Have you heard the news? Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broke Twitter with a dress.
The left-wing congresswoman from New York on Monday attended the Met Gala, the most glamorous red carpet in America, sporting a floor-length white gown emblazoned with the words “TAX THE RICH” in bright red.
Ocasio-Cortez is a jedi when it comes to generating attention for her political causes, but she may have scathed herself with this bit of sartorial activism: She received strident pushback from both the left and the right over her decision to attend the ultra-elite fundraiser that charges $35,000 a ticket. But rather than a reason to label Ocasio-Cortez a hypocrite, the stunt is better understood as showcasing her unique insider-outsider political style — one that has the power to rattle the status quo but is also limited in its ability to subvert it.
Ocasio-Cortez told The Associated Press her dress was about “having a real conversation about fairness and equity in our system” and noted how it related to the debate over the budget reconciliation bill. “We’re talking about providing working families with child care, health care, meeting the climate crisis at the scale that it deserves,” she said.
She explained on social media that her dress was loaned to her by the designer Aurora James, and that she was invited to the fundraiser — which pays for the budget of the museum’s Costume Institute — in her capacity as a government employee.
“New York elected officials are routinely invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing and supporting the city’s cultural institutions for the public,” she tweeted. “I was one of several in attendance this evening.” (I reached out to her office for a comment on where exactly the ticket came from, but have not received a response.)
But for many, Ocasio-Cortez’s political message just did not land. Both on the right and the far left, pundits and activists lambasted her for hobnobbing with billionaires and Hollywood celebrities.
Ocasio-Cortez has sought to stake out an ambiguous political position that involves keeping one foot firmly inside the system and one foot outside of it.
“Continue to slay, kween. #CosplayTheRevolution,” right-wing radio talk show host Ben Shapiro snarkily tweeted. Lefty critics dog-piled her explanation for why she was at the gala with complaints that the very act of attending was a compromise of principles, or that it was a toothless form of protest. One Twitter user quipped that her attendance was tantamount to putting a "Stop world hunger" banner on a yacht.
Regardless of how you feel about Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to attend and the overheated reaction her attendance received, the response does raise some legitimate questions about politics, art and activism. There is a case to be made that her blunt message was eye-catching and successfully brought attention to her call for progressive taxation and social spending. There is also a case to be made that the opulent optics of the event are so powerful that they swallowed up and appropriated any attempt by Ocasio-Cortez to critique it. It probably didn’t help that the congresswoman’s elegant attire helped her blend in with the jet set even while her political slogan set out to create distance from them.
Ocasio-Cortez wrote that "the medium is the message" when posting photos of her dress, but may not have considered that the dominant media here for many weren't the words of her slogan but the style of dress, the gala, and the other attendees.
Ocasio-Cortez’s Met attendance reflects the dilemmas of her broader political style: She’s famous for using social media, speeches and activist stunts to garner tremendous attention as a political gadfly that pressures the Democratic Party from the left. At the same time, she reliably caucuses with the Democrats on major legislation and has sometimes served as an ally for the Biden administration as it has worked to advance aggressive social spending on Covid-19 relief, anti-poverty measures and climate policy.
In other words, Ocasio-Cortez has sought to stake out an ambiguous political position that involves keeping one foot firmly inside the system and one foot outside of it. It makes her vulnerable to complaints of selling out from the activist lefty scene she hails from, and to cries of hypocrisy from (mostly bad-faith) critics on the right.
I personally find Ocasio-Cortez’s dress and Met attendance largely inconsequential for the world: I don’t think it reveals anything new about her political commitments, and it’s consistent with her style as a politician. But this specific attempt at activism was probably not a success.
Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Instagram that Google searches for “tax the rich” surged after she wore her dress. But it’s likely that many, and perhaps most, people were just looking up her dress and the controversy it generated, not the policy it pointed to.