”Tax the Rich!” Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a dress with a message to a celebrity gala. It was a made-to-order non-provocation — or was it?
“The medium is the message.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez categorized her appearance at this year’s Met Gala, an annual fundraising gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan. A sentence that is correct on many levels — or maybe not.
The exclusive event for famous, wealthy people took place again on Monday evening in New York City. Democrat Ocasio-Cortez drew the most attention. In her strapless, white satin dress, she looked like a bride, with the gala’s red carpet a glamorous path to the altar.
But her dress did not in any way symbolize a marriage with New York’s upper class, of which she has long since belonged by virtue of her rise to political prominence. Across the backside and length of her white dress were written, in large red letters, the words “Tax the Rich.” At an event for which entry tickets cost approximately $35,000 per person and another $200,000 to $300,000 is needed to reserve a table, telling everyone with one’s own dress that they, in particular, are being asked to step up to the register and pay is quite the challenge. The fashion statement was also statement fashion.
There are at least three possible interpretations of such a performative act: as an embarrassing pose, as political punk or as a professional protest.
Ocasio-Cortez had previously tried to refute the expected criticisms — she is, after all, an internet pro. She announced in social media that, first, she did not have to pay for an entry ticket herself because politicians are invited by the Met, and second, the dress had been borrowed, not purchased. In these details, then, no one can accuse her of a bigoted contradiction between her demands and her behavior.
But something about this textile “tax the rich” punch to the host’s face still seemed too agreeable, too harmless. She announced in her Instagram post that her gesture would “kick open the doors at the Met” because “the time is now for childcare, health care, and climate action for all.” But with this kind of message she at best ran into doors that were already standing wide open, doors that were enthusiastically opened to her in thanks for palatable social criticism in satin. All those present, including herself, knew that her imperative had no real consequence for the guests — otherwise no one would have invited her. Rich people and the Met do not take selfies with a real threat.
It was a non-provocation that was made to order for this evening: a luxury protest at a luxury event against luxury people who are happy to have activism as an Instagram-appropriate accessory. In this, Ocasio-Cortez did absolutely the right thing, because she perfectly understood the Met Gala — itself a medium as well as a message — and used it for herself according to the rules of attention economy.
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” they say. So, is my criticism of of her political appearance as pure performance, during an otherwise elegant event, unfair and petty?
One statement caught my attention. “We really started having a conversation about what it means to be a working-class woman of color at the Met,” Ocasio-Cortez said to Vogue on the red carpet. She continued, “We can’t just play along, but we need to break the fourth wall and challenge some of the institutions. And while the Met is known for its spectacle, we should have a conversation about it.”
Ocasio-Cortez has no illusions about her own appropriated status and is trying with this in mind to play her own game within the rules of the game — and in doing so, played precisely the Met’s game. The goal here is not the dissolution of performative contradictions and the search for a completely coherent super-activist; that would honestly be creepy. We all remember Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic on a sailboat, an event for which complicated logistics were needed to transport her team that made the undertaking very environmentally problematic — but that was not the point. The point was the pictures.
Is Attitude the New Handbag?
Maybe this is my disenchantment speaking about the more symptomatic problems with social engagement that follows a logic of exploitation to have an effect. Protesters do not just need to be convinced of their purpose; they need to become advertisers self-marketing their cause to be able to convince precisely those people who do not want to be bothered with politics. This relationship works well on both sides as long as the addressees believe that they will not experience any negative consequences. But now that the economy has discovered sociopolitical engagement as a resource, engaged, public figures find themselves in a dilemma of distinction.
To what extent does an activist, a politician or a demonstrator make themselves a walking advertisement for their own political contents when politics is marketed as a lifestyle product? Is attitude the new handbag? AOC’s appearance was in this context the perfect illustration of this development, of the cancellation of political protests by selling them. One recalls the fast fashion T-shirts bearing the word “feminist” that were produced by underpaid seamstresses. The U.S. network CBS is debuting a new reality show in October called “The Activist,” in which activists compete for funding for their cause. Market giants such as Amazon and Netflix are discovering social politics in the logic of their lineups, and private German networks are developing their social consciousness in the forms of critical education and new political talk shows.
And now, the protest-industrial complex has reached a preliminary peak in an elite spectacle fixated on form like the Met Gala, where model Cara Delevingne wore the words “Peg the Patriarchy” on her vest and the chief editor of Teen Vogue, Versha Sharma, showed off her clutch with the imperative “Kill the Filibuster.”
Performative politicization is the must-have of the season: pretty but not subversive, public but not effective, and preserving the status quo by only putatively questioning it. All a message without a meaning.