October 12, 2016

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL | I’ma Let You Finish, but Stop Interrupting Women

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Remember 2009 when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs and we all laughed and it either made you love Kanye or hate Kanye?  It’s probably the most familiar example of a pervasive cultural phenomenon: manterrupting.  If you’re a man, you’ve probably done it; if you’re a woman, you’ve probably experienced it.  It’s an insidious social occurrence that emboldens men to speak over women and silences women from speaking up for fear of being perceived as too outspoken.  It dictates all spheres of discourse, from the workplace to academia, from popular culture to the political arena.  Especially the political arena.

Recently, it seems like men in both the presidential and vice presidential debates have been channeling their inner Yeezus, proving themselves to be true masters in the art of manterrupting.  Let us count the ways:

1. Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine teamed up to steamroll CBS moderator Elaine Quijano in the VP debate on Tuesday, October 4, collectively interrupting her 27 times as she attempted to reign in the conversation (i.e. do her job).

I listened to this debate over the radio in the car with my dad, and I was immediately shocked by the blatant disrespect both parties showed for the moderator.  Even though I couldn’t see what was going on, I could hear the frustration in Elaine’s voice, and I truly empathized with her.  Sadly, a lot of us have been Elaine at some point or another: excluded from the conversation when most of its participants are male.  Not only did the candidates disregard Quijano’s questions time and time again to veer off course and personally attack each other, but they also spoke over her or dismissed her entirely when she attempted to refocus the debate.  To be honest, Mike Pence disrespecting a woman was a lot less surprising than how frequently Tim Kaine was guilty of manterrupting Quijano.  Based solely on their etiquette during this debate, I would never have guessed that only one of them staunchly opposes women’s equality.  I couldn’t help but imagine what this debate might have looked like with two female candidates and a male moderator and was simply unable to imagine Elaine’s hypothetical male counterpart having his authority undermined to the same extent.

2. During the first presidential debate on September 26, Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times.

We get it, Trump is kind of a jerk, so this really wasn’t a total surprise, but even for the most blatant sexist out there, 51 times is excessive.  To be fair, Clinton was responsible for 25% of the evening’s interruptions (which is a more significant percentage than the proportion of women in Congress!), but Trump still won the interruption game handily.

3. Trump interjected 18 times during the second presidential debate on October 9, in addition to speaking out of turn six times.  Clinton interrupted once (and apologized).

Okay. Trump came into this debate practically on his knees, begging for public redemption after his disgusting tape from 2005 (in which he brags about sexually assaulting women) went viral.  A sane person’s strategy would be, hypothetically speaking, to apologize sincerely for objectifying women in such a vulgar manner and demonstrate to the electorate that he or she actually views women as individuals by acknowledging how damaging this kind of speech is rather than writing it off as “locker room talk.”  Trump’s approach was to instead claim that “Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” and then prove this to be true by using verbal and physical intimidation against his female opponent throughout the debate.  Aside from interrupting Clinton at every turn, Trump also spent much of the debate lurking imposingly behind her as she spoke in an almost comic display of hypermasculinity.  

Regardless of where Trump falls on the spectrum of blatantly misogynistic behavior,  this phenomenon is not unique to him, nor is it solely observable in the public sphere.  It permeates our regular socialization at the most fundamental and personal levels; I have heard husbands speak over wives the same way Trump speaks over Clinton.  I have been in male-dominated social situations where female voices were almost automatically brushed to the margins.  Whether or not this is act is conscious or unconscious, the act of silencing women is one that has become naturalized in our society.

I am concerned that women are silenced in so many spaces, even the spaces where they are supposed to be empowered.  If a woman running for President of the United States can still be interrupted 69 times over the course of two debates, how many times is the average woman in the workplace interrupted?  If the voices of women in the chambers of Congress are already disadvantaged by a lack of parity in representation, how does the practice of manterrupting further disempower these few women in leadership?  The solution is to take personal accountability for what has become a normalized mode of interaction, to amplify the voices of women when they speak – not cut them off – and to work towards creating a dialogue that includes more women so as to counteract the gendered power imbalance that pervades daily conversation.  Maybe the best way to ensure that 2020 brings us fewer manterruptions is to vote in the primaries for candidates who actually respect women, both in policy and in practice, or (even crazier!) elect two female candidates who can womenterrupt each other all they want.