On the December 2020 cover of Vanity Fair, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wears a structured white suit by Aliétte, the outfit standing out against her signature red lipstick and the rose-covered backdrop. The label’s designer, Aliétte Rembert, is a Black man who lives in an area of Queens that’s in Ocasio-Cortez’s district; ALIÉTTE itself as “a modern luxury brand that incorporates elements of opulence and glamour” and notes that “the finest textures help Aliétte stand out to women from across the world.” And both the label and its wearer came under online fire as soon as the cover image was released. The Daily Mail elected to offer a price breakdown of each of Ocasio-Cortez’s looks from the cover shoot, explaining that wardrobe and jewelry totaled $14,000. Writer and self-proclaimed political commentator Sunanda Vashisht tweeted, “So happy that AOC is upholding the long established hypocritical tradition of Socialists who believe Socialism is for [the] poor while they enjoy the fruits of Capitalism.”
The heated response to the Vanity Fair image wasn’t surprising: If it hadn’t been glamour shots in borrowed designer clothes, it would have been something else. Since winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 2018, Ocasio-Cortez has inspired a disproportionate amount of online huffing and puffing about the Congresswoman’s abandoning her base and becoming just another politician. The vitriol aimed toward Ocasio-Cortez is in substance similar to that aimed at Hillary Clinton, or Kamala Harris. She’s confident, and she’s obviously ambitious; there is nothing bashful about her trust in her abilities, and nothing apologetic about the way she carries herself into spaces that are historically white, and historically male. Ambition colors the way people respond to, and resent, these women. In the case of Ocasio-Cortez, her legacy is crushed up, blended, and smoothed into being little more than any other female politician, and her story becomes one of a woman who sidled up to the riches of Congress and abandoned her base, whether or not it’s actually true.
Making politicians into icons is a dangerous game. But criticism of politicians triples when its target is a woman, and quadruples when its target is a young woman of color like Ocasio-Cortez, who has come under fire time and time again for doing essentially anything at all.
“It’s not an accident that, every cycle, the boogeyman of the Democrats is a woman,” Ocasio-Cortez poignantly told Michelle Ruiz in her Vanity Fair cover story. “A couple of cycles ago, it was Pelosi. Then it was Hillary, and now it’s me.” She’s right. Republicans hate women—”There are more men named Jim in the House than Republican women running for reelection,” Politico noted in 2019—and Democrats do better, but are still struggling. Democrats have historically struggled to discuss abortion, even though the majority of Americans want to keep the procedure legal. The choice of Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential candidate was painful for many people, especially women, who struggle with the sexism that has shadowed his political history. Though Democrats are much more likely to see sexual harassment and discrimination as important, while brushing it off is key to the entire Republican platform, 2019 polling research from The Washington Post found that sexism still hurts women who run as Democrats. Leftist men, despite considering themselves more progressive than Democrats, have their own tendency to push women aside so their male comrades can pursue political careers—even when those male comrades have themselves have harmed women. From snide jokes about what women in politics wear to sexual harassment to questionable stances on the wage gap and abortion access, leftists of all genders still fail women, and default to misogynistic bias when there’s something about a woman in politics they just don’t like, even if they can’t put their finger on it.
As Kylie Cheung wrote in a recent Bitch piece, “[I]t’s been concerning to see ostensibly progressive and left-leaning people engage in willful conflation of identity and symbolic politics with neoliberalism and capitalism, noting that this creates “double standards in who is and isn’t seen as progressive enough along lines of race and gender.” And as AOC pointed out in Vanity Fair, the most frustrating part of this pattern is how boring and predictable it is. For a 2018 conversation with Kerry Washington in Interview magazine, Ocasio-Cortez wore a $3,500 suit and was mocked everywhere from Twitter to Fox & Friends for doing so. She explained then that the suit wasn’t hers—it’s standard practice for designers to loan clothes to magazines for such purposes. And yet here she is, two years later, explaining the same thing all over again. It’s not that we never learn. It’s that we don’t want to.
Yet rather than running from fashion, Ocasio-Cortez has navigated the space with grace. She’s regularly discussed politics alongside beauty, breaking down her beauty routine in a YouTube video for Vogue, and sending Instagram into a frenzy by sharing her six-step skincare regimen. The millions of viewers drawn to such videos makes clear that by tapping into more fashion-focused spaces than your average politico, Ocasio-Cortez is able to articulate leftist politics to readers who don’t identify as leftists—or as political at all.
This doesn’t always go well: When the Vanity Fair cover launch hit Instagram, comments quickly became straight-up abhorrent, with misogyny and racism blending into rage from commenters who told Vanity Fair to “stick to fashion.” But even if Vanity Fair were a fashion magazine (it’s not), we no longer live in a world where it’s possible to stick to fashion, or to sports, or to movies, if we ever did. And by successfully reaching out to new audiences, in fashion or otherwise, AOC is, on a certain level, building her base, all the time. She’s using pop culture to cultivate people—young people in particular—who look to her, who see themselves in her, and who want her to continue to speak her mind—and, one day, to perhaps become president.
It’s working. On TikTok, the audio from the July 2020 speech in which Ocasio-Cortez responded to Republican representative Ted Yoho calling her a “fucking bitch” on the Capital steps went viral. One user remixed the speech with Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” and the result was chilling and impactful. In video after video, young women filmed themselves doing their makeup while they lip-synced the audio, applying blush and lipstick As Ocasio-Cortez spoke, “I am here because I have to show my parents that I am their daughter and that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.” The young women captioned their videos to express their pride in AOC, writing, “this speech gives me chills every single time,” “AOC is a legend. I stan her,” and “say what you want about her policies, but AOC is a bad bitch.”
It’s wonderful that Ocasio-Cortez has come to be a source of inspiration for young women. It’s complicated that she’s been iconicized. And it’s horrifying that she’s been so thoroughly critiqued, harassed, and attacked—even by members of the same Congress she currently occupies. (As Charlotte Alter wrote in a 2019 Time report, “[I]n her first three months in Congress, aides say, enough people have threatened to murder Ocasio-Cortez that Capitol Police trained her staff to perform risk assessments of her visitors.”) It’s easy to assume that a suit is just a suit and a cover just a cover, but we have to remember our reality, and the ease with which light critique cranks up to explosive hatred for people who search for any reason to hate a woman—especially a woman of color, and especially a woman of color who has gained power.
We can talk about AOC’s suit and its cost. We can talk about the complicated nature of a woman-turned-icon. We can talk about whether or not Ocasio-Cortez has in fact abandoned the left in favor of photo shoots for glossy magazines. But we can also recognize that the world we live in is one that nurtures white supremacy out in the open, one in which a congresswoman is threatened so regularly and so violently that she can’t simply sit down and do her job. Ocasio-Cortez isn’t perfect. But she doesn’t need to be. She is a politician, not a martyr. And one would think we learned our lesson from judging women simply by what suits they do or do not wear.