Would you think differently about Donald Trump if he were a woman? Gender Bending Can Challenge Our Biases

Watching Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton go head-to-head during the U.S. presidential debates was good theatre, but it was unlikely anyone’s mind was changed by the spectacle.

Trump supporters were used to, and probably applauded, his aggressive approach, stalking around the stage, attacking Clinton at every opportunity and fiercely bringing each question back to the same topics – lower taxes, more jobs. His opponent maintained a composed, unemotional stance, unruffled and smiling through the most vicious of attacks. It is likely Clinton’s supporters were repulsed by Trump’s demeanour, while his fans would have felt their opinions of Clinton justified by her smooth “poli-speak”.

What we saw were two very different opponents presenting themselves as expected. But what would happen if the positions were reversed, if Trump were a woman and Clinton a man? Is there anything in the way they expressed themselves that makes us like them more or less just because of their gender? And could experiencing what the U.S. presidential candidates said and how they said it through gender-inverted characters, cause us to revisit our own gender bias and develop insights from different perspectives?

This was the thinking which inspired “Her Opponent”, a project I conceived with Joe Salvatore, a director and NYU professor, and which restaged parts of the three 2016 presidential debates. The performance replayed each word, action, tone and pause of the two candidates with a twist – the part of Donald Trump was played by a woman, Rachel Tuggle Whorton, a PhD candidate and adjunct instructor at NYU, while a man, NYU Adjunct Professor Daryl Embry, took on the persona of Hillary Clinton. The candidates were given new names, Brenda King and Jonathan Gordon. The performance was live-streamed thanks to our collaboration with Andrew Freiband, a film-maker and faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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