During last night’s Visible Vote ’08 Presidential Forum hosted by Logo Network and sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, there was no mention of clothes, cleavage, or coral jackets—for nearly an hour and a half. This may be a record given the recent maelstrom of attention to political sartorial choices and female bodies sparked by Robin Givhan’s article in the Washington Post “Hillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory” that commented on the Senator for New York’s modest display of décolletage on C-SPAN2 and reinvigorated by Senator John Edwards’ remark during the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate a few days later: “I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America, what her husband did for America [but] I’m not sure about that coat.” Perhaps making a slight dig at Edwards, Visible Vote ’08 moderator Margaret Carlson greeted Clinton last night with this praise, “I like the coral jacket.”
All of this attention on Clinton’s clothes and cleavage has many political pundits crying sexism. Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor for the Hillary for President campaign, has publicly taken Givhan to task: “Frankly, 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.” Of course Lewis is right. In a patriarchal and sexist culture like ours, women’s bodies are often viewed sexually while her accomplishments are hardly viewed at all. In the 1970s, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey described this gendered practice of looking as “scopophilia” (pleasure in looking) and argues that images of the female body “are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” She goes on to say that “[a]ccording to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” This would explain why Clinton’s cleavage and coral jacket have become part of our political discourse while Barack Obama’s bare-chested photo in People magazine provided nothing more than a brief diversion from his politics and Dennis Kucinich’s yellow tie (a fabulous alternative to the tedious palette of presidential red and blue ties) has garnered nary a word (except by me). But what Lewis and Mulvey’s accusations of sexist looking don’t explain is how Givhan’s observations about Clinton’s cleavage differ from Edwards’ consideration of her coral jacket or Obama’s defense of said jacket. In other words, they don’t take into account the different ways of looking at women.
Givhan’s observations don’t make the only woman running for President a visual punchline (à la Edwards) nor do they patronizingly turn one of the most powerful women in the world into a damsel in distress by a needless act of chivalry (as Obama does). Instead, her point that Clinton’s cleavage is a “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative—aesthetically speaking—environment of Congress” actually had little to do with cleavage as such and more to do with institutionalized sexism. “After all,” Givhan notes, “it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor.” Following up these comments, Givhan compliments Clinton by saying, “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”
While our culture gives us many opportunities to look at women sexually, not all acts of looking are sexual and/or sexist. Givhan’s historicization of political cleavage and her quiet admiration for Clinton’s self-assured sartorial choices offer insight into the multiplicity and complexity of looks exchanged between women (of all sexualities and races). Women do look at each other sexually but they also look at each other with appreciation, contempt, and indifference. When I’m at the gym or on the streets, my eyes are drawn to women’s bodies—specifically, their toned biceps and triceps—which either triggers envy or hopelessness depending on my mood. (After a year of concerted work-outs, I still don’t have the covetable pilates arms that some women seem to achieve so easily.) The inclination women have to compare themselves with other women has to do with the attention our culture gives to the physicality of women’s bodies in general. The surplus of images we see of other women in magazines, TV, films, and online teaches us how women “should” look and we’ve learned these lessons well—too well. But women don’t just look at other women they also look to other women. This seems, to me, to be a vital distinction.
This shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of Clinton (Kucinich’s progressive politics, his emotional honesty and, yes, his bold yellow tie are hard to beat) but I do like that she’s running—if only because having a strong woman like her in the public eye may have the collateral effect of refocusing discussions about women and their bodies. The goal shouldn’t be to stop looking at women but, rather, to change the terms and conditions with which we look at them.
Now, if only Clinton would stop using the slogan, “I’m your girl!”
Postscript: The attached photo is of a sculpture called “The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton: The First Woman President of the United States,” which was unveiled in New York City’s Museum of Sex last year. The artist Daniel Edwards said he wanted to depict Clinton “with her head held high, a youthful spirit and a face matured by wisdom . . . Her cleavage is on display, prominently portraying sexual power which some people still consider too threatening.”