There was a lot to be infuriated about while watching Wednesday’s first and only vice presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. We saw an old white man emerge from a COVID-19-infested hot zone with what looked like a case of pink eye and a flashy fly as a plus-one repeatedly utter the moderator’s name “Susan” to distract viewers from his incessant interrupting of the woman he was debating and the other woman trying to moderate him. But we also got to see the delight Harris took in shutting down Pence’s pompous sexism.
Every woman watching at home could relate to being subject to the kind of patronizing and self-righteous treatment from men like Pence, but what felt refreshing was the way Kamala Harris seemed to relish the opportunity to respond to it. She delivered some serious squints, followed by a healthy and homicidal dose of side-eye, rapidly shifting to eye rolls and sly, knowing smiles. At certain moments, she broke the fourth wall to stare straight into the camera, silently forming an allegiance with the women watching at home who know firsthand that brand of not-so-subtle misogyny.
— Drebae (@Drebae_) October 8, 2020
Every single woman watching the debate could relate. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in the classic sexist double-bind that demands we be both kind and commanding but punishes us no matter which of these two completely conflicting options we go with. And since that pressure is worse for Black women, who get dubbed the “angry Black woman” no matter what they do or the level of fame or celebrity they ascend to, it felt revolutionary to see Harris, a Black and South Asian woman, greet the smug sexism of a lying, anti-choice white guy with so much unadulterated joy.
Her strategy was genius because it felt like a lesson for every female leader in the workplace. Pence was duplicitous about everything from the coronavirus to health care reform and shockingly wouldn’t promise a peaceful transition of power, but since Harris would have faced backlash for interrupting him as much as he interrupted her, she let her face do the talking. Harris didn’t need to tell us that Pence was bald-faced lying. Her rib-tickling facial expressions screamed it for her.
In addition to facial acts of feminist resistance, Harris often responded with a gentle yet firm “I’m speaking,” a phrase that resonated with so many women. (It’s already a T-shirt.) Harris impressively mastered the art of quiet confidence—something Pence’s running mate could learn a thing about. She navigated sexist power dynamics like a trusted pilot going for a soft landing, steering and maneuvering toward the perfect touchdown without a single bump.
Watching Harris negotiate Pence’s house of lies with so much tact and grace was impressive but also simultaneously infuriating because we know Harris has to work twice as hard as the dude next to her, and her performance was way more likely to receive scrutiny than Pence’s.
Don’t smirk. Don’t shake your head. Don’t smile mockingly. Wait.
— Megyn Kelly (@megynkelly) October 8, 2020
The good news is that we know Harris’s strong face game worked because several men are already very distressed about it. While we all remember male pundits spending 2016 telling Hillary Clinton to smile harder, they’ve pivoted to attacking Kamala Harris for “over-smiling.” True story.
While women get scorned for smiling or not smiling enough, men get to show up exactly as they are. Men, particularly those who are white straight cis and able-bodied, get to be human. (Remember how Justice Brett Kavanaugh screamed and cried at his Supreme Court nomination hearings? Or even how Joe Biden said “shut up” to Donald Trump at last week’s presidential debate? It’s almost impossible to imagine a woman in either one of those positions employing those reactions without severe backlash.)
Even after Harris’s exceptional showing, men and women saw the outcome of the VP debate quite differently. According to one CNN poll, 69 percent of women gave a clear victory to Harris, but only 48 percent of men who were asked agreed. This frightening gender gap points to the urgent need for men to learn about the unique discrimination against women and become anti-sexists in their workplaces and homes. Or if they’re Mike Pence, they could just stop using their power to restrict the freedoms of women.
While it may have felt affirming to see Harris reclaim her power—and her joy—on the debate stage, it shouldn’t be up to Black women to be superhuman and consistently save themselves and others from systemic poor treatment. It should be up to all of us to shield them from it. After all, behind every successful Black woman is often some white guy calmly gaslighting her, like we saw on Wednesday night. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if behind every white guy calmly gaslighting a successful Black woman there could be millions of people standing up for her so she doesn’t have to?
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