Why The Gender Swap Debate Doesn't Mean Anything

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Two professors wrote a play that has much of the country talking this week — but the focus of the conversation may not be in the right place. The show focused on a single concept, what would have happened in 2016 if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump switched genders. However, the informal experiment arguably isn't as telling as many of the other ways that Trump has been politically privileged during the last two years: namely his recent, questionable use of digital communication. The gender-swap play may suggest otherwise, but sexism was a huge part of the 2016 election that will be downplayed to America's peril.

Her Opponent is the concept piece about the gender-swapped election designed by Maria Guadalupe, a professor of economics and political science and Joe Salvatore, a professor of educational theater. The three-part play reenacts the 2016 presidential debates, pulling exact quotes from the transcripts but assigning Trump's lines to a female actor and Clinton's lines to a male performer. Trump and Clinton became Brenda King and Jonathan Gordon, respectively.

Some people who watched the performance said they found Trump's behavior even more appealing when performed by actress Rachel Whorton. "I was struck by the strength of the technique of the Brenda King character," one audience member told The New York Times after the show. Another play-goer who described herself as a Clinton supporter told the Times that the Jonathan Gordon character was lacking. "I felt that he was weak and I felt that I didn’t really like him."

It's critical to point out that this performance piece, while revealing, is not a reliable indicator of what a gender-swapped election would have really looked like. Scientifically, this debate tells us nothing. There was no control group, no real experimental procedure, and no theoretically supported findings. While the anecdotal results are interesting, they can't be used to support any meaningful conclusion. A more methodically designed version of this performance theater piece could produce some internally valid results from which to build a potential model of what this election would have looked like in a real gender-swap scenario, but I can't stress enough that you should take these self-reported results with a huge grain of salt.

Additionally, the spectators' assessments of the actors' performances don't address the sociocultural reality of male and female roles. It's easy to say in retrospect that Clinton would have been more likable if she had behaved more like Trump, but she had to walk a very careful line between authoritative and feminine to avoid being ripped apart by the media. Clinton was excessively judged for her appearance and demeanor throughout the election cycle, even as Trump was shouting wild conspiracy theories about Ted Cruz's father and illegal voting.

It's difficult to say with any real certainty how she would have been treated if she had acted like Trump, since no one could have guessed how far Trump would have gotten by acting the way he did. However, in the historical context of how society has treated women who got too close to power, it seems much more likely that Clinton would have been punished for Trump-like behavior than rewarded for it.

A more accurate indicator of the discrepancy between Clinton's and Trump's public treatment may be their digital communications. Even though Clinton never made it to the Oval Office, she got ripped apart in the media and government for deleting emails. A two-year investigation eventually proved no wrongdoing, and revealed little more than the fact that Clinton is not, in fact, an IT expert.

On the other hand, Trump has already received an official warning from the chairs of the House Oversight Committee for potentially violating the Presidential Records Act by deleting his tweets, which is concerning enough before even considering the content of those tweets. Yet the rank-and-file Republicans who condemned Clinton's email scandals have been relatively silent about their own party leader's similar missteps.

Her Opponent was arguably trying to get people to step back from personal polarization to examine the political climate more critically, but a reading of it that downplays the involvement of sexism in the election just isn't accurate. If people start to believe that sexism wasn't a factor, then it endorses Trump's behavior instead of condemning it, and encourages everyone to act that way, which would definitely not be a good thing.

There are numerous examples that highlight the disparity between the public's treatment of Trump and Clinton, including but not limited to their digital communications, that are much more useful and accurate than this performance piece.