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.
It’s this very brand of Givhanian scrutiny—the examination of the choices people make, through their clothing, in presenting themselves to the world—that won her a Pulitzer for criticism last year. The prize was well deserved; Givhan’s articles, though they sometimes provoke ire, are often sublime collisions of the superficial and the essential. Yet her trademark couturial analysis can backfire when it tries too hard to find the meaning behind even the most basic and innocuous of fashion choices. And it can seem downright devious when Givhan’s considerable cleverness serves only a dull and mean-spirited thesis: “in matters of style, Clinton is as noncommittal as ever.” (Fine, maybe she is—but is that really a story?) Givhan’s swathing of her piece in the silken robes of politico-intellectual discourse doesn’t disguise the message that pulses beneath it: that Campaign Trail Clinton somehow isn’t allowed to be a woman. That any public acknowledgment of her femininity is somehow an anti-feminist cop-out. That if Hillary wants to play on the boys’ team, she’d better suit up just as they do.
Compare Clinton 42 with Clinton maybe-44. While Hillary’s libido-oozing husband could rile voters with a soulful sax session on The Tonight Show—and while male politicians as a rule, from TR to JFK to W, have gained capital from sheer virility—she gets consternation for a V-neck. Givhan doesn’t just describe that double standard; she endorses it. Blatantly. And that’s what seems to have struck the biggest nerve here: the sense that Givhan’s article is somehow a betrayal of the women’s movement itself, that the considerable progress that’s been made—enough to get Clinton where she is right now, leading the pack for the Democratic presidential nomination—is disappearing in the dip of a neckline. If Hillary is playing for the boys’ team, then Givhan’s article is a turnover at the one-yard line. The sheer frustration in much of the coverage is nearly palpable. “Message to women,” writes The Nation’s Katha Pollitt. “You can’t win. You can’t win. You can’t win.”
Givhan has neatly articulated the basic Catch-22 of Clinton’s candidacy: that her political legitimacy is somehow inversely proportional to her sexuality. That the more she puts her femininity on display, the less presidential she seems. It’s not simply a matter of the “sex sells” maxim not applying to Clinton; it’s a matter of gender politics seeping into conventional politics—and of paradigms shifting, forcibly, before our eyes. Clinton, in short, is calling our bluff. And Givhan is revealing our hand: in a society still deciding where to draw the line between “attractive” and “slutty,” assertiveness and bitchiness, and all the other familiar dichotomies of attempted egalitarianism, a woman asking to be our leader still, to some extent, confounds us. In the many calculations of the campaign trail, the sexual appeal-equals-political appeal equation is one that simply won’t work for the first woman with a serious shot at the Oval Office. Not only does sex not sell for Clinton; it could end up selling her out.