Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Clothes: A Tedious Backlash

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A little, simple person like her. This is the strain of rhetoric Scarry was both capitulating to and amplifying when he sent his tweet on Thursday. “I know what it’s like to be a poor intern in D.C.,” he told Talking Points Memo in an interview, “and I can tell you—and I’m a male, obviously—but you tend to not look like that. She looks very well put together, looks very nice.” As its own form of spin, it’s a crafty rhetorical move: The niceness itself assumed to be the liability. The fact that Ocasio-Cortez’s outfit fits in—the plain suit, the black heels—treated as its own evidence of her difference. Dressing the part presented as proof of her ultimate unfitness for the part.

The move is, in its own way, a conventional outfit. Hypocrisy is a common thing to weaponize—particularly in politics, which makes so many competing demands of its practitioners. One must be authentic, but widely appealing. One must be careful, but relatable. Smart, but not off-puttingly so. Charming, but not trying too hard. And for women politicians, of course, the demands amplify: Attractive, but not too attractive. Put-together, but not excessively. Well dressed, but. Made up, but. Confident, but. The competing demands can transcend one’s party; very occasionally, they can transcend one’s gender. In 2008, Sarah Palin was widely criticized for having spent $150,000 on designer duds to wear on the campaign trail as John McCain’s running mate. (“Sarah Palin, small-town hockey mom and everywoman? More like Sarah Palin, pampered princess,” the Los Angeles Times scoffed of the move.) John Edwards, in the 2008 primary, faced similar accusations after reporting emerged about his expensive haircuts and clothing. (The AP on the matter: “Looking pretty is costing John Edwards’ presidential campaign a lot of pennies.”) And then there is the human catch-22 that is Hillary Clinton, living out the demands of being Hillary Clinton: For decades, pundits have used her sartorial choices as evidence of her unfitness—for the office of the first lady, for a seat in the Senate, for the leadership of the State Department, for the desk in the Oval Office.

It’s not about the clothes. It’s never, really, about the clothes. For those who seek power in places that have not previously been welcoming, the clothes can become cudgels. They can serve as an easy shorthand for who belongs, and who does not. They can be ratifications of progress and of backlash, used by people who think they know what power should be, and act like, and look like, and dress like—people attempting to enforce, on and for everyone else, the narrowness of their own perspectives.

This is a time that is challenging that myopia. Ocasio-Cortez, before and since she was elected into office, has been making a point of doing precisely what her campaign promised she would: doing things differently. Not fitting in. The representative-elect has been, along with several other of her fellow freshmen, Instagramming her experiences of the congressional orientation. She has participated in a protest about climate change in the office of Nancy Pelosi. She has drafted legislation on the same subject, as part of her campaign-platformed “Green New Deal.” She has been reveling in disruption, in change, in difference, all the while suggesting that a girl who struggles—and indeed that several such girls, newly elected to the halls of power—will struggle above all to change the appearance of power itself. Which is also to say that Ocasio-Cortez is being treated as a threat, in some quarters, because that is precisely what she is. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Will Push Washington,” the headline of her postelection interview with the Times read. “Will Washington Push Back?”

This week, in the most tedious of ways, the paper got its answer.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering culture.



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