One of the creepiest aspects of the second presidential debate was the way Trump seemed, from his body language, almost to be stalking Hillary Clinton. When she moved to one side, he followed. He stood behind her, often with very little distance between them, silent, frowning, looking like he was growling. Body language expert Janine Driver called his movements a pre-assault indicator and said that she was getting “really nervous” for Hillary because he was “like a dog starting to get anxious.” Screenwriter Adrienne Parks wrote in Huffington Post that this was a kind of “upstaging,” where he was trying to seize power and divert attention away from her and back to him. “This was infuriating to all of us who have ever been forced to stand our ground on the rigged white male playing field”, she wrote. “I felt the unfairness of it to the bone. This was live televised assault and battery with intent to maim, politically rape, and kill.”
I was also extremely uneasy watching Hillary speak while this large, menacing creature was behind her, a person who had just promised to dedicate himself to sending her to prison. As a short person – I’m five feet tall – I have spent most of my life dealing with situations in which the men in the room loom over me. Of course most are not dangerous. But in that kind of physical imbalance, even a little ill-will can feel threatening. And in situations where men actually do have more power than women – such as Orthodox synagogues, rabbinic courts, school playgrounds, and many workplaces – the feeling of powerlessness that you get from being surrounded by men hovering over you can be very real.
I asked my Facebook friends if any of them felt triggered by Trump’s body language. The resulting extensive thread offered a resounding “yes”. Here are nine situations that other women and I have been reliving as we watched Trump stand near Clinton in the menacing way he did:
(1) Abusive ex-husbands. Many women I have spoken to have been reliving nightmarish situations of abuse from ex-husbands. One women told me the way her husband used to stand behind her when she stood in front of the mirror, telling her how many of her body parts are “fat”, “ugly” and “disgusting.” She has been happily remarried for many years, but Trump has been dredging up many old, painful memories and fears. “It is the accumulation of my lived abusive assaults, dismissiveness, egotistical mansplaining, sexist, misogynist, ‘women don’t know anything’ experiences as a woman all wrapped into one person,” she said about watching Trump.
(2) Bulldozing coworkers. There is countless research about men bulldozing women in work situations – talking over women, dismissing women, infantilizing women, mansplaining,manterrupting, gaslighting women, and harassing women. Trump triggers many of these situations every time he talks to or about women. During the debate, he looked like every fiber in his being wanted to crush his rival. It was like all your worst workplace experiences bound up in one scary being.
(3) Some rabbis. The thing about being an Orthodox Jewish woman is that you will always have to answer to a man. No matter where you live, what community you belong to, or what you do for a living, the Orthodox rabbi is always the final say. You are expected to ask his ruling about life decisions, you need his authority to make certain choices, and his voice is the one that ultimately matters. I have been mansplained by so many Orthodox rabbis throughout my life, men who believed that it was their job to correct me about my feminist ideas, who were patronizing, condescending and obnoxious. (#NotAllRabbis. I know. I’m just saying). Trump, even though he is far from being a rabbi, took the same pose that many rabbis take when they are asserting power – standing stoic, holding his wrists in a kind of false patience, looking down with a frown-grimace, reminding people that they are in charge, more knowledgeable than you. And I’m not alone. One of Barry Freundel’s victims wrote that she was very triggered by Trump for the same reasons. I totally get that. Trump and Freundel share a lot of similar traits. Obviously not all rabbis are Freundel. But the Trump stance is used by some rabbis as an instrument of control.
(4) Men in shul. There is often a similar dynamic with men in shul. One woman, a gifted singer who loves leading services, told me that many times when she is leading, certain men will sing over her, pushing his own liturgy from the pews. I have had the same experience leading services. In my book, The Men’s Section, some of my male interviewees admitted doing this intentionally – surrounding when cantors and taking over “unofficially” because they don’t believe that women know the “nusach” (liturgy) well enough. In Orthodox shuls, the domination of men is obviously more pronounced. As a woman in an Orthodox synagogue, it is easy to feel completely overshadowed by men, who do all the talking, singing and leading, while women are invisible both literally and figuratively. Trump’s stance, coupled with the way he talks over and interrupts Hillary, was a reminder of all those places in which the space belongs to men because they are men, and when even when women try to occupy space, men take over with their bodies and voices.