In a remarkable and revealing experiment about the impact of gender in the 2016 election, two self-described "liberal" professors joined forces to put on an "ethnodrama" based on key moments of the presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, in which actors of the opposite sex played the roles of the two candidates, exactly mimicking their every move and intonation. The results of the gender swapping experiment stunned both professors and the mostly liberal audiences who attended the performances.

NYU reports that while both professors say they "began the project 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," the result of the gender reversal was almost exactly the opposite.

Many in the audience were "shocked" to find the male version of Hillary to actually be harder to admire than the real Hillary, while the female Trump seemed to "shine" in moments they'd remembered the real Trump "flailing or lashing out." The overall experience for many Hillary voters was both "bewildering and instructive."

Maria Guadalupe, an economics and political science associate professor at INSEAD, first had the idea for the project after watching the second debate between Trump and Clinton. For help, she approached educational theater professor Joe Salvatore, who specializes in plays called "ethnodramas," which are theatrical adaptations of real life events documented in media artifacts, interviews, transcripts, journal entries, etc.

In an interview with NYU published Feb. 28, Salvatore explained how surprised he and his colleague were by their reactions to the female Trump (renamed "Brenda King," played by Rachel Whorton) and the male Hillary ("Jonathan Gordon"/Daryl Embry).

"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," said Salvatore. "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."

Salvatore noted that at one point he turned to Guadalupe and, in reference to the female Trump, said, "I kind of want to have a beer with her!"

Video of a rehearsal of the ethnodrama, "Her Opponent," below:

The two performances, both held Saturday night on Jan. 28, were sold out. Here's how New York Times reporter Alexis Soloski, who attended a performance, described the atmosphere:

“The atmosphere among the standing-room-only crowd, which appeared mostly drawn from academic circles, was convivial, but also a little anxious. Most of the people there had watched the debates assuming that Ms. Clinton couldn’t lose. This time they watched trying to figure out how Mr. Trump could have won.”

The "anxious" mood described by Soloski only seems to have increased as the performance went on.

"People across the board were surprised that their expectations about what they were going to experience were upended," said Salvatore.

NYU sums up the mostly academic, liberal audience's reaction:

Many were shocked to find that they couldn’t seem to find in Jonathan Gordon what they had admired in Hillary Clinton—or that Brenda King’s clever tactics seemed to shine in moments where they’d remembered Donald Trump flailing or lashing out. For those Clinton voters trying to make sense of the loss, it was by turns bewildering and instructive, raising as many questions about gender performance and effects of sexism as it answered.

Salvatore provided a summary of some of the most common responses to the performance he and his colleague encountered:

We heard a lot of “now I understand how this happened”—meaning how Trump won the election. People got upset. There was a guy two rows in front of me who was literally holding his head in his hands, and the person with him was rubbing his back. The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman—that was a theme. One person said, “I’m just so struck by how precise Trump’s technique is.” Another—a musical theater composer, actually—said that Trump created “hummable lyrics,” while Clinton talked a lot, and everything she was was true and factual, but there was no “hook” to it. Another theme was about not liking either candidate—you know, “I wouldn’t vote for either one.” Someone said that Jonathan Gordon [the male Hillary Clinton] was “really punchable” because of all the smiling. 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. There was someone who described Brenda King [the female Donald Trump] as his Jewish aunt who would take care of him, even though he might not like his aunt. Someone else described her as the middle school principal who you don’t like, but you know is doing good things for you.

Read the full NYU report here.

H/T John Sexton