Hillary's Cleavage Problem

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When Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan published her July 20 story about Hillary Clinton’s less-than-plunging neckline during a Senate floor debate broadcast on CSPAN, the media and the nation seemed to take a collective gasp. We scrutinized the TV clips and YouTube footage like wet-dreaming, 12-year-oldboys, desperately trying to make out that holy grail of shadowed territory. As it turns out, it wasn’t even good cleavage. But it was a glimpse of something unknown, something we’d never seen before.

Clinton’s wardrobe choices have, since her days as a governor’s wife, been decidedly conservative: think chin-high, wrist-grazing gowns, loose, boxy jacket and that ever-present androgynous black pants suit. And for a woman with a reputation for precisely managing every aspect of her persona, the question on many minds was whether this foray into sexuality could really have been unintentional.

“When you look at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil,” argued CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood on the July 29 edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

To make the case more convincing, the incident came at precisely a time when Clinton was facing heightened criticism from opponents for acting too masculine. In an interview published July 17 by Salon magazine, Elizabeth Edwards wrote that her husband would make a better advocate for women’s issues than Clinton because she’d be too preoccupied trying to prove herself as a woman on the world stage. “Sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women’s issues,” she said sympathetically. Bill Clinton even came to his wife’s defense, telling “Good Morning America,” “I don’t think [Hillary’s] trying to be a man.” Meanwhile, in recent months, we’ve seen Hillary trade her senatorial campaign’s black pantsuits uniform for cheerful pastels and more fashion-forward styles in what many have painted as a concerted effort to reaffirm her femininity.

But the Clinton campaign has met the coverage of Clinton’s bust line with shock, outrage and criticism. Senior Clinton adviser Ann Lewis issued a letter to Clinton supporters, deriding the story as “grossly inappropriate” and “insulting.” She urged donors to “take a stand against this kind of coarseness and pettiness in American culture” by—what else?—donating more money to the Hillary campaign. Steve Reiss, the Post’s deputy assistant managing editor for Style, however, defended his writer’s right to discuss the candidate’s wardrobe choices. “We know these people take a great deal of care in how they present themselves on TV and in public, and that is fair game for analysis,” he said.

The media has already jumped on a slew of stories about presidential candidates’ appearances, from “pretty boy” John Edwards’ $400 haircuts to Barack Obama’s boyish good looks, to Mitt Romney’s $300 pre-debate make-up jobs. Until now, it’s the men who have been attracting the spotlight for their vanity. But what’s different about the cleavage controversy, according to many who have spoken out against the Post story, is that the discussion there was not focused on attire—on the color of a candidate’s tie or the fur trim of his jacket—but on a candidate’s anatomy. 

“I’ve seen some off-topic press coverage—but talking about body parts? That is grossly inappropriate,” Lewis wrote in her letter. This isn’t about boots, it’s about boobs, they say, and that’s what matters. But Givhan, among others, has denied the distinction. “I would never say the column was about a body part,” she said. “I wasn’t writing about her breasts. I was writing about her neckline.”

The fact that appearance is a relevant factor in any political campaign is a long-proven fact. More attractive candidates are more likely to win elections, as are taller candidates and—oddly enough—those with the longest last name. Further, thanks to the so-called “halo effect,” attractive people tend to be seen as more intelligent, more talented and generally better people. Just think back to the famous 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon and the difference in appraisal between those who listened on the radio versus those who watched on TV. Striking evidence of the power of attraction is everywhere.
But according to experts, it’s female candidates who are most often subjected to such discussion by the media.

“Women have been treated differently in the media,” explains Dianne Bystrom, the director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, whose research examines differences in media coverage of male and female candidates. In her study of Senate and gubernatorial races over the last three election cycles, Bystrom found that 5-6 percent of women’s media coverage focused on appearance, versus just 1 percent for men. And while neither of those numbers is particularly high, the disparity means that male candidates receive about 5 percent more issues coverage than do females. “If the percentage of coverage were more equal, maybe it wouldn’t be as discriminatory,” says Bystrom. 

But even when the discussion is not about appearance, it is, even more often, about gender. Republicans seem to be particularly adept at building their candidates’ images as strong, protective and masculine: We see Rudy Giuliani as the no-nonsense father figure laying down the law, Bush clothed in military gear stomping around an aircraft carrier or as the archetype cowboy defending the West from invaders. Michael Scherer went as far as to described the GOP debate in May as an “alpha male test…The Republican primary has become, in many ways, a fatherhood audition. Only a man’s man will save us,” he observed. And GOP criticism of top Democrat contenders, from John Kerry as an elitist, liberal, wish-washy Frenchman to Edwards as a “faggot” pretty boy, more often than not, paints Democrats as too weak, too sissy and
too feminine.

According to Bystrom’s research, both male and female candidates must work very carefully to balance stereotypical masculine and feminine traits. Candidates, she says, must be seen as strong, yet compassionate, forceful, yet friendly. But for women, the balancing act is especially difficult. “I think women candidates, they really have to walk a tightrope that men aren’t expected to walk,” explains Bystrom. She said her research has found that winning women candidates are typically those who are best able to balance stereotypically masculine and feminine images and issues, posing with children as well as in formal suits, and discussing both healthcare and defense. Those who are seen as too feminine tend to lose races, while those who are seen as “too hard” work frantically to soften their images.

But just because their personas are gendered, doesn’t make candidates sexualized. And some have argued that it is overwhelmingly women who must bear the brunt of sexual imagery. Back in 2005, for instance, Givhan wrote another column examining an outfit worn by Condoleezza Rice, likening her black skirt, knee-length jacket and knee-high boots with stiletto heels to a dominatrix get-up. “Stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual,” she argued. As one blogger acutely wrote, “One can’t imagine, for example, a discussion of the sexual connotations of President Bush attired in western wear at the ranch.”

But to say that sexuality doesn’t play a role in politics when men are concerned seems just a little bit premature. After all, the “charisma” of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and other male candidates seems nearly impossible to separate from their likeability, attractiveness and sex appeal. The famous “Obama Girl” campaign video includes a woman provocatively fawning over her “so black and sexy” political crush, even dancing bikini-clad against a photo of the presidential hopeful frolicking shirtless in the Pacific. Could one imagine Obama or Bill Clinton or Reagan divorced from their sex appeal? And can one possibly imagine such a tribute to a female candidate?

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the whole cleavage controversy is that no one has yet criticized Clinton for dressing inappropriately, and there have been surprisingly few jokes about people wanting to avert their eyes from the chest of an older woman. Instead, everyone except for Hillary’s campaign seems strangely pleased with the development. Even the latest Rasmussen poll shows that Hillary has been steadily gaining support in the last two weeks, and now leads Obama 43 percent to 22 percent. Are the developments related? Who knows. But perhaps Hillary has learned what male politicians in this country have known for decades: that using sex appeal to get elected is just part of the game. Maybe next week we’ll even see her in a skirt.

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