Let's Discuss What Sinema Is Wearing

Let's Discuss What Sinema Is Wearing 1

I spent the past week in Nashville, where I’ve been reporting a story and doing background for a book project. It was a wonderful trip. Great people, great music and a complicated new-urban Southern city. There weren’t enough masks for my liking but there was great culture.

As I was leaving, an important question pushed itself to the fore of the national conversation: What the heck is Kyrsten Sinema wearing?

You may have seen Sinema, Democratic senator from Arizona, wearing a distressed denim vest as she presided over the Senate. To someone who loves folk music and just left Nashville (me), the look was serving classic Aaron Neville vibes. I was not the only one to pick up on that similarity, as evidenced by this social media exchange where Aaron Neville himself claims (correctly) that he wore it better.

The politics around the two bills President Biden is trying to pass — a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget reconciliation bill — have centered on two senators: Joe Manchin and Sinema. Both have been analyzed and critiqued for their political performance as outsider centrist Democrats, but Sinema is particularly interesting, especially this past week.

Given the high legislative stakes, it is easy to treat Sinema’s aesthetics as unimportant. But those aesthetics are part of the way she courts, manipulates and plays with public attention as a political figure. Politicians are part of the cultural and economic elite. Their choices are always about public perception. In that context, a dress is never just a dress. It is always strategy.

Sinema is known for making a visual splash as a method of political storytelling. That story seems to be something like, “I am a maverick. You can’t control me. You are not the boss of me. I’m an independent thinker,” even when thinking independently may run afoul of reason or ideological positions.

Sinema is like many voters in that her identity as an independent has supplanted her actual political ideology. Her sartorial choices — the denim vest, the bared arms, the chunky costume jewelry, the bright colors — are how she performs that ideology of independence and maverick-ness. Sociologists would call this her “presentation of self”: the curated performance of her identity.

Sinema’s presentation of herself as a political figure in public life raises several interesting questions that have been at the center of my research and writing. I have written about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as another female politician whose style is part of her message. For both A.O.C. and Sinema, the media has struggled to put the meaning of style in a context that is not frivolous or demeaning. This has contributed to our inability to talk about their presentation as politics. That inability makes that presentation only more powerful because it can go uncritiqued.

There are a few schools of thought that tell us that we shouldn’t talk about what Sinema wears. One school tells us that her presentation and the way she dresses do not matter because her politics are just so bad. We need to focus on what really matters, the thinking goes, and clothing isn’t in that category. This is a common argument among people who view themselves as very serious thinkers. In fact, commenting on things like fashion and dress and style is considered anti-intellectual in most of my professional circles.

It is also very common in a masculinist strain of intellectualism to consider discussing anything associated with girls and women to be an inferior form of discourse. When we talk about a woman — even in the routine interrogation of how she is able to do her job as a powerful public servant — we are talking about femininity. And femininity does not rate as a substantive form of discussion. This is an easy argument to dismiss because it fails at its own standard: it is unserious.

Another line of argument is what I see as the third-wave feminist response to our culture’s obsession with women’s bodies as their only worth, which is: We should never acknowledge what a woman looks like. I have heard people proclaim emphatically, for instance, “Never comment on a person’s body.” To the extent that Sinema’s clothes are worn on her body, the logic goes, we should never comment on her clothing.

This line of reasoning stems from a really decent impulse, for the most part, and that impulse is a response to a fact that research reveals: Women are judged unfairly in the workplace for their looks, their bodies and their clothing. We know from research that women of color in particular struggle with being viewed as professional in business settings, no matter how they dress. We also know that people whose gender presentation doesn’t accord with our collective ideas about masculine and feminine bodies face a particular challenge. Many L.G.B.T.Q. people struggle in the workplace with the reality that presenting a gender-conforming identity makes it easier to negotiate office politics.

Whether we know about this research or not, we have gotten the message that good people simply do not comment on how people look because that can be rife with bias. The problem with that response is that the bias still happens — we just do not name it. When you “don’t comment on bodies,” you lose the discernment to think critically about how some bodies move through the world at the expense of how other bodies can move through the world. In short, when our language atrophies, we lose the mental acuity to talk about how power operates in our everyday life.

It may seem feminist to never comment on a woman’s body, but what if the woman in question is one of the world’s most powerful women? Take, for instance, the raiment of the Queen of England, or to think in a more local context, how the power suit of the Washington elite helps them navigate the hallowed halls of private negotiation with corporate donors.

It certainly matters that people enter the political sphere performing a certain type of competency, or a certain set of political positions, or a certain type of ideology. Politicians, especially national politicians, know this. It matters so much to them that they spend millions of dollars trying to create a performance of power that will impart legitimacy and engender trust in the voting public. If it matters enough for people to spend money on it, it should matter enough for us to think about what that presentation means. Acknowledging this is simply serious thinking. What bodies look like, and how they are addressed, and how people perform them in public life — it all matters.

There is a lot to be said about how Sinema chooses to present herself and what it says about gender, power, and politics. Over the next two weeks, I will be talking with experts about the politics of sartorial choices as I try to answer the question, “What the heck is Sinema wearing?” — or rather, the better, more sociological question, “What does Sinema’s style mean?” Along the way, I hope to model a way to talk about how any powerful woman in public dresses or presents herself without falling into sexist rhetoric or language.

Can we talk about how colorfully drawn Sinema is or about the class politics of wearing a denim on denim, Canadian tuxedo in Congress? Can we articulate what that means without commenting on, say, her weight, or making disparaging comments about her intellect, or her moral fortitude? Absolutely. There are ways to think about that, and I believe people who operate in the public discourse should be showing how to do that.

If you have any question for some of my experts, things like, “Can nonwhite women get away with the same kind of presentation that white women can in public life?” or “How much does Sinema’s sexuality, as one of the few out bisexual people elected to national office, matter to her presentation?” please email me. I’ll put some of your questions before experts over the next few weeks while we think about how we can talk more seriously and with greater sophistication about the politics of presentation and how much it shapes our entire world.

And on Tuesday, I’ll be guest-hosting “The Ezra Klein Show,” and will be talking about student loan forgiveness and the Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.