California Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D) left a few zingers on the vice-presidential debate stage last night that have already become chum for comedic social-media users.
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking” and “I’m speaking, okay” have already found their ways into meme culture that will exist long after the next president is decided.
While people gleefully share her now-famous side eye, Harris reminded viewers that women in leadership roles walk on a tightrope wound with societal expectations of decorum for women, experts say.
Vice President Pence made double the amount of interruptions and released slightly more insults than Harris did in the vice-presidential debate, but her insistence that moderator and journalist Susan Page provide her time to respond to Pence’s statements nearly leveled out their actual speaking time, according to NBC News data.
Harris advocating for her fair share of time sends a very strong message about having an equal voice, said Tammy Vigil, an associate professor of communication at Boston University.
“She was demanding what was rightfully hers. That should be a moment of inspiration,” Vigil said. “That is a moment where she is asserting her power and what should be her right.”
Vigil said the debate was an unremarkable event performed by two seasoned politicians who both flouted the rules at times, but the expectations for Harris were going to be tighter than the pearl necklace around her neck because of her gender and race.
Socialization and stereotypes created a space where Harris could not violate the rules in the same way that Pence, President Trump or her running mate have done.
As a woman, Harris is probably accustomed to being spoken over in a way that the men she’s running with and against are not accustomed to, Vigil said.
“Women in general have better experience with that,” she said. “Her sort of nodding smiles and knowing looks that this was expected helped make the audience understand that she knew she was being talked over.”
The raised eyebrows and pursed lips are up to interpretation, but they probably conceal the amount of restraint that Harris has to display as a woman of color fighting against multiple stereotypes, said Lakeyta Bonnette-Bailey, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Georgia State University.
“She definitely toes a fine line,” Bonnette-Bailey said. “She had to be forceful and yet not come off as an angry Black woman. ”
Female candidates have to be particularly careful about coming across as angry, too strong or dominant, but those depictions are hard to maintain when people want women to display a sign of meekness as well, Bonnette-Bailey said.
Pence tried to paint Harris to be the exact stereotype she was trying not to be when he pointed to how she questioned Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and her walking out on Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) police reform bill, Bonnette-Bailey said.
To show how comfortable and at ease she was, Harris smiled, but even that can be misinterpreted on a woman of color’s face, experts said.
Some people thought her smiles and nods showed her to be smug and condescending. Others compared her to their aunts, teachers and mothers.
“I think she’s in a no-win situation,” Bonnette-Bailey said, adding that she thought Harris could have been more assertive throughout the night. “Even if you would’ve had a straight face, there would’ve been some commentation that aligned with her race and her gender.”