The Memo

The Memo: Like the dress or not, Ocasio-Cortez is driving the conversation again

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez debuts her "Tax the Rich" dress at Met Gala
Getty Images

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wore a “Tax the Rich” dress to the glitzy Met Gala on Monday night — and broke the internet.

Criticism and praise rained down instantly.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was not a big fan of the dress or its message, which was hardly a surprise. Ocasio-Cortez’s legions of fans on social media — she has 12.7 million followers on her main Twitter account and 8.7 million on Instagram — loved it.

The episode underlined that Ocasio-Cortez, 31 years old and only in her second term in Congress, is a singular figure in contemporary politics. Her capacity to harness social media, pop culture and fashion in the service of her agenda is unlike any other elected official.

Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal is not just about a social media presence or any single story, such as the dress. It’s rooted instead, experts say, in an ease with the mores of her generation and a casual authenticity.

“She absolutely does stand out,” said John Parmelee, the co-author of “Politics and the Twitter Revolution” and the director of the school of communications at the University of North Florida.

That’s why some on the left want her to challenge Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) in next year’s Democratic primary, which she hasn’t ruled out. 

For younger voters, in particular, Parmelee said, there is a desire “to see the politician behind the curtain — to go behind the policy aspects and get to know the politician as a person.” 

Ocasio-Cortez, he said, was the preeminent example.

One of her first truly viral tweets after being elected in 2018 was of her briefly dancing to the old anti-militarism song “War” in the halls of Congress. The abbreviated title “AOC” began on social media before she embraced it for herself. 

Even her TV appearances include stops that it is hard to imagine any other politician making: She was a judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” She went back to the Bronx with Showtime’s Desus and Mero, to whom she bemoaned the lack of decent bodegas in Washington.

Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to communicate in a personalized way runs the gamut from lighter topics like cooking to the most serious. Her recollections of her experience of the Jan. 6 insurrection, also livestreamed, included her talking about fearing for her life and revealing that she was a survivor of sexual assault.

Sharing such raw emotions holds its dangers, too. People who dislike her politics brand her as a self-promoter. Figures on the right found the Jan. 6-related livestream hyperbolic rather than harrowing, noting that Ocasio-Cortez had been some distance from the rioters in the Capitol.

And, as even a cursory glance as social media will prove, her detractors attack her in the most egregiously personal terms.

The enmity directed toward Ocasio-Cortez has worried some of her colleagues. In May, Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) told this column that he had “genuine concern” for her safety.

Ocasio-Cortez has occasionally reflected on the downside of her status as a de facto political celebrity. 

“Sometimes it feels like you got a tattoo on your face that you didn’t ask for,” she told HuffPost in 2019.

The congresswoman did receive some adverse comments even from liberal-leaning figures for her attendance at the Met Gala, which is an annual gathering of New York’s social elite. Ocasio-Cortez was an invited guest, but for those paying for the privilege of being there, tickets cost $35,000.

To some, that seemed a rarefied atmosphere in which to argue for taxation of the rich. Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, tweeted that she was a “fraud” to wear the dress “with a bunch of wealthy leftwing elites.”

But the thrust of that criticism seemed to be missing the point.

Interviewed by a reporter on the red carpet Monday night, Ocasio-Cortez explained part of her reasoning for wearing such a provocative dress to the event.

When it comes to the debate over higher taxation, “oftentimes this conversation is happening [only] with working- and middle-class people,” she said. “I think it’s time we bring all classes into the conversation of having a fairer country.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s use of fashion to make her political point on Monday also raised the sensitive, knotty topic of her looks — and what role they play in her rise to political stardom.

Though that topic draws plenty of crudity on social media, one of the more thoughtful commentaries came from Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and a professor at the University of North Carolina, in a widely circulated Medium essay late last year.

McMillan Cottom argued, of the right, “they hate her because she is pretty.” 

The sociologist went to great lengths to point out that she was not reducing Ocasio-Cortez to her appearance.

“I do not think AOC is just or only pretty,” she wrote. She argued, instead, that it was Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive politics, coupled with her appearance, that drove conservatives around the bend. 

For the right, she asserted, “Beauty is seen as the only legitimate capital that women are allowed to possess. But beauty is supposed to serve power’s interests. When beauty occurs in an ‘unruly body,’ such as a nonwhite person’s body, then it is an existential threat.”

Ocasio-Cortez addressed the subject on Tuesday, when she was asked about the negative feedback she had received for the Met Gala appearance.

“I thought about the criticism I’d get but honestly I and my body have been so heavily and relentlessly policed from all corners politically since the moment I won my election that it’s kind of become expected and normalized to me,” she wrote on Instagram. 

“Our culture,” she added, “is deeply disdainful and unsupportive of women.”

There will, of course, be more controversies to come. Ocasio-Cortez’s conservative critics aren’t somehow going to come around to her, or to the democratic socialism she advocates.

However, at some level, the saga of the dress elevates the congresswoman, and her politics, one more time.

“Love the dress or hate the dress — but you’re talking about the dress,” the journalist and broadcaster Tanzina Vega wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “So who won?”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Charles Schumer Donald Trump dress Met Gala progressives Social media Tax the Rich Ted Cruz
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video