Opinion | Kamala Harris’s facial expressions at the debate were her strength

Vice President Pence wasn’t following the rules — not about timing, not about interrupting — during Wednesday’s debate. Moderator Susan Page’s efforts at polite shushing, uttering repeated “thank you’s,” was about as effective as a cafeteria monitor trying to halt a food fight. It fell to Harris to remind the vice president, “I’m speaking” — something he already knew but chose to ignore.

If Harris had raised her voice in those moments, she would have been labeled shrill. If she had frowned, she would have been labeled a scold. If she had raised a hand, she would have been called angry or even unhinged.

So she smiled as she held her ground — and of course they called it a smirk, a grin that by definition comes off as irritating or smug. But it was more than that. Harris gave Pence “The Look” — and you don’t have to look up that phrase to know exactly what I mean.

Black women have elevated the “Mama don’t take no mess” expression to a form of high art — a narrowing of the eye, a lift of the eyebrow, a tilt of the head. Sometimes there is a sideways arch of the neck, a molasses-slow movement of the jaw that says, without speaking, “You’ve got exactly 10 seconds to pick up your feet and run for the hills.”

Some of this is the stuff of caricature. The kind of thing that leads Black women to be called sassy, volatile, aggressive or angry. All of that is an effort to dismiss or demean. But that attempted erasure is the very reason Black women — indeed, most women — have some version of The Look in their arsenal.

Women often can’t get a word in edgewise in the workplace — or, really, any place where they share a room with men. This phenomenon is universal and documented in a large body of research. Don’t think for a minute that the women in the Trump administration or the Republican Party have an E-ZPass to free expression in a party so clearly dominated by men whose core political message is to return to the good old days. The suburban women who are key players in this election know what it is like to be interrupted and talked down to.

This unfortunate reality knows no boundaries. There is actually a whole lexicon for it:

Mansplaining: When a man feels the need to explain something to a woman, often despite her obvious expertise or experience. (Case in point: Pence explains systemic racism to Harris.)

Bropropiation: When a woman introduces a concept or idea that a man subsequently takes credit for.

Manterruption: Describing how men interrupt women repeatedly and unnecessarily. A study by Brigham Young and Princeton universities found that men dominate 75 percent of the conversation in board meetings. When men control the discourse, they control the decision-making — unless women figure out how to break through.

Women have long had to adorn their actual language with body language to be heard. Sometimes it is through protest, but often it is much more subtle than that. Lowering or adjusting the pitch of one’s voice. Fixing one’s gaze. A posture that says “I mean business” when the world isn’t interested in allowing you to run a business.

And yet women exercise authority nonetheless — increasingly in the corporate and political worlds, but consistently over centuries in the places where we learn the most important life lessons: the classroom, the place of worship, the marketplace, the kitchen table.

I would posit that many of the people who hold enough power to occupy a platform that would allow them to comment on Harris’s smirk or judgmental gaze obtained their perch of authority precisely because some woman, and probably several women along the way, shot them The Look to keep them on track.

President Trump, who could have benefited from being on the receiving end of more Looks, on Thursday called Harris “this monster that was on stage with Mike Pence.” It’s an ugly insult from a president who always manages to reveal himself, even or especially when trying to target others.

Monsters are scary. Sometimes it’s because of their strength or physical prowess. As children, we fear that they could grind our bones to dust. But for adults, a monster’s real power is that it gets under our skin. Monsters wield power because we give them real estate inside our brain.

A smiling woman stands her ground and shoots a forceful look that requires a man to follow the rules. She only seems monstrous if progress is what you really find scary.

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