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.