Sen. Hillary Clinton gave a speech last month on the Senate floor about the burdensome cost of higher education. Do you remember her key points? Neither does anyone else, because all anyone remembers from that speech is what she wore: a perfectly reasonable V-neck T-shirt under a blazer.
That outfit, according to Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan, "was … like catching a man with his fly unzipped." Calling it "an exceptional kind of flourish," she explained that, "it's not a matter of what she's wearing but rather what's being revealed."
This hyperbolic drivel – from a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic – ended up, not just in the "Style" section where it barely belonged, but as the inspiration for countless network news spots and a fashion field day in the political blogosphere.
This is not the first time that Hillary has been judged on her looks, and it won't – though it should – be the last. Indeed, just days later, in the CNN/YouTube debate, presidential candidate John Edwards, when asked to say something he disliked about her, said, "I'm not sure about that coat."
As we look forward to one of the most diverse and potentially radical presidential races in recent history, it is crucial that America's media elite evolve less-sexist standards for political coverage.
Women have shattered many a glass ceiling, only to find that we still get judged on the other side of the shards, not just on our histories and talents, but on our looks. The media is partly to blame for this antiquated way of "seeing" female leadership.
Of course, there are professional standards in attire, and everyone in the public eye – male or female – must expect such scrutiny. We have seen pithy pieces on Barack Obama's radical choice to shed his tie, for example, but such analysis is usually focused on what fashion choices reveal about personality and leadership style – not sexuality.
The hullabaloo over John Edwards's $400 haircuts was – while overblown – centered around the gap between his talk and his walk. How could the man with "The Road to One America" campaign justify spending a poor family's rent check on his hair? This is a valid and important question – pushing us all to think about the ways in which our lives don't match our values.
But Hillary's V-neck was immediately analyzed sheerly in terms of cleavage (which was nonexistent in the photos).
Feminist academics often invoke the phrase "male gaze" – first coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" – when trying to give their students a systemic perspective on the classic construction-worker catcall to an attractive woman. The "male gaze" is the sense that – as women – we are always being watched and evaluated.
At a time when the American public is bombarded with 24/7 news, the creators of media – male or female – have unparalleled control over the nature of that gaze. In this case, it was a woman who ostensibly catcalled at Hillary just as she was presenting a critical testimony about how difficult it is for the average American to afford higher education.
It's even more disempowering and paralyzing on the Senate floor than it is on the street, because it has public implications. Teenagers aspiring to be class presidents or little girls curled up next to their babysitters watching the nightly news get a damaging introduction to the media's "male gaze" and its effect on contemporary female leadership.
It is imperative that media leaders create more enlightened standards for political coverage – not just for Hillary's sake, but for the next generation of girls learning what it means to be both female and powerful.
For starters, appearance-based evaluation of presidential candidates should be limited across the boards. If a reporter is convinced that an aesthetic choice sheds light on a candidate's ability to lead – as it potentially could have with Mr. Edwards's hypocritical spending habits – then so be it. Clearly these moments are few and far between, and should stay as nongendered as possible.
Of course political humorists will still take potshots at our presidential candidates' looks, as will fashion and gossip columnists, but America's serious news outlets must draw the line.
At a time when we need rigorous, ethical journalism more than ever, it is not Hillary's V-neck we need analyzed, but her character, vision, and potential to make history as the first female president of the United States of America. Now that would be exceptional.
• Courtney E. Martin is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body." Her website is www.courtneyemartin.com .