An Audio Project Reimagines the Access Hollywood Tape to Examine Gendered Communication

The now-infamous Access Hollywood tape—showing then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and television host Billy Bush making controversial comments about women before being joined by actress Arianne Zucker—sparked a national conversation about sexual assault and power dynamics. But what happens to our perceptions when we hear this same dialogue—with intonations and inflections replicated exactly—spoken by women? Do our attitudes shift further when Trump, Bush, and Zucker are all performed by men?

The Grab ‘Em Tapes,” an experimental audio performance project released today by NYU Steinhardt’s Verbatim Performance Lab, explores this concept by re-recording the Access Hollywood tape with three different gender configurations: Billy Bush and Donald Trump performed by women and Arianne Zucker a man, all three performed by women, and all three performed by men.

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The audio recordings explore the double standards that exist in gendered styles of communication and are underpinned by research questions about society’s expectations for how men and women discuss sexual attraction and expression. The gender arrangements in the three tapes prompt audiences to confront how power dynamics between men and women shape implicit biases.

The tape’s transcript underwent minor editing to account for the reversed genders—the tape’s best-known sound bites only work in their original context—raising further questions about how linguistic choices can contribute to gender discrimination.

“In the tape, Zucker is described as a ‘vixen’ and we struggled to find a male equivalent for the word, because we don’t have one in our vocabulary. There are many more options for sexualizing a woman,” said Joe Salvatore, clinical associate professor of educational theatre at Steinhardt and the project’s director.

While conducting research for “The Grab ‘Em Tapes”, Lab affiliate Keith R. Huff located the full, unedited version of the Access Hollywood clip including an additional two minutes that were frequently edited from the initial public broadcast and coverage in October 2016. Salvatore said the two minutes of conversation reveal information that contributes to public understanding of the exchange.

“We had already identified some errors in the transcripts released in October 2016, but our experiment with gender flip is deepened by the inclusion of this missing section. There’s a danger in not sharing the whole story. If we’re not paying close enough attention and only consuming part of an interaction that has been mediated for us, we run the risk of forming opinions without having all of the available information,” said Salvatore.

Salvatore created the tapes with NYU alumni, students, and faculty and utilized verbatim performance techniques similar to those in the Off-Broadway production, “Her Opponent,” a gender-flipped re-staging of excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates co-created with economist Maria Guadalupe (INSEAD) in 2017. Salvatore published the tapes on SoundCloud and on the Lab’s website, facilitating open discussion between listeners about their un- or subconscious perceptual biases. Future goals for the project include creating age-appropriate educational materials to accompany the recordings for middle and high school classrooms.

“This project leverages the momentum of #MeToo and Time’s Up and can have a long term impact on the way we educate young people about interacting across gender and sexual orientation—long after the momentum of these movements has slowed.” said Salvatore.

The project is part of NYU Steinhardt’s newly-formed Verbatim Performance Lab, which is committed to using verbatim performance techniques as an investigative tool to challenge and disrupt preconceived notions, implicit biases, and intolerances across a spectrum of political, cultural, and social beliefs and experiences.

About NYU Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions
Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions, established in 1925, instructs over 1,600 students majoring in music and performing arts programs. Music and Performing Arts Professions serves as NYU’s “school” of music and is a major research and practice center in music technology, music business, music composition, film scoring, songwriting, music performance practices, performing arts therapies, and the performing arts-in-education (music, dance, and drama).