Politics

Who Is Kyrsten Sinema Telling to F— Off?

Her style has overtaken her substance.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema sips a red drink through a straw. On her ring finger on the hand holding the straw is a ring that says "Fuck Off."
When a pink newsboy cap is the least offensive part of your outfit. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via Kyrsten Sinema/Instagram.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema spent her Sunday sipping sangria in a pink newsboy cap and a ring that says “Fuck Off.” The Arizona Democrat got someone to take a photo of her, ring proudly displayed in the foreground. Then, she posted the image to her Instagram stories.

Sinema’s outfit, which also included oversized fuchsia glasses and gigantic earrings containing a charm of what appears to be a skull and butterfly, is right in line with her sartorial M.O. The former Congresswoman and first-term senator has long been the flashiest dresser in the Capitol, and during the pandemic, her wardrobe has gotten even weirder.* She’s worn several highlighter-hued wigs on the Senate floor to hide her grown-out dye job as she stayed home from the salon. (According to her spokesperson, the wigs were a reminder to constituents to practice COVID-19 precautions.) In February, she wore a pink sweater emblazoned with the phrase “Dangerous Creature,” a nod to a line from one of romance novelist Lisa Kleypas’ books: “A well-read woman is a dangerous creature.”

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I’ve always been a fan of Sinema’s flamboyant getups, which have gotten more daring over the course of her tenure—not because I particularly like the clothes she wears, but simply because they make Congressional fashion a lot more interesting. Her eschewal of the traditional array of solid neutrals and jewel tones, sheath dresses, and conservative pumps would seem to suggest a healthy disregard for fusty, outdated customs—both explicit and implicit—of political dress, which were devised with a certain race, class, and gender of politician in mind. That’s probably the exact interpretation Sinema intended: It supports her self-presentation as an independent-minded outsider, beholden to no party or standard of Congressional dress. One would be forgiven for assuming that a neon-wigged, go-go boot­–clad, “Dangerous Creature”­–wearing senator was a hippie-dippie liberal, but one would be wrong. Sinema’s weirdo wardrobe isn’t an outgrowth of some anything-goes progressive ideology, but rather a matching complement to her weirdo politics, which have drastically changed over the years and don’t seem to coalesce into any discernible, deeply-held ideology at all.

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But Sinema’s “Fuck Off” ring marks a new phase of her wardrobe still. The cheeky display is maybe the clearest indication we’ve received of how Sinema views her own role in the Senate this term, especially since she rarely speaks to the national press. Since the Democrats took control of all three branches of government in January, Sinema has relished her new role as one of just a few Democrats standing in the way of an ambitious progressive wish list. While Sen. Joe Manchin has received a possibly outsized share of the attention (and blame) for his near­-singlehanded ability to thwart the Democrats’ plans, Sinema’s relatively moderate politics and obsessive fixation on bipartisanship is equally limiting to her own party’s ability to implement its agenda. That includes a voting rights bill that could counter some of the partisan Republican attacks on the franchise, which would stand no chance of passage in the 50-50 Senate without filibuster reform—a step Sinema has repeatedly said she will not consider.

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In this context, Sinema’s ring oozes contempt. When elected officials adopt a posture of mockery toward their critics or constituents, they lose their claim to an image of thoughtful, measured leadership. Sinema is behaving like a drama-seeking celebrity caught in a cycle of clap-backs, not like a senator who has the power to block, or implement, policies that would improve the lives of millions. Her style, in other words, has overtaken her substance.

Some people, invested with the power of a Sinema or a Manchin, would develop a solemn understanding of their own responsibility and seek to convey that to the people who elected them. Sinema, however, has been flaunting her power in highly visible and unseemly ways. When she voted against including a $15 minimum wage mandate in the most recent pandemic relief bill, she made a spectacle of it, popping her hip and giving an exaggerated thumbs-down to the vote counters. The moment, viewed by progressives as a vindictive show of indifference toward the poor, became a meme. Sinema wasn’t the only Senate Democrat who voted against the provision; seven of her colleagues joined her. But none of them made themselves the focus of the story the way Sinema did. Whatever plausible reason she might have offered for her position, such as protecting small businesses, was subsumed by her smugness.

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Her “Fuck Off” ring has the same effect, making it appear that Sinema is driven more by a chip on her shoulder than an earnest desire to improve American lives. Like Melania Trump’s “I don’t really care do u?” jacket, the “fuck off” ring does not make its addressee clear. Could the “fuck off” be directed at Sinema’s constituents, who’ve been beseeching her to end poverty wages in one of the richest countries in the world? Her fellow Democrats in the Senate, most of whom probably resent her for blocking filibuster reform? Members of the media, whom her spokesperson has accused of sexism for their coverage of her thumbs-down vote? The ring also depicts a rose, a symbol historically associated with socialism and part of the official logo of the Democratic Socialists of America. Perhaps it’s a general dig at leftists who’ve bemoaned her evolution from a member of the Green Party to a senator who appears to sassily thumb her nose at minimum-wage workers.

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All fashion makes a statement; clothing and accessories with words on them are usually chosen with particular care to the image they project. Sinema has never embraced the established rules of political fashion. We know she gives more thought to her wardrobe than the average skirt suit–wearing legislator. The “Fuck Off” ring’s prominent positioning in Sinema’s social media presence was a choice—and whomever its audience was intended to be, it serves to shift the focus of recent policy and strategy debates from the actual arguments at hand to the political theater surrounding them. A saucy put-down is the last missive Sinema should be sending at the height of her legislative power, especially as she prepares to build support among colleagues and constituents for her $11 minimum wage bill. There is a very “cry more, lib” vibe to the sangria photo, a suggestion that Sinema is as motivated by spite and ego as her most insufferable Republican counterparts. There are plenty of norms of political self-presentation worth breaking. A veneer of compassion isn’t one of them.

In my six years at Slate, I’ve written about multiple national elections, social movements, and major cultural phenomena. With support from Slate Plus members, I’ve also gotten to dive deep into stories and angles no other outlets were covering, and that Slate wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to tackle. —Christina Cauterucci, senior writer

Correction, April 20, 2021: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misidentified Kyrsten Sinema as a second-term senator. She is a first-term senator.

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