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How Gender Shapes Presidential Debates — Even When Between 2 Men

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden's debate this week was low on substance and high on interruptions and aggression, particularly from Trump.
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LightRocket via Getty Images
President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden's debate this week was low on substance and high on interruptions and aggression, particularly from Trump.

With news that the president and first lady have tested positive for coronavirus, Tuesday night's presidential debate can seem like a distant memory by now.

That is particularly wild because the debate was unlike any Americans have tuned into before. CNN's Jake Tapper called it "the worst debate I have ever seen" and a "disgrace."

In other words, it was a mess — and quantifiably so.

One analysis from found that the debate switched speakers 1,210 times. That's more than once every five seconds.

And while both candidates stepped on each other many times, Trump interrupted three times more than Biden, according to The Washington Post's Aaron Blake. By the count, Trump interrupted Biden 71 times, to Biden's 22 interruptions.

(The huge discrepancy between his count and's is in part because Blake was only counting Trump and Biden and not moderator Chris Wallace, and also because he used very strict criteria to define "interruption.")

The interruption-fest did not go unnoticed on Twitter — particularly among women.

"Chris Wallace now feels the pain of women in meetings," FiveThirtyEight reporter Clare Malone tweeted. Comedian Sarah Cooper, meanwhile, imagined the overwhelming politeness that would result from two women debating each other.

As a headline at humor website Reductress put it, "Study Reports Biden Interrupted Almost as Much as Average Woman in Meeting."

The debate that was met with near-universal condemnation is a useful window into how gender stereotypes play into expectations of how candidates "should" act — including when the people on stage are both cisgendered white men.

How masculinity showed up Tuesday night

Because men have always been president and because presidential candidates have overwhelmingly been men, that means men — more specifically, cis white men — are still the default in American politics. That can obscure how much of a role masculinity plays in American political discourse.

It is impossible to ignore at times, though, and perhaps particularly so with Donald Trump — most notably in a 2016 Republican primary debate, when he alluded to the size of his penis.

Tuesday's presidential debate lacked that kind of crudeness, but masculine-coded behaviors came through. There were vaguely threatening statements that wouldn't sound out of place in a schoolyard fight — as when Biden told Trump, "You picked the wrong guy at the wrong time."

Trump, meanwhile, became inflamed when Biden said he needed to "get a lot smarter" — "Did you use the word 'smart'? ... Don't ever use the word 'smart' with me. Don't ever use that word," Trump responded, then trying to insult Biden's intelligence.

And while few are praising Trump's performance, there is a sense among some that a woman would have paid a bigger penalty for being as over-the-top aggressive as he was.

"If a woman behaved the way President Trump behaved, she would probably be referred to as the B-word," said Alice Stewart, a CNN commentator who worked on Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign and former Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann's 2012 campaign.

"The perception [and] optics of a woman being forceful is offensive to some people," she added. "I don't agree with that, but that's the way the mind of some voters happens to work."

Stewart also believes that Trump's debate performance was more overtly angry than in 2016 because of whom he was debating.

"He clearly felt emboldened to let the fire in his belly rage because Joe Biden was a man," Stewart said.

Moreover, identity can play into what candidates talk about. As 19th News' Errin Haines noted, they largely didn't talk about a variety of issues that disproportionately affect women, women of color, transgender and nonbinary Americans.

Gender-swapping the debates

Trying to figure out how a debate would have played out with hypothetical candidates of a different gender is only of limited use as a thought exercise. After all, it's impossible to know exactly how voters would respond to a theoretical female version of Donald Trump.

And so researchers have decided to make it not as theoretical. In early 2017, Joe Salvatore from New York University and Maria Guadalupe from the business school INSEAD staged a binary gender-reversed version of the 2016 presidential debates, which they titled Her Opponent.

They replaced Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with the fictional candidates Brenda King and Jonathan Gordon and had the actors replicate Trump and Clinton's debate performances — not just word for word, but gesture for gesture, facial expression for facial expression.

The results were surprising to Salvatore, as well as to audience members. Some viewers who didn't like Donald Trump — and who thought his debate performance was objectively bad — unexpectedly liked the female version of Trump.

"That actress could run for president in 2024. I'm not joking," one man said. "I mean that people are so engaged by the way that woman behaves in those clips."

The fact that some voters liked Brenda King so much also made Salvatore wonder what made her palatable, even to some who didn't like Trump.

"Is it that they value a woman who has masculine qualities in the way she communicates and behaves?" And if so, he added: "Does that mean that the only women that can really find themselves in sort of high-ranking leadership positions are the ones that embrace masculine qualities or characteristics in the way they communicate?"

The male stand-in for Clinton, on the other hand, was considered off-putting for a number of reasons — he seemed practiced to the point of inauthenticity to some. Most notable to Salvatore in this vein was how viewers felt about his smiling.

"Women, when they saw Her Opponent, repeatedly reported at the post-show dialogues that they didn't realize how much [Clinton] was smiling until it came out of him," Salvatore said. "Literally once a night, when we did the show, people would say, 'Did [Clinton] really smile that much?' And I would say, 'Yes, she did.' "

Salvatore and Guadalupe have experimented well beyond gender, for example staging a 2018 dispute between Serena Williams and a male umpire with both black and white men in Williams' place, as well as a white woman. The unsurprising upshot was that race deeply affected how people experienced the fictional Williams' anger. In Salvatore's opinion, those expectations could affect how voters react to Kamala Harris in her next debate.

"If a person of color is expressing anger, it's amplified or exaggerated by the viewer," Salvatore said. "That's where, watching a debate, I think Kamala Harris has a very tough job next week debating Mike Pence because she's going to find herself in a similar situation to Clinton, but also it will be additionally complex, because she is a woman of color."

It's impossible to concoct a wholly unified set of takeaways about gender and racial biases in debates, beyond that voters have different expectations for how people of different identities should act on stage. And importantly, white, cisgendered men have up until now largely set what those expectations are.

It may be that a smile is more expected of a female candidate — to the degree that a smile disappeared on Clinton — whereas a certain sternness is expected of men ... so much so that Clinton's mannerisms were considered off-putting only when they were exhibited on the "default" white, cis, male candidate.

It may be that Trump's 2016 performance, like the way he loomed behind Clinton, seemed less threatening coming out of a woman. Or that his mannerisms made her seem "tough."

It's definitely true that Clinton didn't feel comfortable saying what she wanted to say.

"If you remember when he was walking around Hillary afterwards, Hillary said she wanted to just say, 'What are you doing?' " said former congresswoman Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., who explored a run for president in 1987. "You know, but again, we're always supposed to be the nice ones."

(Clinton was in fact harsher than this: in her book What Happened; she said she wanted to say, "Back up you creep, get away from me.")

One more complicating factor: It may also be, as Salvatore pointed out, that because Trump, Biden and Clinton are such well-known quantities in U.S. politics, it's impossible to separate their demographics from how people see them.

What we saw from women in the 2020 race

With Harris set to debate Pence next week, there will be entirely new dynamics to watch for, both in terms of gender and race.

One particular moment in the mixed-gender Democratic primary debates signaled that the female candidates felt the need to soften their anger. At a December Democratic primary debate, moderators gave the candidates the opportunity to either "give a gift" to a fellow candidate or "ask forgiveness" of them.

Notably, only the two women on stage asked for forgiveness, and more than that, they asked forgiveness for being passionate.

"I know that sometimes, I get really worked up, and sometimes I get a little hot. I don't really mean to," Warren said.

"I would ask for forgiveness any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt," Klobuchar said.

Regardless of how voters felt about those candidates' anger or passion, Warren and Klobuchar clearly felt a need to acknowledge and backpedal them to some degree.

But Salvatore believes that there may be more room for female candidates to express themselves than some might assume.

"I have on multiple occasions, based on people's responses to the female Donald Trump character and her opponent, [I] have gone back and wondered if Hillary Clinton authentically had an angry response to things that Trump was doing," he said. "If she had presented it and reacted with authenticity, would we have had a different experience?"

That raises a raft of new questions, though — do women face a higher bar for being perceived as "authentic," especially when they are expressing anger? And moreover, is the "authenticity" voters expect shaped in fundamental ways by watching mostly male politicians?

(Also, there's some messiness around what "authenticity" even means. As columnist Rebecca Traister has pointed out, plenty of male politicians — particularly Trump, though she also singled out Biden — managed to get a reputation for being "authentic" despite repeatedly saying things that aren't true.)

It may well be that Clinton could have punched back against Trump harder than she did, with no negative repercussions.

She doesn't seem to think so, though.

After Biden snapped at Trump on Tuesday night, telling him to "shut up," writer Jill Filipovic tweeted, "I so feel for Hillary right now because I'm positive she wanted to say that and couldn't."

Clinton responded: "You have no idea."

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.