What happened between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice-President Mike Pence onstage at the University of Utah, during the Vice-Presidential debate, on October 7th, was a twist on the familiar script. I confess that I did not subject myself to watching the debate live, instead relying (as is my wont) on social media to circulate (as is its wont) the most sensational and therefore most relevant portions for after-the-fact perusal. Most of these clips, on my feed, at least, turned out to be ones in which Harris seemed to make a meal of the Vice-President, eying him and grinning like a cat with its corpse. Both spoke long, and both had their moments, but Harris anticipated the visual language of the production better than her opponent, whose eyes never quite felt like they were making contact (and who, anyway, got upstaged by a fly). When Pence interrupted her repeatedly, Harris profferred a new entry to the pantheon of politico sound bites turned pop-feminist catchphrases: “Mr. Vice-President, I’m speaking.”
On Twitter, the television producer Chrissy Mahlmeister whittled Harris’s performance down to six concrete gestures, which she cut and compressed into a series of GIFs. The first shows her looking to the side, nodding and blinking vigorously in the looping, sped-up pace of a digital image. In one, she reaches for a pen and pencil; in another, she turns back to front, resetting her gaze with the slight raise of an eyebrow. Mahlmeister offered up the GIFs as a public service of sorts. “Hi i made #KamalaHarris reaction gifs for every woman to use on every single day of their dang life,” Mahlmeister tweeted. Though closed captions are common among GIFs posted online, none of Harris’s speech survived the conversion from video to image. Instead of the candidate’s words, Mahlmeister supplied moods: there’s “the ‘let me get those receipts’ ”; “the ‘pretending to care about ur mansplaining’ ”; or “the ‘wow the sephora lady was right this primer is making me PORELESS.’ ” Other users chimed in with their own contributions.
A few people in Mahlmeister’s comments made reference to an essay I wrote a few years back, for Teen Vogue, titled, in that publication’s lightly scolding parlance, “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs.” The piece, which was illustrated with an image of the former Real Housewife NeNe Leakes wearing a snarl, analyzed the digital legacy of cross-racial performance, and, in particular, how the prevalence of Black figures in so-called reaction shots—used, including by white people, to express impudent feelings of the moment—relied upon racist interpretations of Black expression dating back to the minstrel stage. I was a graduate student at the time, and my reading of the phenomenon of Black figures emoting on behalf of non-Black users online was informed by the work of young scholars such as Joshua Lumpkin Green (who coined the term “digital blackface,” in the context of video games) and Katherine Brown (who applied the term to GIFs on Tumblr). The piece was resurfaced, in the context of Harris’s performance, presumably in the hope that it might prompt people to think again about their ready presumptions of sass and shade when it comes to interpreting the nonverbal gestures of a Black woman at work.
It’s true that Harris has, since her own campaign for President, been a frequent subject of a sort of sista-girl ventriloquism, which gets played up by non-Black and Black people alike, even if it’s rarely put as baldly, or curated as carefully, as Mahlmeister’s thread on Twitter. The worry is twofold. First, that as a Black and Indian-American woman, with a name that still gets mispronounced by a not insignificant portion of the populace, she must contend with the racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that de facto cling to her person. Second, that even her fans tend to resurrect tiresome tropes about what, and whom, Black women are for. Despite everything “Veep” has taught us about the office of the Vice-President, many have rushed to suggest that they’ve breathed easier with a woman like Harris on the ballot, a sentiment which suggests that no electable Black woman can escape being imagined as someone’s caretaker. Mark Ruffalo, bless him, will carry on if you let him. “I said a prayer the other day and when God answered me back she was a Black Woman,” he tweeted after the victory, in Alabama, of the Democratic Senator Doug Jones over the Trumpist Republican Roy Moore, an outcome that was attributed, in good part, to the loyalties of Black women voters. More recently, the actor, like many other commentators, reached for the language of structural critique to describe what occurred on the Vice-Presidential debate stage: “The way Mike Pence constantly interrupted and spoke over @KamalaHarris was the prime example of white male supremacy and its common dismissal and disrespect for black woman,” he tweeted.
Memories of Hillary Clinton no doubt cling to Harris as well. Liberal concern for the way Harris is interpreted, by detractors and superfans alike, recalls the protective instinct that many Democrats felt toward Clinton—and stands in contrast to the more muted concern that gets extended to other, more junior congresswomen of color, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar. There is doubtless a contingent that still, despite everything we know about then and now, accounts for the triumph of Trump in 2016 in terms of gender alone, just as there are followers of Harris who assume that an unfavorable compound of race and gender was responsible for her flameout in the Democratic primaries. Clinton and Harris share the trait of competency, those followers might point out, but in Clinton, a white woman, it was considered too cold, whereas in Harris it earns her the label of either bully or boss.
But fretting about such things ignores the fact that Harris has made canny use of the assumptions that come with her image, as both the Black-lady savior and the pen-in-hand, pant-suited Clintonite, either of which might be enough to leaden a less establishment politician. Eliana Johnson, of The Washington Free Beacon, had it backward when, in an analysis immediately after the Vice-Presidential debate, she told “PBS NewsHour” that Harris hadn’t done “a great job controlling her face,” and that her “smirks” and “grimaces” suggested that the senator may have been unaware of the broadcast’s split-screen presentation. On the contrary, Harris’s performance seemed calibrated to the pundit-versus-pundit cable-news format, where arguments can be won out of turn. In the cold open of “Saturday Night Live,” the show’s go-to Harris impersonator, Maya Rudolph, imagined the candidate knowingly pulling her range of expressions from the Rolodex of GIF culture. “I’m going to smile at him like I’m in a T. J. Maxx and a white lady asked me if I work here,” she said, crinkling her eyes in an icing-sweet smile. “O.K., now, Susan, what I’m going to do is I’m going to switch to more of a Clair Huxtable side-eye,” she added, switching into a Clair Huxtable side-eye. The point: nothing uncontrolled here.
This past week, for the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Harris was back in her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee—figuratively, that is, as she chose to appear virtually, as a coronavirus safety precaution. Harris’s prosecutorial flair at congressional hearings has inspired its own surfeit of viral clips. Back in 2017, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was summoned before the Senate Intelligence Committee for questioning on Trump’s relationship with Russia, Harris was flashing the smile, her eyebrows raised, pushing past Sessions’s drawling ungainliness to move through her questions with nary any breathing room. In contrast to the Vice-Presidential debate (and to the spectacular rancor of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings), Harris’s exchange with Barrett, on subjects including racial justice, climate change, and health care, was notable for its low register. Harris delivered her pointed questioning; Barrett sometimes seemed to subtly bristle. But their voices were flat, their faces largely impassive.
Barrett, new as she is to the national spotlight, also has an aptitude for this sort of political spectacle. What a liberal audience might wish were gaffes—such as the missing constitutional freedom in Barrett’s recitation of First Amendment protections—registered, on her face, as mildly amusing at best. “I wondered where you were going with that,” Barrett told Harris with a small sidelong glance, after leading questions about scientific consensus on the coronavirus and smoking ended up on the subject of climate change. Barrett ruled that matter too “contentious” for comment, and Harris didn’t press her on it. Outlets such as BuzzFeed and the Times have called this reticence a new tack for Harris, born of the fact that the approaching election has her name on the ballot—and maybe so. But the expectations for Harris’s performance might also say something about the influence of all those well-trimmed GIFs. The Harris of the Barrett hearings is most likely the Harris we can expect in office. If GIF-worthy is the measure, this will—one hopes—be a slow four years.
Read More About the 2020 Election
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- To understand the path Donald Trump has taken to the 2020 election, look at what he has provided the executive class.
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