Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Slight Cleavage on Cleavage

I found Sherry's post earlier today on the "cleavage" controversy interesting and thought-provoking, and was moved to write at length in response. Since that response is too long for either this blog or the comments section, I've posted it at my other blog, Prawfsblawg, here. In short, I agree in part and disagree in part with the drift of Sherry's post, and also like her, I think this debate is more important than the underlying subject. Let me sum up my views as follows:

1) I am in full agreement with Sherry's "consciousness-raising." I think she very usefully unearths and examines some important hidden assumptions in the story; I agree that cultural writers, like Givhan, who tread into the field ought to tread carefully; and I agree that readers, too, ought to read such stories carefully and self-consciously.

2) That does not mean stories about the cultural implications, semiotics, and so on, of politics and political candidates are unimaginable where they do not involve women. No male candidates for president that I can think of in recent years have worn beards or moustaches; I am sure one who did would attract attention, and such attention would not be illegitimate. That does not mean we should not watch for the kinds of loaded questions Sherry points out in the Clinton story, and especially for the application of uneven or double standards -- the ways in which a story about a beard would be different from a story about cleavage. But it does mean that it is not unreasonable per se to write a story about a candidate's beard (or cleavage), provided it is done well. It is perfectly natural for people (and newspapers) to care about politics as a cultural enterprise as well as a substantive one.

3) Relatedly, while newspapers and readers alike ought to care more about substance than about such cultural matters, that does not mean that anything that falls outside the scope of the substantive is "a trivial distraction from substance," or illegitimate for that reason. We read Plutarch or Suetonius not only because we're interested in ancient Roman history (there are more reliable guides, surely), but because many of us are also interested in culture, in character, and in the way that great figures serve as illustrations and embodiments of larger or smaller questions about human nature and culture. An interest in culture or character is not illegitimate, even in a newspaper, simply because it is not substantive. We may well care about how much time, space, and attention both newspapers and readers devote to such matters, and it is surely true that, in an ideal world, the substantive would predominate. But there ought to be room for both.

You're welcome to read the rest over at Prawfsblawg and comment in either place.

16 comments:

Sherry F. Colb said...

Interesting post. One clarification I want to make is that when I object to nasty media commentary about female politicians' appearance, my concern is that the politicians in question will spend hours (or, perhaps, hours more than they already do) in front of the mirror, attempting to conform to whatever detailed mandates have been expressed through media criticism. It is this waste of time -- the candidate's time or the politician's time, pursuing the unattainable goal of appearance-proofing oneself -- that I find most regrettable in all of this. When I speak of "trivia" versus substance at the end of my post, this is what I mean (as opposed to some general concern that news organizations should focus on substance rather than trivia or culture).

Paul Horwitz said...

Point taken, Sherry. And I agree that whatever our own allocation of time and attention between substantive and non-substantive pursuits, one would hope candidates themselves would focus more on substance than on worrying, or feeling they have to worry, about the coded messages of their clothing -- particularly if this burden falls unequally on male and female candidates.

PG said...

Prof. Horowitz,

Your breasts-beards analogy doesn't work much better than Prof. Colb's, except its problem is the reverse of hers. Where she pretended that beards have the same sexual significance as breasts, you imply that beards are as common in mainstream America as a hint of cleavage is. In the office where I currently work, I have seen exactly two people with beards of any sort (and both had beards clipped close to their chins, nothing ZZ Top). I have seen no one with a freestanding mustache. In contrast, I have seen plenty of women exposing a little cleavage. A little cleavage simply isn't noteworthy as a matter of how the average woman dresses, whereas a beard is now genuinely uncommon after collegiate goatee rebellions have passed. Robin Givhan wouldn't even remember after meeting a woman whether she'd been showing the amount of cleavage Sen. Clinton was, whereas Givhan probably would remember whether someone she met had a beard.

What makes Clinton's cleavage noteworthy is that it is potentially presidential cleavage, not that it is cleavage.

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Timbaland said...

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Timbaland said...

The pound was trading at $1.8526 Friday, sharply below $1.8778 late rift plat Thursday. When "one currency moves that far, the other currencies follow to an extent," said Benfer. This follows reports showing economic declines in the quarter in both Japan and the euro zone, said Vassili Serebriakov, currency strategist at Wells Fargo. "We have seen Rift Plat strong evidence that economic growth is slowing globally," he said. As other economies struggle, the dollar has had an opportunity to climb. "A number of economies are slowing sharply - that has helped the U.S. dollar over the past couple weeks," said Serebriakov. The dollar has been trending higher for the past 2 Rift Gold weeks. "The events of the previous 2 weeks strongly suggest that we have seen the cyclical bottom in the U.S. dollar," said Serebriakov.