It was clear who won the vice-presidential debate last night: Sen. Kamala Harris, who skillfully took us through the failures of the Trump administration, from its mishandling of COVID-19 to its billionaire-loving tax bill to Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy. But in second place? Harris’ extremely relatable facial expressions, which helped us survive the entire ordeal. (We’ll call the fly that landed on Vice President Mike Pence’s head a close third.)
As Pence told bold-faced lies, from “Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes” to that Trump is going to “listen to the science” on climate change, and made outrageous statements like that it was Harris and Biden who were “playing politics with people’s lives,” the split-screen often showed Harris making an expression of incredulity that many of us recognize from other times she interacted with powerful, duplicitous men, like Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She also squinted, as though in disbelief, laughed and smiled when it was all too outrageous, expressed an all-knowing side-eye, and deployed a few well-placed The Office-style, I’m-staring-straight-at-the-camera looks.
As a woman, and as a Black woman, Harris has to walk a fine line in order not to be labeled too aggressive or “angry” — and she knows that. But contrasted to Pence’s “stoniness,” her emotion came across as authentic and effective, body language expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, told Refinery29. While Harris displayed emotional range, Pence “rushed through” the story of Breonna Taylor not receiving justice after being killed by police, only showing real emotion toward “rioting and looting.” He seemed to be much angrier about the destruction of property than about the loss of human life. “His voice became louder and stronger, and he moved forward. It was the most emotion he showed so far in the debate,” Wood said.
Wood analyzed some of Harris’ most common debate facial expressions for us, ahead.
The squint: “The aperture of the eye naturally narrows when we don’t like what we see. So that’s a natural response to both Pence's deception and his rule-breaking, going over time and interrupting her.”
The side-eye: “The side-eye is something that women do more than men. Because women traditionally have less power, they may not be able to deal with conflict directly by attacking so instead they come in from the side, indirectly. People get punished for glaring, but rarely for giving a side-eye.”
The inimitable look of incredulity (which might incorporate a side-eye and/or a squint): “This is something that Harris has done for a long time. It’s a baseline behavior, often including a smile, head-shaking, and tilted head. It works for her especially as a woman who has to battle the stereotype that women shouldn’t get angry. I have seen men yell and scream, pound their fist on the table, and even cry in congressional hearings with her, and she will use this technique with them. Her response to them is just what we saw tonight: A calm, restrained manner — and it works because it makes the other person look ridiculous. It also shows her sense of humor, and it may get others to laugh at Pence.”
The “I’m speaking” smile (sometimes turning into a laugh): “I said in my pre-debate interviews to watch for her smiles. It’s fascinating that she is using smiles to respond to Pence when he is giving false information. Smiling and shaking her head in disbelief are the softest ways for her to respond. For those viewers who were expecting her to look angry, they are seeing her maintain her calm. It’s also notable that Pence rarely smiles.”
The hand clasp: “It’s a ‘modified steeple’ [with the hands]. It doesn’t have the more aggressive little pointy top of the 'church.' It’s a way of showing power and control over her opponent. Most often, you see people hold the steeple low on the body, but here she’s holding it higher — she’s showing her power in a contained, professional way.”