Imagine a female politician who frowns and sniffs, wears an ill-fitting suit, saunters, and constantly interrupts and abrasively attacks her opponent in a debate. Imagine a man smiling continuously, nodding, speaking in measured tones, and reciting rehearsed statements.
That’s exactly what Maria Gaudalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at the French business school INSEAD, started to conceive of while watching the second US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Oct. 9 2016.
She reached out to Joe Salvatore, a clinical associate professor of educational theatre at New York University who specializes in ethnodrama—a practice of dramatizing a real-life event by using interviews, field notes, journal entries, and other data. Together, they developed Her Opponent, a play that featured actors performing excerpts from the three 2016 presidential debates verbatim, except with their genders reversed.
In this experiment, Donald Trump became a female candidate named Brenda King and Hillary Clinton became a male candidate named Jonathan Gordan. The actors who played King and Gordon not only replicated what the real-life candidates said during the debates, but also mimicked their posture, gestures, tone, and facial expressions.
Guadalupe began with the assumption that Trump’s aggressive behavior would seem even more unpalatable coming from a female candidate and Clinton’s informed responses would seem more authoritative coming from a man. But when the performance was staged in the Provincetown Playhouse in New York in January, the audience reacted in unexpected ways.
Here are some examples of people’s reactions to the performance, collected by Guadalupe and Salvatore and shared with Quartz in an email:
“I was struck by the strength of the technique of the Brenda King character. Attack. Consistently attack. Never stop attacking.”
“When [Brenda King] was attacking, I had so much respect for her and her level of confidence.”
“In the real debates I thought Hillary won hands down, [but] this has totally made me question my judgment.”
“Tonight was a bit frightening as I experienced myself what I always thought is true of “others:” the speed and ease with which I can be manipulated by form. Sobering experience.”
“I was a Trump voter and went into this expecting to love Brenda King and hate Jonathan Gordon. I came out mixed. I definitely liked parts of Brenda King’s performance, and could’ve seen myself voting for her, but moments when I cheered for Trump also came off as overdone or grating or too consumed with style over substance.”
“I went into this experience disliking both Trump and Clinton and that remains unchanged, but this certainly makes me wonder if we put candidates into boxes too easily. Are we perhaps too harsh with some and too lenient on others purely because of the way they come across?”
“I found it so fascinating both in terms of questioning my views on gender and how it affects how I see people and the exercise itself. I was expecting to be more hostile to the woman but actually found myself “supporting” her and even viewing her as a likeable person despite the fact it was all Trump’s words. Shows how perceptions can manipulate your views.”
“I finally understand the “bubble” that some people keep referring to—I feel like I can comprehend how and why the populist message of Donald Trump resonated with so many people. I can also see how frustrating and off-putting Hillary Clinton was for many people—especially people who had a negative opinion of her.”