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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's Clothing Choices Become Draw Of Reporting

LAUREN GILGER: Kyrsten Sinema became Arizona's first female U.S. senator when she was sworn in last month. But she didn't just make headlines for her historic achievement. There were also a lot of headlines about what she wore. Twitter erupted after she appeared next to Vice President Mike Pence, wearing a sleeveless dress printed with a large pink rose, a pink coat and a fur stole. Her hair was bleached blond and curled like a 1940s screen siren. There were comparisons to Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde,” “Harry Potter's” Dolores Umbridge and Marilyn Monroe. Since, she's made headlines for wearing thigh high boots to work and drawn criticism from men and women alike who think she's dressed inappropriately for a setting as conservative as the U.S. Senate. But, she also has her defenders who point out that no one was talking about what Vice President Pence wore as he stood next to her at the swearing in ceremony. So what's behind all of this fashion chatter? For more on that, I got a hold of Susan B. Kaiser, professor of gender, sexuality, and women's studies, design and textiles at the University of California Davis, to talk more about what message clothing can send and how it can challenge even the oldest of standards.

SUSAN B. KAISER: Well, you know, the Senate is such a conservative body and has in some ways maintained its masculine power by appearing unmarked in business suits with just a tiny little bit of room for expression, you know, in a tie or a lapel pin or something. So it's probably on some level not surprising that she's wearing something that in a way marks her. But it also expresses her identity.

GILGER: Right. And I want to talk about the identity aspect of this in a minute, but let's first talk about the difference between how men and women are expected to dress in that kind of ultra-professional setting. The Senate is almost like the highest form of this there could be. What are the differences in expectations there?

KAISER: Well I think traditionally the idea has been that if you want to have a neutral space for airing ideas then you need to have sort of a neutral type of dress. But I think that it's probably time to challenge that perception. So I think she is, I think she's challenging the idea that there's only one kind of way to have power and to be a lawmaker.

GILGER: Do you think that it's distracting from her message or do you think that it's sending a particular message that is purposeful?

KAISER: Well, as it's well known, she's the first bisexual person who's been out in the Senate. And so, I do kind of think she might be sending a message to the LGBTQIA community about the possibilities of expressing her sexual identity. And we see this in the context of much more of an opening up in Congress with more women, especially in the House of Representatives — more ethnic identities, more sexual identities. And we certainly saw that at the swearing in ceremonies, where people were expressing something about themselves that in some way is kind of challenging the traditional way of thinking about being a lawmaker.

GILGER: Yeah and there's a lot of press about that, right? About her “high femme” look at her swearing in, this referencing her status as an out bisexual woman? Do you think that this is an important message at this point? What kind of result do you think that could have for the LGBTQ community in terms of having somebody in such a high position referencing this?

KAISER: First of all, it's kind of important to think about how people read clothing and how they interpret it. So you know like the high boots, the over-the-knee boots, don't mean the same thing they meant when Julia Roberts wore them in Pretty Woman. You know, I think sleeveless dresses have a different meaning than they did prior to Michelle Obama's way of expressing her right to bear arms as President Obama joked about at the correspondents dinner. I think that maybe it's, if there's a way of opening up the conversation to think about how there's more than one way to be and to appear, that's a really positive thing.

GILGER: So the other part of this, is the question, I guess, that is this just sexist? Like when you have this conversation, you see all the writing about what she's wearing on the Senate floor and somebody inevitably will say, well, you know, we're not talking about whatever the men will wear. So why are we talking about it?

KAISER: Right. I think there's an element of that and obviously there is a difference. And what is really interesting to see is how more women are expressing that they're challenging the male norm. You know, women tend to have in some ways more freedom to dress in a variety of ways. At the same time they're scrutinized much more heavily and often what they wear is interpreted in terms of sex and rather than kind of looking at it in a broader context. And in this case, I think that larger context has something to do with the history of fem queer individuals and how there's a tendency to reclaim different kinds of femininity from past eras, like the 40s and 50s, like you could see kind of a Marilyn Monroe kind of influence where she's dressed for the swearing in with her stole and her hair is curled for that. So it's kind of making a statement that, or a kind of refusal to strictly go by the conservative of lady look wearing skirted suits or are that kind of thing. There are more options and so there is going to be more scrutiny. But in the long run it may kind of change the way we think about the options for being a lawmaker.

GILGER: So I mean I'm sure you've heard this before. I've definitely heard this as a woman in a professional setting, right. That like if you kind of play by the rules and you dress a certain way and it's not to you out there or too sexy or too feminine or too casual or whatever the criticism may be, you'll get farther. People will take you more seriously. Do you think that we're getting to a point? And that Sinema maybe is a sign of this in which that's not necessarily the case anymore.

KAISER: I think that's exactly right. I think that that she's opening up space. Clearly she's a very smart, very serious lawmaker who listens carefully to her constituents. She crosses the aisle, has a bipartisan kind of way of governing. So in a way I think she's conveying an openness to more perspectives. So yes, there's more scrutiny of women. There always is, for anyone who's female and especially in the political realm. But I think she's doing something to point out you can be serious and you can dress in a way that doesn't conform to the male norm.

GILGER: It's almost like a dare, right. It's like I dare you to not take me seriously in this outfit.

KAISER: Well I think so. I mean I keep thinking about the activism regarding AIDS. Act Up had the expression, “We're here, we're queer, get used to it.” And so I think there's a certain element of that in terms of claiming a kind of visibility that is serious and expressive at the same time. The thing about clothing is we often take it not seriously enough. It's viewed as frivolous, fashion is frivolous. It's cast as feminine. And then there are other times when it's almost taken too seriously. And I think she's kind of in a way finding a space of a way to navigate those extremes.

GILGER: All right. Susan B. Kaiser, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.

KAISER: You're so welcome.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.