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I never planned to spend this much time thinking about Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senator from Arizona. She wasn’t on my radar back in 2003, when she was a spokeswoman for the Green Party and dressed up in a pink tutu to protest the Iraq War. Or in 2011, when the Phoenix New Times named her its “Best Local Lefty Icon.” I still hadn’t heard of her in 2012, when she became the first openly bisexual woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, and embarked, shortly thereafter, on her journey from being one of the most liberal Democratic members of Congress to one of the most conservative. Or even in 2018, when she flipped a Republican-held Senate seat—telling staffers, according to Politico, that she wanted “to be the next John McCain.”

Lately, though, Sinema has been making headlines as one of just two Democratic senators, alongside Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, blocking President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill. The $3.5-trillion reconciliation package contains all of Biden’s first-term domestic priorities, and cannot pass unless every Democrat in the Senate votes yes. This means that you have to think about Sinema if you care about basically anything: voting rights, and therefore the future of democracy; the vast array of social measures proposed in the bill, from paid family leave to glasses for elderly people; U.S. climate measures, which will shape the Glasgow negotiations, and therefore life on Earth.

Manchin, Sinema’s fellow-obstructionist, is a depressingly coherent figure: a coal honcho who says things like “I cannot accept our society moving toward an entitlement mentality,” and who finds the idea of “eliminating fossils” to be “very, very disturbing.” It is unsurprising that he opposes certain elements of the plan, such as the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would incentivize electric utilities to transition to non-carbon power sources, and he has been forthcoming with his demands to remove such provisions from the bill. Sinema is harder to read, and her elusiveness seems to fuel her myth. She famously avoids public town halls, and she has made almost no public statements about her objections to the Democrats’ bill, although news reports suggest that she opposes tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, as well as Medicare drug-pricing reform. (If this is true, then it’s a departure from her campaign messaging, which focussed on “Medicare improvements” and “lower prescription drug prices.”) Like the western Kremlinologists who followed Soviet politics during the Cold War by noting the removal of portraits or the rearranging of chairs, an anxious public, and increasingly apoplectic Arizona Democratic activists, have been forced to search Sinema’s outfits and body language for clues to how she’ll shape our collective future. The omens aren’t looking good for progressives: this past March, Sinema did a half curtsy while voting down a minimum-wage increase in the Senate, and then posted a picture of herself to Instagram wearing a hot-pink driving hat and a “Fuck Off” ring. Lately, people have been gleaning signals from her travel itinerary: she spent the Senate recess at fund-raising events in Europe.

Contemporary Sinemology falls into several camps. There’s the “follow the money” crowd, who argue that the senator is merely a tool of her corporate donors, a group that includes the Business Roundtable and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, both of which oppose the reconciliation plan. But that theory has been questioned by commentators like Matthew Yglesias, who argue that it conflates cause and effect. (Perhaps Sinema is getting corporate donations because she’s blocking progressive reform, and not the other way around.) Also, as the political reporter Ryan Grim said, on “All In with Chris Hayes,” “That analytical framework doesn’t work, because so many other politicians who take corporate money aren’t behaving this way.” Then there’s the political crowd, who suggest that Sinema is doing what she thinks it takes in order to get reëlected in Arizona, a quirky state that is heavy on Republicans and Independents. But that theory has been weakened by the senator’s own statements—“Popularity is not my concern”—and by a recent poll of Arizona Democrats that showed her losing to any of her hypothetical primary opponents by more than thirty points. One wonders if she could be gearing up to leave the Party altogether.

Next comes the third and most troubling school of thought, which is that Sinema is acting according to deeply held beliefs and principles. But what are they? She’s been known to advocate for causes ranging from the DREAM Act to abortion and L.B.G.T.Q. rights. These days, though, the thing she seems to talk most passionately about is working with Republicans. (Writing in the Washington Post, she recently described bipartisan coöperation as “the best way to achieve durable, lasting results.”) In her 2009 book, “Unite and Conquer,” she recounts her journey from liberal “bomb thrower” to successful “coalition builder,” and offers tips for progressives who hope to follow in her footsteps. She advises them to put aside the “dread disease” of identity politics and to practice “the art of letting go” when it comes to their policy preferences. She also encourages them to “make friends with the other guys,” and tells a story about bonding with a right-wing construction lobbyist while she was in the Arizona state legislature. “I don’t think we agreed on a single policy issue that day,” she writes. “But he had a great sense of humor.”

Over the last few months, Sinema could be seen ostentatiously putting her philosophy in action: she threaded an arm through that of the Republican senator Rob Portman, while announcing the bipartisan infrastructure deal that they’d negotiated together. (“The question has always been: ‘What do we have to do to get it done?’ ” she said, of the dealmaking process. “Wine. The answer was wine. We had a lot of it.”) In August, she made a rare television appearance on “The View” to discuss her late-night texting sessions with the show’s former conservative commentator, Meghan McCain. “Meghan and I have a lot in common,” Sinema said. “We’re both from Arizona, we love cacti. I think we’re both tough as nails, and we’re both fiercely independent.” McCain described her Democratic B.F.F. as “a maverick,” the same phrase that was used to describe her late father, who had a reputation for voting against his own party. In fact, the most effusive praise for Sinema has come from Republicans—strategists, voters who have been polled, and donors who’ve been contributing to Sinema’s reëlection campaign.

Monitoring the Sinema-related discourse on Twitter, I kept encountering a refrain: that Sinema is a pick-me girl. “Sinema is the biggest ‘pick me’ girl in America,” one person tweeted. “The ‘pick me’ energy is radiating off sinema,” wrote another. “She’s a ‘Pick ME’ at it’s finest, captain of the ‘pick me’s crew’!!!!!” This seemed like a term I should know, but, shamefully, it required some Googling. According to Internet authorities, the pick-me-girl meme is at least five years old. It describes women who “desperately try to seem like they’re different or ‘not like other girls’ in order to attract male attention.” The idea gained currency over the last year, when TikTokers started doing impressions of pick-me girls for their followers. The most popular are by a twenty-year-old TikTok user named Hannah Montoya. In her videos, Montoya wears sporty clothes and boasts about how she plays “seventeen sports” and is “just one of the guys.” She explains that she doesn’t like girls because “they’re too much drama,” and expresses disdain for things like dresses and makeup, which she describes as “basic and fake.” She often pauses her monologues to flirt with an offscreen male: “Dylan—shut up. I’m literally going to hit you!”

This didn’t seem exactly like Sinema. She is a triathlete, but she also revels in the trappings of girliness: florals and animal prints, bodycon dresses, puffed sleeves. I contacted Hannah Montoya to ask for clarification. By day, Montoya is a student at Appalachian State University. She doesn’t follow politics closely, but she was aware of the Sinema discourse. (“Wasn’t she the one who voted against the fifteen-dollar minimum wage?”) She explained that, although the term “pick me” often describes a kind of internalized misogyny, it isn’t necessarily about a girl who puts down other girls, or boasts about liking sports and video games. “It’s just someone who wants so badly to be seen as ‘different,’ ” Montoya said. “You see the word ‘quirky’ associated with it a lot.” She pointed out that men are capable of this behavior, too: in her posts, she does an impression of a pick-me boy, whose refrain is “I’m not like other guys.” Sinema’s behavior was familiar, she said. “I feel like it was something I encountered a lot in high school. There were a lot of people who were insecure, and so they would act very ‘pick me.’ ”