Kamala Harris Is Redefining Charisma

"Charisma" has been the domain of men for too long. Kamala Harris' performance in the debate marks a shift in how we view the concept.

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Sen. Kamala Harris walked away as the indisputable winner on the second night of this week's Democratic debates. While her takedown of Joe Biden and putting an end to her colleagues' petty squabbling were significant moments (I'll get to those), her performance was a hit for another reason: It marked a shift in our perception of what it means to be charismatic, and why it even matters.
If you want a depressing slate of reading, take a look at the research of how people view charisma. The trope of having the “confidence of a mediocre white man” is actually based in academic work suggesting that men are more self-assured in their leadership abilities after years of social conditioning and therefore tend to exude that unquantifiable personable aura. Women often have to overcompensate with other traits, for example by working harder, in order to be seen as remotely charismatic. You get the point: “Charisma” has historically been seen as a man’s world. (A tall man's world, to boot.)
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Why can’t women seem to put forth this mysterious charm? For starters, women are forced to second-guess themselves in a way that men don’t. “In improv, you're told to follow the fear and 'go for it'; if you're going to fail, fail forward!” Jen Oleniczak Brown, founder of The Engaging Educator, an organization that helps women with confidence, communication, and public speaking skills through improv-based workshops, told Refinery29. “Men easily do this, because they're expected to go 'balls to the wall,' and if it fails, they'll get another chance. Women hold back [and] take the extra breath to overthink a choice, because they know this might be the moment to ‘make it.’ And if they don't? They might not get another chance.”

She's playing to win.

Jen Oleniczak Brown, public-speaking expert
Second, in reality, much like “electability” and “likability” — everybody’s favorite campaign-season buzzwords — “charisma” is a load of sexist, racist, ageist crap. It’s a story we've told ourselves again and again over the course of centuries. Our very country is built on the idea that a bunch of rich white guys had some mythical secret sauce and sought-after charm that no one else could possibly conjure. That really couldn’t be further from the truth.
But the good news about charisma being a social construct is that it means we have the power to question and change it — and that’s exactly what Harris helped do in her debut debate appearance.
Harris has already built a name for herself as a fierce public speaker in the Senate, where she’s gone viral for taking Trump cronies to task in an inimitably incisive fashion. Unsurprisingly, her direct style continued on the debate stage. One of Harris’ breakout moments was her zinger in the midst of an early squabble, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we're going to put food on their table.”
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But Harris' crowning moment was taking former Vice President Joe Biden to task for praising segregationist senators with whom he worked in decades past — and getting him to admit he opposed busing to integrate schools after Brown v. Board of Education by talking about her childhood experiences. "You know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me," she told him.
Brown explained that, in that moment, Harris did exactly what "charismatic" men are often praised for: She went for it and didn’t let up. “When she wanted to keep speaking, she kept speaking,” Brown said. “And in the end, she brought us in, acknowledged the viewer, and made it clear that she knew we were there. She's playing to win.”
It wasn’t long ago that Joe Biden, with his slow smirk and aviator glasses-wearing swagger, was considered one of the most charismatic politicians out there. But in this week's debates, we saw a different definition of charisma taking form: Women being honest about who they are, where they come from, and what they stand for. Even when it makes men uncomfortable and threatens their precious frontrunner status. And guess what? They all looked presidential as hell.
We’ve got a long road to Election Day, and there will be plenty more "food fights." But when it comes to redefining how our society views women in leadership, we've actually managed to put some food on the table.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29 and the founder of political volunteer network Get Her Elected. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.

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