He stalked. He scowled. He stood too close. He towered over her, threatening her while she sat on a chair. He entered her space over, and over, and over again. He interrupted her; spoke over her. He lied while telling her that she was the one who was lying.
The behavior that Donald Trump showed toward Hillary Clinton at the second Presidential debate was reprehensible. But for many women, it was more than that. It was a sickening example of the type of domineering, dismissive, abusive, and threatening male behavior that so many of us have dealt with in our lives. As a result, many of us had strong physical and emotional reactions to watching this familiar behavior unfold on television.
Reviewing the night’s Tweets, it’s remarkable how many female viewers mentioned feeling physically ill, being emotionally exhausted, crying.
Trump’s actions, especially in light of recent revelations of his vulgarity, was a type of male behavior that all too many women are familiar with.
He behaved like the abusive boyfriend who physically threatens his partner: stalks her, gaslights her by trying to make her feel like her grasp on reality is tenuous.
He behaved like the domineering father who uses his girth and voice to terrorize his wife and children
He behaved like the male colleague or boss who intimidates his female employees by standing over them in meetings, interrupting them when they speak, speaking over them when he wants to, taking up more than his fair share of space
He behaved like the predator that comes too close on the subway platform; the man that sexually taunts women as they pass and knows they can’t respond for fear of retaliation.
He behaved like a sexual predator who uses his size and strength to assault a woman
The “town hall” format of the debates allowed both candidates to roam around the stage. As a result, Trump seemed to take this as an opportunity to try to dominate Clinton by using his height and girth to overwhelm hers; to be in every single camera shot she was in. She would be answering a question from the audience, and there he would be, looming behind her menacingly, coming up much too close, seemingly puffing himself up in size. The camera angle itself enhanced this difference, making Trump appear even larger than he is. But it wasn’t only the stalking behavior that was upsetting; at one point, when Clinton sat down to allow Trump to take a question, instead of addressing the moderators or the audience, he stood, facing her, literally talking down to her. And there she had to sit, on a stool, looking up at him.
It was horrifying.
Try to imagine Trump doing the same thing with a male opponent, and it would probably read as one man trying to look bigger than another man. There would have been the threat of violence, perhaps, but the male opponent would have had the option to raise his voice, scowl, and physically intimidate Trump right back. It would have been like two bucks tangling antlers to prove who is the strongest.
But that same behavior, when directed at a female opponent, reads very differently. A man stalking a woman — sneaking up behind her while she might not even realize it, scowling and barking at her — is practically a scene from a horror movie. We know she is not as physically strong as he is, we know she can not win in a physical fight with him; he is using his bulk to shut her down, silence her, diminish her.
Of course, Clinton could have become just as irate and confrontational with him as he was being with her. In fact, moderator Martha Raddatz did that, shutting Trump down and challenging his statements on more than one occasion. But Clinton did not have that option. If she were to raise her voice or appear angry in any way, accusations of “bitchiness” would be quickly fired all across the Twitterverse. She couldn’t fight back, and so she had to take it. Just watching that made many female viewers feel frustrated, angry and, ultimately, helpless.
Last night Trump proved to us that not only doesn’t he respect women enough to view them as anything more than sex objects that he can take advantage of at will, but he doesn’t respect anything about them at all: not their expertise; not their right to speak without being interrupted; not their right to move around in a public space without being threatened.
It’s an attitude from men that women have dealt with throughout their lives, and continue to deal with every day. Watching that behavior writ large on last night’s debate stage was a horrifying reminder to women that no matter how qualified, no matter how experienced, no matter how smart and composed you are, there are still many men out there who feel they have the right to dominate you.