Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate, the first one ever to feature a Black woman, was a textbook example of this gender disparity in politics. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) was going up against a White man, Vice President Pence, who because of his race and gender doesn’t have to consider whether he’s likable to get votes.
Thus, Pence could and did interrupt Harris’s allotted speaking time (not to the degree of President Trump in his debate last week, but enough to get noticed) without worrying it would ding how people felt about his campaign.
HARRIS: That is --PENCE: Senator --HARRIS: That is --PENCE: -- that's the math.HARRIS: -- absolutely not true. That tax bill --PENCE: Is he only cutting -- is he only going to repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?HARRIS: If you don’t mind letting me finish. ...
But research shows voters hold women to a much higher standard of likability and experience. And that Black women are doubly saddled with a perception that they are naturally angry or domineering in nature. So Harris had a lot of hills to climb just by being on that stage and who she is, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants.
And that’s why her facial expressions — not her words — were the subject of intense criticism on the right. To the inevitable conclusion of: She wasn’t likable enough.
“She was terrible,” President Trump said in a Fox Business interview the next morning. “I don’t think you can get worse and totally unlikeable.”
Here’s Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a top Republican.
And South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) on Fox News: “Her persona was off. She was smug and condescending. And I just don’t think that resonates with people today.”
Or journalist Megyn Kelly:
Harris’s actions appeared carefully calculated to the reality that she would be judged this way. She would smile (rather than give any other facial expression or interrupt and risk coming off as angry) when Pence would say something false and it wasn’t her turn to speak.
When Pence did try to interrupt her early on, she told him, “I’m speaking,” but without raising her voice.
Harris is naturally a direct talker, and she criticized the Trump administration plenty on Wednesday. But she also didn’t bring the energy of a forceful, forward-marching attack we saw during the primaries, when she went after Democrat Joe Biden’s record on busing. And that may have been on purpose.
“If she appears too tough, then she could jeopardize her likability, and that’s a nonnegotiable for women” when voters are deciding whom to vote for, warned Amanda Hunter of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in an interview in August when Biden picked Harris as his running mate.
“She was just not prepared for it,” Donald Trump Jr. said on Fox News after the debate. “You could see it in the facial expressions, in the attitude that she took, and the fact that she had to start resorting to all sorts of lies and going back to the usual lies that they've been pushing for decades.”
“No, I don’t think she did a good job of making herself likable. And the scowls and the funny faces were not that helpful,” said Karl Rove on Fox News.
“How those smirks and nods and eye rolls and laughs play on the split-screen is another part of the debate,” Fox News Host Brett Baier threw out there for viewers to chew on.
“The only real mistake Kamala D. Harris made tonight was the over-smirking, over-smiling,” Fox News analyst Geraldo Rivera said.
Liberal group Media Matters compiled a whole host of blue-checkmark Twitter accounts on the right criticizing her facial expressions, or using language saturated in sexism or racism to describe Harris’s performance.
This kind of language was largely relegated to the conservative Fox News world. But given how polarized the country is, that’s a significant chunk of it. And opposition to people like Harris because of who she is a defining feature of the Trump movement.
As The Fix’s Eugene Scott wrote before the debate, in anticipation of such reaction: “Harris, a biracial woman born to parents from Jamaica and India who immigrated to the United States, is arguably a manifestation of the trends [that many Trump supporters] disapprove of.”
Black women are extraordinarily underrepresented in U.S. politics, but it’s also becoming more common for them to run for office. The Center for Women in American Politics calculates that 61 Black women are on the ballot for Congress in November, up from the previous record of 41 in 2018.