Sexist to Focus on Sinema’s Style?

Why oh why won't people stop commenting on the lady Senator's outfits?

Under the headline “3 Women in the Senate Object to ‘Sexist’ Focus on Sinema’s Style,” Susan Collins, Jeanne Shaheen, and Lisa Murkowski write this letter to the New York Times:

The Times has published four separate pieces analyzing the style and dress of our colleague Senator Kyrsten Sinema. We cannot imagine The Times printing similar pieces on the fashion choices of any of our male colleagues.

As Senator Sinema recently said about the commentary on her fashion: “I wear what I want because I like it. It’s not a news story, and it’s no one’s business.” We couldn’t agree more.

Senator Sinema is a serious, hardworking member of the Senate who contributes a great deal to the policy deliberations before us. Your repeated focus on how she dresses, rather than what she says and does, is demeaning, sexist and inappropriate.

Poppycock.

As I observed a month ago in my post “Kyrsten Sinema: Expert Troll,” “She’s a smart, attractive woman who wants attention and is very good at getting it.” She deliberately chooses to wear clothing that’s wildly out-of-step with tradition precisely so people will notice and comment.

Three of the pieces linked by the objecting Senators were commentaries from Tressie McMillan Cottom, 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.

The other was a piece by Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman making a similar argument to mine: the clothing choices are part of a deliberate strategy. And here are some of the outfits she highlighted:

And that’s to say nothing of the Aaron Neville-style vest that was the inspiration for my previous post on the matter:

I’m sorry but these are worthy of commentary. And, so far as the NYT goes, it’s thus far been entirely from other women.

It’s true that there’s relatively little commentary on the way male Senators dress. But that’s because there’s nothing to comment on other than the fact that everyone seems to wear the same ill-fitting, dark suits with boring neckties.

On the rare times they diverge, though, they get commented upon. Hell, Bernie Sanders’ parka and mittens at President Biden’s inauguration (NYT coverage of which here) became a meme. The Times also wrote a feature on the ground-breaking historical moment when then-House Speaker Paul Ryan decided to grow a beard.

As the old adage goes, Dog Bites Man is not a story. Man Bites Dog, on the other hand, is.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Gender Issues, Media, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    When I was younger and single I mostly dressed as a union carpenter who just got off the job site because generally I had just got off a job site. BUT… When ever I wanted to get attention from the ladies, I would put on something bright and colorful and Voila! They noticed me.

    Ms. Sinema want’s attention and she’s getting it. This sounds like sour grapes from Madams Collins, Shaheen, and Murkowski, a “look at me” cry for attention.

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  2. Cheryl Rofer says:

    It’s fair enough to analyze Sinema’s style. I like Cottam’s take on it.

    But communicating through clothing is a blunt instrument. Sinema’s message via her clothing seems to be “I’m a creative individual who doesn’t follow tradition. Look at me.” I don’t know how you get more subtle than that with clothing. We can add in the words on that ring she wore when she posed for a photo after her cute little curtsey on the floor of the Senate.

    So saying much more than that can slide over into sexism, particularly when coming from men.

    If we are looking for hidden meanings, I would guess that the two Republican women are saying in that letter, “Please leave our colleague alone who is doing so much for Republican causes.” The Democrat? Everyone makes mistakes.

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  3. CSK says:

    Jim Jordan’s gotten a fair amount of attention from never wearing the jackets to his suits, which he claims are “uncomfortable.”

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: I never thought I would agree with Gym Jordan on anything but I always hated wearing suits for that exact reason. Of course, if I sat in Congress I could probably afford a $2,000 tailored suit or 3 that would fit like gloves and be almost as comfortable as nothing at all.

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  5. wr says:

    I never realized until you put this gallery together, but Sinema seems to have drawn her fashion sense entirely from watching Edina Monsoon…

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  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    Yes, analysis of what women politicians wear can be sexist, think the overwrought coverage of Hillary Clinton’s pant suits or Malania Trump’s pussy-bow blouse. But Sinema’s choice of clothing is intended to provoke and gain attention, that makes it fair game for analysis and criticism.

    I’ll agree with @Cheryl Rofer: to a point, that if criticism of Sinema’s dress were coming from the typical DC, male pundit, then indeed, the risk of sexism is high, but what if the analysis were by a fashion writer, such as Andre Talley or a designer? Their insights would be interesting.

    The fact that the articles in question were written by an academic who studies modes of communication and a fashion editor, whose beat it is to spot trends and trend setters, legitimizes the analysis.

    @wr: Possibly or perhaps a thrift shop Isabella Blow

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    Props for the AbFab reference that I’m going to guess three of us will get.

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  8. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Well, that’s the point. Jordan can afford a suit that fits. And if he’s going to continue refusing to wear the jacket, he should loosen his tie and roll up his shirtsleeves.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    So saying much more than that can slide over into sexism, particularly when coming from men.

    Agreed.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    But communicating through clothing is a blunt instrument.

    Agree enthusiastically. I’ve never had something to say that I thought should be communicated via clothing. I follow the David Mitchell rule: My appearance should be in no way noteworthy, but then again, not so un-noteworthy as to be in itself, noteworthy.

    Which is why I own approximately 30 identical black t-shirts, half a dozen resort-style black shirts, and several button-down black shirts. And one white Tommy Bahama shirt that I never wear. My trousers run the gamut from black, all the way to gray.

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  11. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Something I learned back in the day when I was making a lot of presentations to funders, including the military, was that my look should never overpower what I had to say. Sinema is unwilling to engage with words, so we don’t know what she has to say beyond vacuous and self-contradictory op-eds. I guess almost any look would overpower that.

    If she is using her clothes to attract attention to her message, she needs a strong message to go with them. So far she hasn’t presented it.

    But if she votes for the BBB, I’ll suspend criticism for a while.

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  12. Slugger says:

    I agree with RuPaul, “All gear is drag.” Very few garments are purely functional; there is an intended message which is often fairly explicit in our costume choices. Everyone in politics is acutely conscious of this. It is proper to comment on the sartorial choices that politicians make. Of course, it is possible to go off the tracks into demeaning, denigrating, or sexist comments, and we should call out the commentors if this happens.

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  13. Scott F. says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Ms. Sinema want’s attention and she’s getting it. This sounds like sour grapes from Madams Collins, Shaheen, and Murkowski, a “look at me” cry for attention.

    Madams Collins, Shaheen, and Murkowski don’t want attention. They want cover. When they write in their letter, “Senator Sinema is a serious, hardworking member of the Senate who contributes a great deal to the policy deliberations before us,” they give away their game.

    If Sinema were to be taken less seriously, these moderate Senators might have to answer for why they aren’t fighting harder (or at all) for the popular provisions in BBB.

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  14. liberal capitalist says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Make that 4.

    But I think that we can all agree: on her current trajectory we’ll see her heading to straight up Patsy Stone. 10 years to the beehive, designer suits and a drinking problem.

    Cheers, thanks.

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  15. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Props for the AbFab reference that I’m going to guess three of us will get”

    It’s not the size of the audience that matters, it’s the quality.

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  16. Gavin says:

    Her clothing is an attempt to distract from her rank corruption. And, sadly, it often works.

    Yes, she’s smart.. and she’s chosen to use those smarts to get paid. Sure, fine, do your thing — but it’s not “sexism” that will be the reason she has no political future — she’s anathema to both R and now D both in her home state and nationwide.

    And these other senators in this article are actually feeding into the distraction attempts.. because it benefits them per$onally as long as there’s some degree of a narrative of “They Don’t Like Me Because Of ___” – where, of course, anything but “her consciously selected policies” fills in that blank.

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  17. Michael Cain says:

    @Slugger:

    I agree with RuPaul, “All gear is drag.” Very few garments are purely functional; there is an intended message which is often fairly explicit in our costume choices.

    Living along the Colorado Front Range all these years, I’m still trying to decide about cargo shorts.

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  18. liberal capitalist says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Living along the Colorado Front Range all these years, I’m still trying to decide about cargo shorts.

    Pockets man, pockets. If not cargo shorts, then what?

    I mean, we are not talking a crisis like Leisure Suits here, are we? No. No we are not.

    I would like sturdy clothes that would last years, but unlike some mountain folks, I’m not ready for lederhosen, nor the insane survivalist fantasies of…

    “In the world I see: you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Towers. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying stripes of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighways.”

    Yeah. I’m ok with cargo shorts.

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  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:

    It’s not the size of the audience that matters, it’s the quality.

    That is certainly my stance whenever one of my books underperforms.

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  20. Michael Cain says:

    @liberal capitalist:

    Yeah. I’m ok with cargo shorts.

    Oh, I’m cool with my cargo shorts too. Where else is granddaughter #2 going to stash that critically important pine cone she found on the hike? But when I drive by the bus stop where the high school boys are waiting in the winter, with the snow falling, in their parkas and cargo shorts, I wonder.

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  21. Slugger says:

    @Michael Cain: It’s like cowboy hats. Very few wearers are actual cowboys; real cowboys wear baseball caps to work.

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  22. James Joyner says:

    @Slugger: A straw cowboy hat probably makes more sense than a ball cap in the summertime—-except that it’s a hell of a lot easier to stash a ball cap if you’re not wearing it.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    The men get noticed too.

    There was plenty of attention paid to Trump’s ill-fitting suits — he always looked like he had gone to Men’s Warehouse and gotten something off the rack in the wrong size.

    And I don’t think we will ever forget the national tragedy that was Obama’s tan suit.

    George W. Bush cosplayed as a cowboy on his ranch.

    Bill Clinton had a fondness for Bill Blass suits (why do I remember that?)

    I think Collins, Murkowski and Shaheen are just upset that no one notices what they wear.

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  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    To be honest, I was in agreement with our trio of illustrious Senators until they got to “Senator Sinema is a serious, hardworking member of the Senate who contributes a great deal to the policy deliberations before us.” And I still agree with their basic argument. The problem with Sinema is not what she wears any given day. Then again, don’t live in AZ, can’t vote her out of office, not my problem (except in the larger sense of blocking things that would do good for citizens, but somebody was going to block those anyway [sigh]).

    Decades ago and possibly before Dr. Joyner would have been old enough to notice, I recall more than one article about the problem of male Representatives and Senators dressing like thrift shop (not the same a resale shops, for clarity) mannequins advertising golf wear. Just bringing it up to note that the shoe HAS been on the other foot–a long time ago.

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Pockets man, pockets. If not cargo shorts, then what?”

    I’ve never said “damn, I wish I had more pockets.” Maybe I’m living wrong. 😉

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  26. Michael Cain says:

    @James Joyner:

    A straw cowboy hat probably makes more sense than a ball cap in the summertime—-except that it’s a hell of a lot easier to stash a ball cap if you’re not wearing it.

    Depends on what kind of work I’m doing. If I’m stuck outside all day, and have to probably be in brush or trees taller than me, the cowboy hat (or at least something with a brim) wins: shades ears and neck, does a much better job of protection from getting whacked by the little branches, and keeps at least some of the thunderstorm rain from running down the back of your neck.

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  27. Michael Cain says:

    My state legislature’s dress code is much tougher than Congress’s. The requirement is “coat and tie”. Sinema would be barred from the floor and committee rooms in all of the photographed outfits. Some members made little statements: bow ties to say they were eccentric, string ties to say they were a rancher. Women members were granted considerable leeway on what was a tie, but not a coat. Jeans and a sports coat were not uncommon among some of the younger members. There’s no air conditioning in the Senate or House chamber here, so sometimes the presiding officer announces, “The coat rule is relaxed.”

    Same rules for the permanent legislative staff. I just thought of it as costuming, like the name tag I had to wear everywhere. Literally — the tag identified me as staff, the red lettering on white background as budget staff. (The sergeants-at-arms were known to describe it as, “You’ll know the budget staff — their name tags look like they’re written in blood.”)

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  28. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Cain: My previous post on this notes that many of Sinema’s outfits, certainly the jean jacket, violate the Capitol dress code.

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  29. Michael Cain says:

    @James Joyner:

    I thought the Capitol rules varied all over the place: House and Senate with different rules, leadership got to set their own for their official spaces, etc.

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  30. Jay L Gischer says:

    Unlike being a woman, or being black, or gay, or trans, etc. what you wear is the result of choices that you made. Because of this, I hold that fashion is politics. Sinema’s political message is to me what Cottom says, “I’m a maverick, I can’t be controlled. I think for myself.” Which is what her political performance over the last six months says, too.

    In some sense, this message could be described as “I have agency”, which is a thing women have concerns about, and might serve to shield her.

    AND, of course, I’m not thrilled with people flouting rules and norms. It just contributes to the general attitude of “the rules aren’t working, so lets ignore them”.

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  31. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Cain: That may be right. I misremembered the previous post—-all I know for sure is that’s there’s a ‘no denim’ sign on the door prohibiting it even for visitors.

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  32. Mu Yixiao says:

    Seriously?

    If a male member of congress walked in wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a denim vest he would be lambasted up one side and down the other. And absolutely no one would be asking “Is it sexist to comment on his clothes?

    With absolutely zero reference to the gender of Senator Sinema: The Senator is disrespecting the weight of the assembly and importance of the assembly and using it as a platform to gain attention rather than address the very many serious issues that our nation is facing.

    i.e.: She’s an attention whore who cares more about getting seen than getting things done.

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  33. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Sinema’s political message is to me what Cottom says, “I’m a maverick, I can’t be controlled. I think for myself.” Which is what her political performance over the last six months says, too.

    I see it differently. I see it as “Look at me!!” It’s about getting attention and nothing more.

    I haven’t followed her votes over the past year (Hmm…. how many votes have there actually been over the past year?), but her stance on the infrastructure bill screamed “You all need to pay attention to ME!”

    Dollars to donuts, she’s a high-paid lobbyist or token board member by 2024.

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  34. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Dollars to donuts, she’s a high-paid lobbyist or token board member by 2024.”

    Yes, we can certainly hope. I would prefer token board member, but not over living a life of shame and disappointment under a bridge.

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  35. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Jim Brown has extracted a decent share of reparations from the Pilgrim women in his younger days…but something about this one isnt doing it for him. Not even the fact that she’s a powerful Pilgrim woman. Her schtick just isn’t working…and ut seems like it should be. Maybe some hose would help.

    Sorry, forgot to take my healthy masculinity pills this morning everyone…

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  36. Terrye Cravens says:

    It is not sexist to state the obvious: Sinema has no taste at all. She is tacky. Did you ever watch What Not To Wear? Well, if that show was still around I would nominate her for a makeover.

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  37. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mu Yixiao:..how many votes have there actually been over the past year?

    472

    Can’t find a list like this for US House of Representatives only a House homepage.
    When I click on the Recent Votes tab the most recent vote appears to be #386 which I will take to be the total votes for the session.

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