What’s the deal about cleavage?

// 30 November 2007

Women have a marginalised position in politics, and this is notable in the UK. The ascension of Harriet Harman to Deputy Leader this year invested me with hope. I thought there would be a proliferation of ladies in Parliament and that women would begin to be taken seriously in a professional world that does favour the white middle-class male. Unfortunately, however, the tendency to eroticise the female body is so strong that regardless of our age or occupation we are still judged – on the basis of our tits!

The Daily Mail has run another woeful article today in its “Femail” section titled “The Great Cleavage Divide: There’s only one real debate at Westminster.” The Mail is hardly known for promoting gender equality, but this seemed to objectify the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Theresa May, in a way that was not only utterly disrespectful, but also devalued the work they do as politicians. The article begins:

“Of course, we should all be interested in what the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons was talking about, but what I want to know is: was she wearing a leopard skin bra? We could almost see, after all, and Theresa May does like a bit of faux fur. Theresa, who once warned the Tories they were in danger of being perceived as the nasty party, now looks as if she wants them to be the naughty party. Her display of cleavage in the Commons on Wednesday looked like a direct challenge to the bold front sometimes displayed by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.”

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The piece is illustrated by photos of the women, and although you can see a bit of cleavage, they are not flashing their mammaries in a way that could legitimately be considered offensive. Women have breasts, so what’s the problem? What are they supposed to do? It’s interesting also that this article implies there is competition between these two women – as if their a pair of randy teenagers on a night out trying to tempt the lads with a flash of nipple. It’s strange how women in positions of power are always thought to be uber competitive to the detriment of others. Neither woman is dressed provocatively, but is this journalist claiming that they should wear nothing other than ponchos in the commons for fear of letting their physical appearance indicate that yes, they are women? Yes, yes she is:

“You think I’m trivialising serious politicians? Well, someone is, but it’s not me. If these front bench women want to be taken seriously, they should dress for the job… Above all, it is 2007, 40 years since the dawn of feminism and surely women have the right to wear what the hell they like…Yep, they certainly have…But if they are in top jobs, responsible jobs, they can’t expect us to like it or to trust them, because their minds are clearly elsewhere.”

It’s good to see a national newspaper supporting the integration of women into the political forum isn’t it? But I wonder if the Mail is avoiding the main issue here, which is that the flash of tit will be distracting – for men. Personally I don’t find it distracting if a see a woman’s cleavage – having a pair of breasts myself I am used to seeing them, nipples and all. But however redundant these claims by the Mail seem to be it is an attitude with is largely endorsed by the public, apparently. According to an online pole asking “Is it acceptable for female politicians to show this much cleavage in public?” only 52 per cent said yes, with 48 per cent shaking their heads in dismay.

The reason? Probably because a woman showing her chest is always invested with some form of sexual motivation, which totally dismisses the fact that the female body has been sexualised by a predominantly patriarchal society. The fact that this article was written by a female journalist and has been supported by others (although exact numbers aren’t know for the poll – it’s representative of the population), demonstrates the extent to which these attitudes prevail.

The Mail is a difficult paper to figure out. At first I thought this was some sort of satire, but as the piece continued I realised, actually, no, this is genuine, the journalist here feels she is making a legitimate point. It’s just sad when there is so much more that needs to be discussed and pushed into the public arena regarding women in politics. Whether or not a female politician has a big pair of jugs or indeed nipples like saucers really shouldn’t matter.

The Sun ran something similar a few weeks ago titled “The bet of Breastminster,” in which female politicians were featured owing to the size of their boobs. Anne Widdecombe was noted for her “massive support…of traditional family values.” But somehow this is slightly more acceptable than in the Mail. It’s still offensive and sexist – and it still undermines the work of female politicians, who, let’s face it, must have had a difficult time establishing themselves in the profession. But The Sun doesn’t pretend to be something that it’s not – it’s not a respected rag and the idiocy that proliferates between the pages can be read as satirical. However, the Mail has pretensions to being an enlightening publication, presenting it’s information with authority, when in actual fact it’s nothing more than a cheap, chauvinistic tabloid with a slightly more refined layout.

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