It’s possible for news organizations to keep their audiences a little too abreast of campaign-trail developments. To wit: an article in the Washington Post’s hallowed Style section that provided an all-too-intimate profile of two formerly behind-the-scenes members of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Not a huge deal, really—except that the flunkies in question were Clinton’s breasts.
The two had been buried, you see, under Clinton’s erstwhile “desexualized uniform: a black pantsuit.” Now, however, if you squint—or if you have a high-def, big-screen TV you keep tuned to C-SPAN2—you can see for yourself the bit of newly uncovered Clintonian Cleavage, “that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative—aesthetically speaking—environment of Congress.”
It’s enough to make you long for those heady days of the Hillary v. Obama diplomatic-relations debate: as inane as that whole sideshow was, at least there was a snippet of political substance behind it. Instead, we get Robin Givhan, the Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion editor, doing her best Nancy Grace impression as she analyzes the case of Clinton v. Low-Cut Top:
The neckline sat low on her chest and had a subtle V-shape. The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.
“Unbelievable” might be a better word—not to describe the supposed cleavage, but to describe the fact that the Post printed such an analysis in the first place. It’s not like Clinton went and pulled a Janet Jackson on the Senate floor. The mammary madness Givhan describes was, rather, exceedingly—almost laughably—tame. (The top in question, incidentally, was worn under a congresswoman-conservative—if bubblegum-pink—blazer.) Yet “it’s tempting to say that the cleavage stirs the same kind of discomfort that might be churned up after spotting Rudy Giuliani with his shirt unbuttoned just a smidge too far,” Givhan writes. “No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!”
Just look away, indeed. Givhan might have taken her own advice, thus sparing us from the ensuing media circus that made mountains out of well, you know.
Instead, pundits pounced on the Post piece, making the cleavage sighting, and Givhan’s analysis of it, A Thing, investing it with the tacit legitimacy that media coverage instantly bestows. The New York Times’s guest op-ed columnist used the unlikely news peg to craft a personal account of cleavage-in-the-workplace that might have been subheaded “My Cleavage, Myself.” Across the pond, The Times of London offered this witty take: “As newspapers and blogs discuss Clinton’s TV appearance, we wonder if political analysis in America plunged to a new low.” And on July 29, Hill’s Hills met the press, in what has to be the first instance [Historic Occasion alert!] of Candidate Cleavage being part of the landmark Sunday show. WaPo columnist Eugene Robinson, CNBC’s John Harwood, and Andrea Mitchell veered from their analysis of the Democratic candidates’ most recent polling numbers to join the to-cleave-or-not-to-cleave debate, Tim Russert looking on, an expression of amusement-slash-dear-God-how-did-my-career-come-to-this on his face.
The whole décolletage debacle has the sour stink of a Barnum-esque PR ploy; if publicity, as one has at least to suspect, was the article’s goal, then well played, Ms. Givhan. The auteur, however, defends her story: Clinton’s cleavage “is news,” Givhan told the Post’s ombudsman, “because it is out of the ordinary and says something about clothing and sexuality in our culture and the way that we perceive people and the way that people want to be perceived.”
And in fairness, Givhan’s treatise isn’t merely an exposition of Clinton’s “tentative dip into new neckline territory,” as its headline so artfully puts it. Rather, it’s a brief analysis of Clinton’s clothing choices within the context of her campaign. Hillary’s décolleté exposé seems particularly shocking, Givhan writes, because her sexuality has previously been kept, both literally and figuratively, under wraps. (Chelsea, one presumes, arrived via stork.) For “someone who has been so ambivalent about style, image and the burdens of both,” Givhan writes, such an uncharacteristically, well, titillating exposition is worth our attention. “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation,” and in this case, Givhan suggests, the display signals a shift in Clinton’s attitude, both about herself and about her campaign.