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.