Would you have voted for Hillary Clinton if she were a man? The leading counterfactual argument about gender and the presidential election was that Clinton, as a candidate, was a prisoner of a double standard—in the simplest shorthand, that a woman acting like Donald Trump could never have won the election.
Taking this as the guiding premise, academics at NYU decided to test it. They staged a dramatic recreation of the presidential debates, but with a woman actor delivering Trump lines and copying Trump’s domineering attitude and body language, while a man performed as the cautious and restrained Clinton.
The academics reported—to the delight of right-wing media—that the results surprised them. Audiences, and the researchers themselves, said they did not find the aggressive, interrupting female version of Trump, “Brenda King,” off-putting at all. They liked her. Even though they didn’t want to, they liked her.
Joe Salvatore, one of the professors who worked on the project, described to NYU News how he and his collaborator, Maria Guadalupe, experienced the restaged debates:
We both thought that the inversion would confirm our liberal assumption—that no one would have accepted Trump’s behavior from a woman, and that the male Clinton would seem like the much stronger candidate. But we kept checking in with each other and realized that this disruption—a major change in perception—was happening. I had an unsettled feeling the whole way through.
On inspection, though, this is less surprising than it sounds. One great difficulty in analyzing gender inequities is that a world of gender equity is too far removed from our own to properly imagine. A swaggering, fearless woman presidential candidate is appealing in the same way a teenager with the proportional strength of a spider is appealing. They represent a heroic and nonexistent alternate reality.
In the end, the project comes back around to the same question-begging that circled Clinton’s campaign all along. People would have preferred the first major-party female presidential candidate if she had been someone other than the first major-party female presidential candidate—if she had not been the spouse of a previous president, if she had not been tightly tied to her donors and party establishment, if she had not been cautious and over-messaged and conflict-ridden. Why couldn’t there have been a woman running for president who carried no baggage, who spoke up fearlessly, who was ready and willing to act macho?
Why not? Meanwhile, at the other lectern, there was “Jonathan Gordon.” The New York Times, covering a performance in January, described how that part of the alternate reality went over:
A woman who had supported Ms. Clinton sounded pained at the talk-back as she described her reaction to the Jonathan Gordon character. “I felt that he was weak and I felt that I didn’t really like him,” she said.
Standing stiffly in place, keeping reactions in check, smiling while the opponent went on the attack—Jonathan Gordon was a timid, pathetic weirdo. “Really punchable,” one audience member said. No wonder everyone thought the bold woman he was up against mopped the floor with him. Why would anyone ever choose to act that way, if they had a choice?