which would consist entirely of excerpts from the three debates. She co-created the play with Joe Salvatore, a clinical associate professor of educational theatre at New York University.
Guadalupe explains that they specifically tried to choose excerpts in which the two candidates interacted, rather than times when they launched into uninterrupted monologues. Other changes were made, too, such as the names of the characters: "Brenda King" for Trump's character and "Jonathan Gordon" for Clinton's. However, they made sure to use names that had similar syllables and cadences, to keep the flow of dialogue the same.
Her Opponent premiered in January, and had two sold-out shows where Guadalupe estimates about 200 people attended. They then kept the video of the performance up online for people to watch, where Guadalupe says another 10,000 people have seen the performance.
Audience members both in person and online have been asked to participate in a survey before and after watching the performance, which included self-identifying their political party and then identifying three positive and three negative attributes each character showed. This is where things got interesting, and deviated from Guadalupe's assumed result.
Something that I've heard people say is like ‘Wow, as a woman I've always thought that I can't be very aggressive, I can't be very outspoken.’ And maybe we should try to be a little more outspoken and aggressive because it's not that bad.
"We came in with a clear prior, which is that Trump would be perceived as worse as a woman, and Hillary would be perceived as better as a man," Guadalupe says. "And I think that the common denominator to what most people see is that’s not the case."
Guadalupe says that people actually disliked male Clinton far more than they did female Trump. Trump's actions that Guadalupe deemed as aggressive —the finger pointing and the gesturing — did not come off the same way coming from a woman, she says.
Guadalupe points out that while many woman think that they shouldn't be pushy or forceful, this experiment suggests that maybe being aggressive is not as terrible as women have been conditioned to think.
Why do we, and especially women, have to behave in a particular way to be perceived as strong women?
"Something that I've heard people say is like ‘Wow, as a woman I've always thought that I can't be very aggressive, I can't be very outspoken.’ And maybe we should try to be a little more outspoken and aggressive because it's not that bad," Guadalupe said.
On the flip side, Clinton's calm, focused demeanor, which many characterized as one of her strengths over Trump, has not translated the same way when coming from a man. What was considered an "in command" demeanor by Clinton during the debates, was described as "weakness and submissiveness," in the male version, says Guadalupe.
The responses to Her Opponent raises the question of "why is that [demeanor] in a woman strength," but "in a man it's submissiveness and weakness?" says Guadalupe. "Why do we, and especially women, have to behave in a particular way to be perceived as strong women?"
Some people have used this, especially the conservative media, as a way to say, ‘Oh, this shows that Trump won the debates' That's not what this shows. What this shows is that our expectations on character, on somebody can change depending on who delivers the message.
According to Guadalupe, that the overwhelming pattern was that people left the performance liking the candidate that they hated more when they walked into the theater. She does note that there's a lot that differentiates theater from reality because in theater, "there is no truth."
This experiment was not meant to determine if one candidate was better than the other, since facts and policy don't come into play. But what can be deduced from this is the importance of the way people communicate and the effect that their "form," as Guadalupe puts it, has on people's opinions.
"Some people have used this, especially the conservative media, as a way to say, ‘Oh, this shows that Trump won the debates,'" she says. "That's not what this shows. What this shows is that our expectations on character, on somebody can change depending on who delivers the message."
Then, I ask myself this question: In a democracy, if we're easily manipulated by form, what are we really voting on?
The male Clinton character was so disliked by the audience that have seen Her Opponent that it raises new queries over how Clinton's gender affected the outcome of the election. Should Clinton have mirrored Trump's behavior and been more aggressive? Was she actually better off as a woman?
Guadalupe says the thing she loved about this experiment was it created more questions than it answered.
"How can my experience change so much? And so that's where reflection and questions comes in," Guadalupe says.
In turn, that has raised a larger issue for Guadalupe, one that goes far beyond the 2016 election. "Then, I ask myself this question: in a democracy, if we're easily manipulated by form, what are we really voting on?"