Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looked radiant on the red carpet at the Met Gala. She looked elegant too, at least until she turned around. But this is show business. And that, after the last 18 months, is reassuring: this is still America.
Also still American is the message that she delivered at the Met through the medium of a decorated wedding dress. It’s an important one, about class and the future of this country. And no one in politics since Donald Trump is better placed to deliver it.
Ocasio-Cortez is proof that the prosperity gospel lives. Like an old-time starlet equipped only with moxie and a major in Theater Studies, she has risen to the top. It is only right that she shares her success with her public, just as the stars of the Depression years shared theirs. As Lina Lamont says on the red carpet in Singin’ in the Rain, ‘If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’. Bless you all.’
It’s endearing that Ocasio-Cortez shares her excitement at joining the thoroughbreds in the winners’ circle. Here is a young woman living her ‘best life’ in the prescribed Title Nine fashion. She’s having a great time at a party. She’s shedding the mask and the fear. You’d think conservatives would at least approve of that. You’d think the people who say offensive things and say ‘LOL, only joking’ would have the grace to laugh, not least at themselves.
Yet over in the whiners’ circle, the paternalists, the puritans and the partisans are outraged at this harlot display. How dare the representative for one of New York City’s most impoverished districts attend the Met Gala, a spectacle of such waste, decadence and all-round silliness that it makes the late-career Bourbon monarchy look like the early Massachusetts Bay Colony — and advance a political slogan like ‘Tax the Rich’?
Further outrage is confected in the claims that Ocasio-Cortez paid $30,000 for her ticket. She had barely eased her feet out of her party pumps before she sank that one: ‘And before haters get wild flying off the handle, 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.’
The fate of the Republic also seems to depend on whether a self-described socialist should wear a wedding dress with ‘Tax the rich’ emblazoned in blood red on her elegantly sheathed backside. These objections are revealing, if not as revealing as the tediously shocking near-naked dresses that women have been wearing to the Met Gala since, yes, Cher in 1974. As with all hatred, it reveals more about the hater than the hatée.
Ocasio-Cortez is a master troll. She is an expert at prompting loathing and recycling it into added value for the ‘AOC’ brand. She knows her public: 12.7 million on Twitter, 8.7 million on Instagram. These numbers are considerably higher than 110,000, which is the number of voters in New York’s 14th Congressional District who pulled the handle for her in 2018.
The pseudo-moralistic accusations of decadence, hypocrisy and immodesty feed her fame. This is how it has always been, and how it always shall be, in the economy of celebrity. And celebrity has been inextricably fused to politics ever since the silly Camelot myth.
It takes an intuitive showbiz genius to announce from the red carpet that she and the ‘sustainably focused, Black woman immigrant designer’ Aurora James wanted to raise the question of ‘what it means to be working-class women of color at the Met’. The real class divide was visible behind AOC: the rich go maskless, the peons from the catering company stay masked and wonder about their health insurance.
‘The medium is the message,’ AOC tweeted as she got dressed. Our attention secured, she pivoted quickly from the fourth-wall bit and stated the obvious: ‘We need to have a conversation in this country about working families.’
You know she’s right about that — and that the Republicans have stiffed the workers for decades. There are other messages in the Met Gala medium: how comfortable Democratic politicians are among the rich and famous, how careless they are of this demonstration of their class power, for instance. But AOC understands that this is what socialism in America was always going to look like: free WiFi and Universal Basic Income, glossed with a star system and a shot of glamour.
She also understands that the ballot box is no longer the real force multiplier of political influence: it’s showbiz. Perhaps that too was how politics in America was always going to look.