Column

The Winner of the Vice Presidential Debate? Kamala’s Faces.

The Democratic nominee’s expressions told a story all women will recognize

Photos: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

There is a face that women make when men talk over them or say something ridiculous — a face we rely on when we can’t interrupt those men because doing so would label us angry or aggressive. It’s a look women know and exchange with each other often. It says, “I know you think you’re smarter than I am, and you are wrong.”

Sen. Kamala Harris made various iterations of that face throughout the vice presidential debate on Wednesday night, and those pointed looks did as much to win her the debate as her words.

Harris had a tough needle to thread: She knows that female politicians, Black women especially, are judged as unlikeable if they come across as publicly combative. But she also needed to press Vice President Mike Pence on the White House’s Covid-19 response, the rising tide of racism emboldened by the president, and Donald Trump’s unfitness for office. It was a tightrope act, and she pulled it off by letting her expressions do some of the heavy lifting for her.

When Pence lied about the administration’s record or claimed that she and Joe Biden were “playing politics with people’s lives” (a bold claim from the leader of a task force that watched as over 200,000 Americans died), she just looked at him with bemused incredulity. And when Pence interrupted her, she reclaimed her time with a calm and strong “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking” and never stopped smiling.

Each face she made was perfectly toned and timed and treated Pence with the response that he deserved: speaking and looking at him like a toddler who needs to be taught why you can’t do bad things. Patient, if a little put out. Smarter than him but willing to explain.

What other reaction is there to a man who claims to be a leader but still refuses to be alone in the same room with a woman who isn’t his wife and who, when asked on Wednesday night about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, complimented her on her “sizable family.” Pence is the worst kind of sycophant for the worst kind of president, and Harris looked at him for who he was.

This is not to say that Harris relied on her glances alone. She refused to be interrupted; told Pence, “I will not be lectured”; hammered the administration on their refusal to believe in science; and relayed her message to the American people clearly — that in addition to being dangerous and a liar, Trump oversaw “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

In contrast, Pence was wooden and rote, so stiff that a housefly was able to land in his hair mid-debate and meander for a few minutes undisturbed. Pence’s face, a little ashen from the get-go, gave us nothing.

But the looks Harris gave at the debate said everything that American women — and many men! — were thinking: that this is ridiculous, that Pence is a man we can’t take seriously, and that the fact we’re living with this kind of leadership in the midst of one of the most terrifying times in modern American history is a joke. It drew viewers in and reminded us what a dangerous farce this whole administration is. If we’re lucky, it will be the face that launches a few million votes.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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