Saturday, August 11, 2007
Hilary's Cleavage Problem; Might not be such a problem after all
At least one good thing has emerged from all of the brouhaha surrounding Hillary Clinton's barely there cleavage on the Senate floor a couple of weeks ago. It's a new turn of phrase, first spotted in Ruth Marcus's July 25th Washington Post column on the subject, in which she referred to herself as, "a person of cleavage." I'm crazy about that phrase, its perfect combination of descriptive simplicity and awkward absurdity. And I'm not the only one. I've noticed it popping up here and there over the last week or so, mainly in the writing about the writing about Senator Clinton's cleavage, of which there's been an astonishing amount. Judith Warner, of the New York Times, went so far as to call it a "Pulitzer worthy phrase." I think that might go a little far, but all the same, being a person of cleavage myself, I am loving those three words.
That's right, I am a person of cleavage. My cleavage is real, and it is substantial. I have the kind of cleavage that makes shopping for clothes much harder than it ought to be. The kind of cleavage that has me constantly tugging at clothes, surreptitiously adjusting straps, and on the lookout for wardrobe malfunctions. They don't happen all that often, but when they do, they are mortifying. And I'm not even running for president.
Having the kind of cleavage that I do also means I all too often look up from my book on the subway, only to find some creepy guy busily staring straight down into my cleavage, so intently he doesn't realize I've noticed and am staring straight back at him. Not until I lift my book, placing it directly over my apparently mesmerizing orbs, blocking them entirely from his view, and give him my evil most evil eye, does this kind of creepy guy get a clue and look away.
I should probably clarify a couple of things right about here. First, I'm generally not traipsing around town in Pamela Anderson's cast offs. I just happen to have these breasts that started growing when I was about eleven, and took the whole idea of growing very, very seriously. Most of the time, I kind of forget they're there, until some creepy staring guy reminds me. Which brings us to the second thing, the enormous difference between looking and staring. Looking at each other is part of what makes living in this city worth all the trouble, expense, and inconvenience it can sometimes require. We're doing it all the time. Comparing and contrasting, envying, judging, and, flirting, are all so much part of our daily lives we don't even realize we're doing them most of the time, all those glances up and down, however brief or lingering. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about staring. The kind that makes its object feel like, well, an object, however cliché that might sound, it's true. It's creepy, offensive, and rude, no matter who happens to be doing it. And in case you haven't noticed, it also tends to make me really mad.
All this is largely by way of explaining my initial reaction to Washington Post fashionista Robin Givhan's July 20th article, "Hillary Clinton's Tentative Dip into New Neckline Territory." It was, of course, Givhan's piece that began all that the writing about Clinton's cleavage. Describing what Clinton wore during a Senate debate on funding for higher education, Givhan goes on at length about cleavage that I, quite frankly, couldn't even see in the accompanying photograph, despite her assertion that, "The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch faced scrutiny was necessary." Givhan went on in this vein for 700-odd words, all, so far as I could tell, without making much off a point beyond something I'd assumed we'd all already known, that Hillary Clinton has breasts. Personally, I'd have found it far more newsworthy if Givhan had somehow discovered that she didn't have any at all. That obviously not being the case, however, her article struck me as the journalistic equivalent of a creepy guy on the subway, desperate for a glimpse of any female flesh at all, however miniscule. And so it made me really angry.
It made a lot of women angry, it turns out. I've already mentioned Ruth Marcus of Givhan's own paper, and Judith Warner of the New York Times, both of whom more or less told Givhan that she was out of line. As did the Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman, the Chicago Sun-Times Lynn Sweet, MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, and even America's erstwhile Sweetheart Katie Couric. Lines like, "sometimes a V-neck blouse, is just a V-neck blouse," abounded. Just about the only woman, it seemed, who was interested in defending Givhan was, indeed, Givhan herself.
Even the Post's own ombudsman, Deborah Howell, refrained from stating much of a personal opinion when she wrote about Givhan's piece on the 29th, merely commenting that, "Readers deserve substance, but they also want to know who these people are, about their families and their lives," without bothering to tell us whether or not she felt that the question of Clinton's cleavage had anything to do with who she is, her family, or her life. I don't happen to see how it does, and I'm guessing Katie Couric probably doesn't either.
What Howell did do, however, was give Givhan an opportunity to tell her side of the story. In Howell's piece, Givhan said that Clinton's cleavage was in fact newsworthy because it was, "so out of her stylistic character." Ultimately asserting that her point had been that the cleavage, "suggested to me someone who has become more comfortable being a sexual person as well as one of authority, intellect, and confidence." At that point I began to wonder if Givhan had troubled to reread her own piece before speaking with Howell, so directly did her words contradict what she had written, just nine days before.
In fact, Givhan directly compared Clinton with another woman, Jacqui Smith, the new British Home Secretary, who'd recently appeared before the House of Commons showing, we are told, "far more cleavage than Clinton." Smith, however, apparently did it right, unlike Clinton, or so Ghivan thought on the 20th, telling us that "If Clinton's was a teasing display, then Smith's was a full fledged come-on. But somehow it wasn't as unnerving. Perhaps that's because Smith's cleavage seemed to be presented so forthrightly. Smith's fitted jacket and her dramatic necklace combined to draw the eye directly to her bosom. There they were... all part of a bold, confident style package." In case that's not clear enough, in the preceding paragraph, Givhan had described the sight of Clinton's cleavage as, "more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!" Doesn't sound much to me like an effort to describe a woman who's reached a new level of empowerment, sexual or otherwise.
And, let's face it, it's not as if Hillary Clinton is a woman in need of empowerment. Her greatest strengths on the campaign trail are the confidence and clear awareness of herself as a person in possession of considerable power, and more than ready to take on some more, that she exudes. She is a woman in control, without a doubt. My most painfully conservative friend recently conceded in an email that "Hillary, for all her faults, is serious, steely even, and generally competent."
Rereading Ghivan's article, in a vain attempt to reconcile her statements to Howell with what she had in fact written, I became aware of something even odder than those initial contradictions. I realized just how frequently she'd used words rarely used to describe Senator Clinton. Words like "tentative," "noncommittal," "tortured," and "ambivalent," all in the service of exposing Clinton's hitherto unnoticed lack of confidence. Odd, really, isn't all that?
Ghivan's previous pieces about political figures and their sartorial choices have, in fact, drawn a larger point of some kind or other. From the confidence expressed by Condoleezza Rice's boots in 2005, to the disrespect Dick Cheney's Parka and hiking boots showed at an Auschwitz memorial that same year. So it doesn't seem like such a stretch to suppose she'd set out to write about Clinton's tentative cleavage being demonstrative of a greater failing of confidence, somewhere in the Senator's character, but failed to pull off the task she'd set out for herself. At least that credits her with having been trying to make a point at all, which is more than I had gotten from my first reading of her work.
There's no way of knowing, in the end, what Robin Ghivan intended when she sat down to write her piece on Hillary Clinton's Cleavage, though I'm pretty sure it wasn't anything like what she told Ruth Howell. I doubt though, that she'd anticipated the response I found myself having, in its specificity, or that she understands exactly why it is so many women are so mad at her about it.
Reading her article, that first time, I found myself thinking about Hillary, up there at that podium on the Senate floor, maybe realizing her blouse had shifted a bit, wasn't sitting quite where it had been when she'd left her townhouse that morning, or even when she'd stood up from her seat to speak. But she's standing before the Senate, C-Span2 cameras on her, debating education. She doesn't want to draw attention to the problem, or away from what she's saying, by tugging at her top. So she doesn't. And when no one, seems to have noticed she assumes nobody did, goes on about her busy life, forgetting the entire non-event. Until she reads Robin Givhan's column in the Washington Post three days later and realizes that at least one person did in fact notice after all.
I've had that moment. Well, not on the Senate floor, and without the involvement of a major media outlet, but you know what I mean. I've had that moment. Most women have,I guess. And Hillary, it turns out, is a woman like the rest of us, and a person of cleavage,just like me. She knows exactly how it feels, being stared at.