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This post, written by Katha Pollitt, originally appeared on The Nation
Of all the silly, breathless, overthinky pieces about Hillary Clinton's appearance, I mean campaign, this labored bit of style-section psychobabble by Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan has to be the most inane. It seems that on Wednesday Senator Clinton was shown on C-Span giving a speech on the Senate floor about oh, whatever, and under her rose-colored jacket she wore a black top that's a millimeter lower than the ones she usually wears. OMIGOD! The Senator has breasts! Two of them! "The cleavage registered after only a quick glance," Givhan, um, reports. "No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable."
Cue mini-essay about the semiotic significance of various ballgowns worn by the Senator as First Lady, her subsequent move as Senator into a "desexualized uniform" of black pantsuits, and more gasping OMIGOD! about Wednesday's venture into something a bit less staid. "It's tempting to say that the cleavage stirs the same kind of discomfort that might be churned up after spotting Rudy Giuliani with his shirt unbuttoned just a smidge too far. No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!" Tops like the one Clinton wore offer a "teasing display," they're "unnerving," a "provocation." Why? "To show cleavage requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style. Any hint of ambivalence makes everyone uncomfortable. And in matters of style, Clinton is as noncommittal as ever."
The Senator's blouse is like an unzipped fly? That's the sort of brutal vulgarity I'd expect from Don Imus and other misogynistic Hillary-haters. I don't have Givhan's mind-reading abilities, so I can't say whether Clinton felt ambivalent or noncomittal about her neckline or how that would reveal itself ("Um, Dianne, Barbara, do you think this blouse is too, um, you know?"). But I spent some moments in "scrunch-faced scrutiny" of the C-Span video (thoughtfully provided by the Post) and I just don't get what Givhan is so worked up about. Granted I'm using dialup and the picture is kind of blurry, but I don't even see anything I would call cleavage.
I see a good-looking energetic middle-aged woman in a stylish summery outfit such that thousands of professional women would be thrilled to wear to an important meeting -- say, an edit meeting at the Washington Post to discuss further ways of trivializing women in politics. Like, maybe the Post can follow up with an article about Senator Clinton's choice of bathing suits (OMIGOD ! Is that a bellybutton? Gross! ). Or perhaps a two-page pictorial spread: Hillary's fashion do's and don'ts. Only, make that don'ts and don'ts. As in, Don't wear pantsuits -- too desexualizing! Don't wear a rose-colored jacket and a v-neck top -- too sexy!
Message to women: You can't win. You can't win. You can't win.
Columnist Katha Pollitt is well known for her sharp and provocative analyses of popular culture and politics. Her "Subject to Debate" column, which The Washington Post called "the best place to go for original thinking on the left," began in January 1994 and appears every other week in The Nation; it is frequently reprinted in newspapers across the country.