Three generally do-nothing women senators took time out of not taking their publicly-funded jobs seriously this weekend to stand up for a colleague vying to be the most annoying person in Congress — arguably a tough competition.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak.) wrote to The New York Times that they are galled by media commentary on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Az.) bold costume choices. “We cannot imagine The Times printing similar pieces on the fashion choices of any of our male colleagues,” the senators wrote, also inaccurately referring to Sinema as serious and hardworking. “Your repeated focus on how she dresses, rather than what she says and does, is demeaning, sexist and inappropriate.”
As Business Insider’s Bryan Metzger pointed out that, in addition to being ridiculous, this assessment is inaccurate: The paper’s fashion writers have assessed the sartorial choices of various male politicians, including Boris Johnson, Eric Adams, and Donald Trump.
To be clear, Sinema’s outfits are costumes. For context, her fashion choices have included a t-shirt printed with the words “dangerous creature” and a ring that spelled out “fuck off”: actions that are about as “mysterious” or private as Melania Trump wearing a jacket with “I don’t really care, do u” painted on it to visit children being kept in cages at the U.S. border.
Sinema posts her outfits to Instagram and wears them vote on policies that shape the lives of all Americans—votes that she knows are televised and photographed. Nobody is commenting on what she wears to the grocery store (assuming she goes to the grocery store—I’ve noticed a trend where members of Congress are apparently unable to unwrap their own straws or mints, so who knows whether these people are capable of purchasing their own food). She is overtly engaging in performance as she works for the betterment of big business and to actively harm her actual constituents, and she chooses to portray herself as a rich person in The Hunger Games while doing so. That’s a choice, it’s inherently political, and it’s not sexist to acknowledge it.
As sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom—the author of three of the four pieces the Senators took issue with—wrote in her first essay on the subject, Sinema’s (tacky) “aesthetics are part of the way she courts, manipulates and plays with public attention as a political figure.” The choices of politicians, Cottom argues, “are always about public perception.”
It’s also fascinating to note that this is the moment these three senators suddenly feel compelled to stand up for a sad, corporate-cash-guzzling colleague in the face of fashion criticism. Discourse around the appearance of public-facing political actors is not new: Barack Obama wearing a light-colored suit gave rise to at least a full week of discussion on The Audacity of Taupe. And Murkowski, Collins and Shaheen notably had nothing to say during the months in which conservative media as well railed ad nauseum against the fact that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) haircuts and clothing choices were not visibly poor enough for their liking.
Also, what exactly is Sinema saying and doing that we’re not adequately noticing? We get it: Sinema is a wannabe John McCain—an aspiring “maverick.” But McCain’s “maverick” reputation wasn’t just about being a thorn in his party’s side, whereas Sinema appears to have conflated “maverick” with “obstructionist” and is reveling in using the language of bipartisanship to position herself as some sort of goal-oriented hero, swooping in to make things happen that would have happened much more easily if Democrats had a majority. Sinema’s boasts about working “across the aisle” are self-mythologizing bullshit, a coverup for the fact that her true goal seems to be amassing as much power and corporate money as she can. After all, if no one knows what you want, lobbyists have every reason to compete to pay you to want what they want. Sinema has telegraphed that she is willing to want whatever the highest bidder offers—bonus points for anyone willing to stroke her ego and amplify this bizarre notion that she is “results-oriented,” rather than morally bankrupt.
“I’m a straight-shooter,” Sinema said in a rare interview, maybe revealing herself to be either a very bold liar or worryingly delusional. “Folks know who I am.”
The reality of Sinema is that “folks” have no fucking clue what her deal is. On the rare occasion that she does speak publicly, she does so in platitudes (see above) or with nonsense claims that no one knows what the word “enigma” means (everyone with access to a dictionary/the internet knows what the word “enigma” means).
To be sure, attention to women politicians’ wardrobes has, historically, frequently been sexist, in that it has sidelined their ideas and actions in pursuit of an objectifying commentary on their appearance. In the case of Sinema, however, there are no ideas or actions to ignore. I see an undeserving public servant positioning herself as a deposits-only ATM for corporate lobbyists, successfully getting the media to refer to her as an “enigma” and a “sphinx,” when the unfortunate truth is likely that she is simply craven, power-seeking and cash-driven. If Joe Manchin dressed like Willy Wonka to vote down a minimum wage, we would talk about it; but his sartorially boring approach to fashion means that all we have to riff on is his houseyacht and moral bankruptcy, and the ludicrous nature of a political system that allows a coal baron with a Pharma price-gouging daughter to weigh in on climate policy and healthcare.
Sometimes people who say very little are mistaken for mysterious, when the reality is that they are simply bereft of substance. Sinema’s gaudy displays of “fashion” are purely misdirection, and the commentary that has been made about them is more substantive than she has ever been. Her garish clothing has been used as an avenue to analyze her strategy and critique her performance, and that is entirely fair game.
It’s also gross, at this moment where so much is hanging in the balance (largely because of Sinema’s self-seeking antics), to see lawmakers choosing to spend their time “defending” one of their own. Collins, Shaheen and Murkowski would do well to remember what their actual responsibility is and for whom they work. And if they can’t, it’s up to voters to take a cue from the successful labor organizing happening right now and start building a real politics of solidarity to counter the weight of corporate money that has proven apparently too appealing to valueless zombies like Sinema, who are little more than empty vessels inside fake enigmas wrapped in a whole bunch of cash.