Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s hypocritical dress turned heads at the Met Gala

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Graphic courtesy of Evelyn Shue

AOC’s “Tax the Rich” Met Gala dress is performative activism at its finest as her message was lost under the attention grabbing statement

Cynthea Wang , Opinion Writer

On Sept. 13, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Gala in New York. The following day, she was met with an avalanche of criticism after using the event to push her political agenda. Observers rightly jumped at the opportunity to call AOC out on her performative actions, but most failed to take note of the full extent of her hypocrisy. 

The Met Gala was founded in 1948 with the intention of raising funds for the costume department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since then, it has evolved into a star-studded event reserved for the uber-influential. Among those invited were local politicians. AOC wrote in an Instagram post, “NYC elected officials are regularly invited to…the Met due to…responsibilities in overseeing…[the] city’s cultural institutions,” but her predecessors were typically absent in past gatherings. 

The theme of the 2021 Gala, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” was ripe with possibility for unique takes, and the event has historically seen attendees use fashion as a medium to make a statement. Following this precedent, AOC paraded down the carpet in a white dress by Aurora James. Emblazoned on the back of the dress in red was the source of the controversy—“Tax the Rich.” According to the Washington Post, the white fabric and tulle were a nod in the direction of suffrage organizations. This leads to the question of the intention behind the action. 

In general, performative behavior is seen as action that is intended to elicit a response or reaction. It is not novel, it just does not always materialize in obvious ways, say, in the form of a dress. As a result, modern politics has often been criticized as having devolved into a showboat of policy issues: a paper by Michael Saward describes as having the citizens “invited to understand government as representative only in the theatrical sense.” AOC is just another cog in this machine.

Regardless, publicity stunts like AOC’s dress serve their purpose but are often inoffensive by nature. Such performative activism can be described as making a statement for the sake of making a statement, with the content of said statement being of secondary concern. AOC’s usage of the Gala as a tool drew a wide audience, but her message was nowhere near political. “It was a bold move on her part…she succeeded if her goal was to grab attention, but nothing really changed afterwards,” freshman Meggie Chang said. A Reuters poll from 2020 confirmed that the majority of Americans favor greater wealth taxes on the top 1 percent. 

It did not end here. The New York Post reported that James is “a notorious tax deadbeat with unpaid debts dogging her in multiple states.” This blatant hypocrisy was furthered by the Black Lives Matter protest that took place just outside the venue. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, the crowd of protestors were calling for greater economic support for black and brown communities but were quickly apprehended by police. The irony was clear: as AOC paraded down the red carpet, the people she “stood in solidarity” with were silenced at the entrance of the event. 

AOC shocked the nation at the Met Gala this year and her dress was carefully designed to do so. Her appearance was decidedly performative. Although performative activism is not inherently bad, the dress was more than a mere means to gain political clout—it was problematic in and of itself. It is these underlying acts of hypocrisy that give performative activism its negative connotations. But the incentive is clear: in a world where attention is a limited resource, any publicity is good publicity. And unfortunately, the wild success of AOC’s dress controversy means that we will only see more “dresses” in the future.