Hillary's chest war

The battle continues to rage over the Washington Post's piece about Clinton's cleavage.

Published July 30, 2007 5:00PM (EDT)

So Hillary Clinton's senior advisor, Ann Lewis, was pretty ticked about Washington Post writer Robin Givhan's recent story about the senator's cleavage. You know, the one that described the little dip in one of Clinton's necklines as an "exceptional kind of flourish" and a "small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity" in contrast to her typically "desexualized uniform."

On July 27, Lewis sent out a fundraising e-mail -- provocatively titled "Cleavage" in a fuck-you gesture designed to pop the eyeballs of the very voyeurs who had Lewis so steamed -- that began, "Can you believe that The Washington Post wrote a 746-word article on Hillary's cleavage? ... I've seen some off-topic press coverage -- but talking about body parts? That is grossly inappropriate."

Lewis went on to write that "focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It's insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting. It's insulting to our daughters -- and our sons -- who are constantly pressured by the media to grow up too fast."

Lewis is packing a lot of (perfectly valid) frustrations into this one missive, but who can blame her? There's a lot to be frustrated about when you're advising the first woman ever to be a presidential front-runner. Let's face it, when the choice to don a coral-colored jacket for a nationally televised debate can lead to that jacket's becoming a part of the debate, you run a real risk of collapsing from fury-induced apoplexia before Super Tuesday.

But Givhan has defended her story, telling Howard Kurtz, "I would never say the column was about a body part ... It was about a style of dress. People have gone down the road of saying, 'I can't believe you're writing about her breasts.' I wasn't writing about her breasts. I was writing about her neckline."

That neckline, Givhan maintains, is fair game for analysis. She has a point, especially since in this country's 200-year presidential history, this is the first time we're seeing anything resembling a "subtle V" or a sweetheart neckline -- let alone spaghetti straps or, say, a skirt -- on the stump.

The Post Style section's deputy assistant managing editor, Steve Reiss, also defended Givhan, telling Kurtz, "Robin has consistently raised similar questions over the years about both men and women who are in the public eye ... 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."

Personally, I like both dogs in this fight. Reiss is right that the Pulitzer-winning Givhan is an equal-opportunity fashion analyst who has deconstructed the outfit of practically every dude to pad through the Capitol Rotunda in buttery dress shoes in recent years. Givhan herself is correct that she wasn't just writing about a body part. She was examining the way that gender and femininity are being communicated in this historic race. To pretend that there are not questions being asked by voters, politicians, advisors and, yes, stylists, about how to present a female president to a country still a little iffy on the whole "girl leader" thing would be naive. Taking those questions apart is what happens when we make it a priority to consider how culture and media work.

But Clinton's campaign is also right to assume that most readers of Givhan's story did not peruse it and then think hard about the physical and sartorial constructs of femininity. Some of them may have thought, "Hey, there's a story about Hillary's ta-tas!" And given that that was how the piece looked to many, Lewis had every right to express indignation and horror at the fact that her candidate's assets were being examined so closely by anyone other than a doctor or her husband.

The fact is, part of what's causing this ruckus is that women's bodies are simply shaped differently from men's. We have curves and bumps in different places, and those things affect the way we dress and how we look in our clothes. It's all well and good to quip, as I was tempted to do, that until we get the story on which pant leg Barack Obama steps into first, there will be an imbalance in treatment, but that's just not true. The male presidential package is simply more hidden than what some women have front and center.

Our bodies, ourselves, as they say. That's what we have (or don't, in many cases), and in view of the amount of self-loathing and discomfort many women feel about their racks, too much fretting over how a particularly powerful one gets accentuated, hidden or decorated while traveling a road to the White House seems gleefully minor.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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