Predictably, critics from across the spectrum lashed out. How could AOC, champion of the working class, attend a gala priced at six figures per table?
A lot of the outrage felt misplaced — as so often happens with anything to do with AOC. She might have started out as a bartender, but she is an elected official and public figure in New York. She might be a progressive politician, but she wields immense influence and has the ability to command attention wherever she goes. As St. John’s University professor Marissa Jackson Sow tweeted: AOC was “supposed to be there.”
Ocasio-Cortez also wasn’t the only one who used the occasion to make a statement. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) wore a dress in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Model and actress Cara Delevingne’s vest bore the all-caps message “Peg the Patriarchy.” Unfortunately, left uncredited was Luna Matatas, the queer artist who had created and trademarked the phrase in 2015.
So Delevingne’s activist “statement” ended up just reinforcing the inequality of the fashion world, in which powerful White people too often erase the work of people of color and independent artists. In a similar vein, a dress demanding “Tax the Rich” at a benefit where most wealthy attendees will just write off their charitable contributions on their taxes wasn’t communicating rebellious irony. It was delivering cognitive dissonance.
Which gets to the heart of the discomfort of it all: With the help of celebrities, people and institutions that help to perpetuate an unequal and unsustainable status quo are trying to define disruption and commodify activism — while refusing to reform themselves.
We stand on a very slippery slope when our system defines social change as singular moments created by individuals, rather than elevated consciousness and engagement in mass movements. When charity is championed, rather than true structural change. When social change is measured by clicks and retweets.
This sort of social justice capitalism is epitomized in “The Activist,” a grossly conceived forthcoming CBS show that will pair activists with celebrity judges in a competition for fundraising opportunities. To cheapen the concept even more, the activists/contestants will be judged on the social media virality of their campaigns. AOC’s biggest Met Gala error wasn’t her dress, or even her attendance. It was her attempt to justify it all by posting a screenshot showing how Google searches of “Tax the Rich” increased after her appearance.
I gotta say, AOC, this ain’t it.
What interests me, too, are all the statements that didn’t get made about America on Monday. There was nothing about Texas’s draconian abortion law. Or about the racial inequities at institutions such as Condé Nast and the Met Museum. As far as I could see, no celebrity had the imagination and courage to make a statement about America’s failed and disastrous invasion of Afghanistan and the needless bloodshed by Afghans and U.S. service members that occurred over 20 years — a direct indictment on the ruling class.
And considering that the United States has dropped near the bottom of the developed countries in vaccination rates, despite having bought up enough doses to vaccinate its adult population three times times over, I wonder what it could have looked like to express that at the Met Gala. After all, what is more American than excessive waste and an embarrassing distrust of authority?
And, there is still the question of who gets to make political statements during such big cultural moments. In some ways, it’s a massive privilege that AOC has the opportunity and the platform to wear her “Tax the Rich” dress during what is considered the Super Bowl week of the fashion calendar, without fear of being blackballed or banned from competition — unlike, say, actual Olympic athletes. We need to keep an eye on who the gatekeepers don’t let through.
True activism is risky, and often life-threatening. Lucky for us, AOC is someone with the hard-earned privilege and power to enact policy changes for those that need it. AOC didn’t need that dress — and we don’t need to be distracted by pompous institutions that, in the end, are trying to resist change. Let’s stop with the performances and get back to work.