behind the news

Oval Office or Bust

The latest campaign frivolity analyzes Clinton’s other war chest
August 2, 2007

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.

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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.

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.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.