Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Cleavage Controversy

In its Style Section Section, the Washington Post recently ran an article by Robin Givhan observing that Hillary Clinton had worn a cleavage-revealing top to the Senate chamber, where she spoke on the cost of higher education. Givhan stated that "[s]howing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way," adding that "[t]o display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation." Numerous commentators have criticized the Post article as sexist and demeaning. Givhan defenders have countered that self-presentation is a crucial part of a candidate's message and, accordingly, fair game for reportage. Though seemingly irrelevant, the debate is, I think, an important one.

I understand Givhan's reportage as reflecting the valid observation that one's clothes say something about the message that one is attempting to convey. If, for example, Senator Clinton were to wear pajamas to a televised debate, one could fairly comment on her apparent failure to take the event seriously. For this reason, Givhan was right to report on Vice President Dick Cheney's decision to wear a parka, a knit ski-cap, and hiking boots to the ceremony at which world leaders had gathered in Poland to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. While others wore dark overcoats, reflecting the solemnity of the occasion, the representative of the United States, as Givhan colorfully described it, "was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower."

What distinguishes such examples from the "cleavage" case is, first, that the former represent major departures from customary behavior, while the latter -- even if a V-neck is relatively unusual -- really does not. Second, the former do not draw attention to the wearer's identity as a sexual being. This second point is important, because membership in a traditionally excluded group means that distinctiveness can be viewed as suspicious (or "provocative").

For a provocative example, consider beards. Just as as breasts are a "secondary sex characteristic" in women, a beard is a secondary sex characteristic in men, resulting from an interaction between sex hormones in the bloodstream and skin. Yet no one thinks of a man who grows a well-groomed beard as "immodest" or provocative. In a female-dominated world, one might imagine outrage at a man's willingness to "expose" his facial hair for public consumption. One might demand, in fact, that he "cover it up," particularly when in the presence of women.

I mean here to raise consciousness about our hidden assumptions, not to offer an actual policy or to insult readers who have beards (either as a fashion statement or because they find shaving uncomfortable). The reason we do not view beard-wearers as immodest or exhibitionistic is that beards represent one variant on the way that ordinary men appear. And ordinary men are the "norm" in public life. A beard will rarely if ever attract sexually charged critique in major newspapers (apart from, perhaps, an observation about whether the new look flatters the wearer or not). For a woman, however, any look is a gamble. As Senator Clinton knows, the wearing of bland pants suits can attract negative remarks because it seems to represent a masquerade of sorts -- a woman who dresses like a man even though she obviously is not a man. Is she afraid or ashamed of her femininity? If, on the other hand, she wears a v-neck, we hear that she has communicated a request to be viewed in a sexual way.

Almost by definition, the first woman president -- and the first frontrunning female candidate for president -- will be experimenting with fashion, no matter what she decides to wear. When the media highlights this experimentation, particularly in an obnoxious and nasty way, however, it forces women in politics to dedicate precious resources to what is ultimately a trivial distraction from substance.

18 comments:

PG said...

In contemporary Western culture, facial hair is rarely sexualized in either sex, and that is a significant difference between it and cleavage. If a male candidate took to wearing very tight pants, that also would be a noted fashion statement. (Though I suppose one way to get people to focus on the substance of what you say is to make them want to close their eyes or avert their faces.) There's just more of the female body that gets sexualized, although I bet if Giuliani started unbuttoning his shirts and exposing chest hair, there would be plenty of commentary about what *that* signified.

I do agree on the point about the difficulty women have in finding the "correct" gender expression. There was a genuine debate among female law students in my class going into interviews for summer law firm jobs about whether it was acceptable to wear pantsuits or if some crotchety old interviewer might take points off for it. So much for the 21st century.

Do you think the move toward business casual has allowed for less angst around gendered dress, or created more because of the theoretical greater freedom?

Tam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tam said...

I want to focus in on your observation that while she's being criticized for being "too sexual" here, Hillary also gets criticized for being too manly when she wears bland pantsuits. This inconsistency indicates that the real force behind these criticisms is the historically, culturally, and traditionally-imposed gender-role biases that women have faced since...well, probably forever.

For another good example, consider the study discussed in this article which found that women are not as aggressive with asking for raises as men are. While some will no doubt reflexively interpret that result to blame women themselves for the gender pay inequity, that would be entirely unjustified. As it turns out, the salient narrow finding from the study is that "[w]hile both men and women were penalized for negotiating, [the researcher] found that the negative effect for women was more than twice as large as that for men."

So, as with Hillary's decision whether to display a modicum of femininity, when it comes to a woman's decision whether to ask for a raise, it's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Just as as breasts are a "secondary sex characteristic" in women, a beard is a secondary sex characteristic in men, resulting from an interaction between sex hormones in the bloodstream and skin.

They may both be "secondary sex characteristics" but you are certainly stretching to say that a beard is equivalent to breasts. It is true that both a penis and a brain contain aster cells; that does not mean penises are a situs of consciousness. The rest of the post is littered with these kinds of cheap analogies.

Mortimer Brezny said...

because membership in a traditionally excluded group means that distinctiveness can be viewed as suspicious (or "provocative").


And what traditionally excluded group is Ms. Clinton a part of? It is rather traditional for Yale Law grads to serve in the Senate. It is also traditional for newspapers to focus on the fashion trends of First Ladies, past and present.

Mortimer Brezny said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
PG said...

mortimer,

If you're not aware that relatively few women have served in the Senate, and none have won a major party's nomination for the presidency, consider yourself informed now.

There is a "standard" uniform for politicians, particularly aspirants to the White House, that is literally tailored to men because they traditionally were the only people with such aspirations. If Sen. Clinton copied the wardrobe of past modern presidents -- the clothes worn from Truman to G.W. Bush -- she would be criticized for adopting bizarrely mannish dress.

Incidentally, could you tell us what the appropriate dress for a Yale Law grad is, if you think that's the relevant category here?

Mortimer Brezny said...

If you're not aware that relatively few women have served in the Senate, and none have won a major party's nomination for the presidency

The same is true of midgets and carpenters.

Incidentally, could you tell us what the appropriate dress for a Yale Law grad is, if you think that's the relevant category here?

A buttoned shirt.

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