Two professors, one from INSEAD and one from New York University, put together Her Opponent, a re-enactment of the Trump-Clinton debates with the genders reversed—the Donald Trump role was played by Rachel Whorton and the Hillary Clinton role by Daryl Embry.
Maria Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD, a global graduate business school, says she came up with the idea after watching the second debate, when she wondered what kind of reactions Trump’s performance would elicit if it came from a woman. She recruited Joe Salvatore, a clinical associate professor of educational theatre at NYU with a background in adapting interviews, transcripts, and other historical media into plays.
Salvatore said that the two started the project, NYU explains, “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.”
As you might already have guessed, the actual performances didn’t turn out that way. Instead of confirming the professors’ assumptions, the performances suggested different conclusions. The style of Brenda King, the female Donald Trump character, was attractive to many of the audience members who assumed that Jonathan Gordon, the male Hillary Clinton character, would be even more clearly more competent than his opponent than under the original gender paradigm. H
“Most of the people there had watched the debates assuming that Ms. Clinton couldn’t lose,” New York Times reporter Alexis Soloski, who attended one of the two performances, wrote. “This time they watched trying to figure out how Mr. Trump could have won.”
Each of the two performances were followed by a discussion where audience members’ impressions of the debate were sussed out. “I’ve never had an audience be so articulate about something so immediately after the performance,” Salvatore told NYU. “For me, watching people watch it was so informative. People across the board were surprised that their expectations about what they were going to experience were upended.”
Notably, a number of Clinton supporters struggled to find in Gordon what had attracted them to Clinton. Instead, they found his style grating. “Someone said that Jonathan Gordon was ‘really punchable’ because of all the smiling,” Salvatore said. “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.”
“I was surprised by how critical I was seeing [Clinton] on a man’s body,” Salvatore said, “and also by the fact that I didn’t find Trump’s behavior on a woman to be off-putting.”
“In some ways, I developed empathy for people who voted for him by doing this project, which is not what I was expecting,” Salvatore continued. “I expected it to make me more angry at them, but it gave me an understanding of what they might have heard or experienced when he spoke.”
The Jonathon Gordon character’s effeminacy also came up with some observers. Salvatore said the actor received no notes to be more effeminate in his portrayal. “I was particularly struck by the post-performance discussions about effeminacy,” Salvatore said. “People felt that the male version of Clinton was feminine, and that that was bad. As a gay man who worked really hard, especially when I was younger, to erase femininity from my body—for better or worse—I found myself feeling really upset hearing those things.”
Watch a two minute segment via NYU below: