“The medium is the message,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Instagram, where she shared a photograph of the Aurora James evening gown she wore to Monday’s Met Gala. The message, written in bold red script across AOC’s white mermaid-esque dress, was “tax the rich.” It was a choice that was in keeping with AOC’s established political style: literal, extremely earnest, and bound to be the subject of endless dissection.
AOC herself seemed to know precisely what she was doing, defending her decision to attend the Met Gala almost immediately: “New York elected officials are routinely invited to and attend the Met,” she wrote, addressing the “haters.” “I was one of several in attendance in this evening.” Later she noted that Google searches for “tax the rich” spiked after her dress birthed a thousand opinions. Conservatives rushed to point out the hypocrisy of a message like “tax the rich” appearing at an event designed for the sole purpose of displaying wealth and celebrating celebrity while others more politically aligned with AOC criticized her commitment to this particular kind of political gesture (think, also, of her appearance in an all-white suit at the border). Others rolled their eyes, some cringed, a few conservatives got performatively mad, and her fans responded with glowing enthusiasm.
Was the dress going to educate ignorant fashionistas about the beauty of socialism, or would it prove a point about how ignorant socialists really are? Was it politically powerful, or an empty, shallow gesture? There is an endless possibility of opinions to have about the dress because it’s whatever its beholder needs it to be. But then, that’s the story of AOC’s political career. She’s always been the subject of contradictory expectations, easily slotted into competing narratives and transformed into whatever that narrative needs: a villain, a progressive hero, a hypocritical leftist, or just an incompetent girl.
This was all particularly true when, on Sunday, Senator Joe Manchin described her as “that young lady.” Manchin’s description of AOC came after a CNN anchor asked the senator about his refusal to support the $3.5 trillion spending bill. The Guardian reports:
[...] Manchin ripped progressives for threatening to sink a bipartisan infrastructure bill if he refuses to support the spending package. Singling out Ocasio-Cortez, Manchin responded to her claim that he meets weekly with oil lobbyists.
“I keep my door open for everybody,” he said. “It’s totally false. And those types of superlatives, it’s just awful. Continue to divide, divide, divide.
“I don’t know that young lady that well. I really don’t. She’s just speculating and saying things.”
AOC is quickly transformed into a divisive figure who is young, ignorant, and—of course—a woman. The contrast Manchin attempted to paint was so obvious it was painful. On one side, a reasonable, centrist man of political experience; on the other, an unreasonable woman of color who was just “saying things.” (That centrist treatment of AOC is both tedious and familiar). But Manchin’s dismissal of AOC was from an established playbook, the same one that’s fretted over her suits, her lipstick, and her car, accusing her of inauthenticity so deep she could never prove otherwise. It’s that same playbook that, in its most extreme iteration, transformed her into a “fucking bitch.” But if her makeup and clothes are shorthand for the right who seeks to, like Manchin, transform her into an incoherent child, then they’re also seized on leftists who are frustrated by what many perceive to be her penchant for empty political gestures. They seem to be demanding a near-impossible level of authenticity. The only rhetorical space she’s given is the extremes. In a Tuesday Instagram story, AOC responded to her critics. “We had a conversation about Taxing the Rich in front of the very people who lobby against it, and punctured the 4th wall of excess and spectacle.”
Like her Met Gala dress, AOC is overloaded with the potential significance of her political aesthetic. Her gestures and her literal, earnest style demand attention—it’s why I know the name of a second-term congresswoman far from my own home state, and it’s why I’m sitting at a desk writing about her. But if, as AOC suggested, the medium was the message, then she was wrong about the medium. The dress wasn’t the medium—AOC was and always is. With that comes contradictory expectations, massive amounts of pressure and projection, and the all-consuming political needs of others.