AOC’s Met Gala Dress Wasn’t Performative, But Bashing It Is

AOC posted the dress to Instagram with a caption "the medium is the message," and included information on why it's important to tax the rich and the Black, immigrant designer behind the dress.

The most unhelpful person in any situation is the person who complains passively from the sidelines. Nobody likes a backseat driver. Nobody likes a coach who couldn’t do the things they expect their team to do. Nobody likes someone who destroys something but doesn’t replace it with something better.

Nobody is helped by the people whose one form of “activism” is sitting back and telling others they aren’t doing enough. But that’s the kind of voice that seemed to take over after the Met Gala fashion critiques. 

The theme for the gala this year was: America. Accordingly, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a gorgeous, white, off-the-shoulder gown to the Met Gala that had “tax the rich” scrawled onto the back in thick, blood-red letters. The font and size resembled the way it’d be written on cardboard for a protest poster. It represented the fact that America is political. That the foundation of our nation is protest. That America is a leading capitalist nation who is failing its poorest by choosing not to tax the rich abundantly. AOC clearly took the assignment to heart when she chose the message she’d portray. 

The message is crucial. Working class Americans can’t afford higher taxes, but yet we need much more tax money in total in order to fund the crucial things like Medicare, stronger education, universal healthcare, reducing poverty and efforts to reduce climate change. It wouldn’t make sense to tax the poor harder. The obvious solution is to tax the rich people who can afford it, in order to benefit the entire nation. The whole nation succeeds when people pay all that they can to benefit the collective, not just themselves. Trust that the top 1% comfortably can. 

The tax code is rigged for the rich,” says Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and former secretary of Labor.

Put simply, the top 1% of Americans make more money than ever, yet are taxed less than ever. Their shares of income have tripled in the past three decades and some of the richest people in the nation profited exponentially during the pandemic, while the rest of America faced record job losses, homelesness and food insecurity. Until 1980, the wealthiest people could be taxed up to 70%. Now it’s 35%. Rich Americans are currently paying the lowest share of taxes that they have since World War II. Now, when poor Americans are in the biggest need of taxes on the rich.

This is the conversation the media should’ve been having when AOC wore her conversation-starting dress. But instead, far too many people — including liberals — did the exact un-feminist thing we’ve been telling people not to do: fixated on the clothing itself instead of the message the woman in the dress was trying to represent.

People were quick to call her performative, even saying she should have spent those moments when she was at the gala fighting for change.

“She is a member of Congress for a poor district,” says CNN host Chris Cuomo. He went on to argue that she should “be fighting their fight all the time.” 

The elephant in the room with this disappointingly widespread narrative is that out of all the minds calling the dress performative, nobody thought to look up the meaning. Performative is defined as an action solely done to bolster their public image, but without having any action or impact behind it. 

As a socialist congresswoman who actively votes on policies daily, such as Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, it’s impossible for her to ever be performative. She is the embodiment of what it means to act, not just perform. She embodies the notion of “tax the rich” as much as you can in a capitalist, two-party system. Plus, wearing the dress did spark a conversation about America’s tax system, although many opted to ignore it in favor of giving hate. 

It doesn’t get us anywhere by tearing her down, especially with no clue as to which politician is doing it better that we would want to vote in instead of her. Being critical for the sake of being critical isn’t activism, it’s performative. 

As far as those saying she had nerve wearing it to a $35,000 event: her ticket was free. The dress was made by a designer who is a Black immigrant. It all lines up to show she practiced what she preached. 

But what if she had spent money to go to the fundraising benefit? Would that take away from her policies? Or would that just be another example of women in politics being criticized for everything they do both in and out of the White House — a standard men aren’t held to.

The liberals arguing that AOC doesn’t belong at an elite event may not be aware of the aggressively classist undertones of what they were saying: “Go back to the South Bronx, where you belong.”

None of this banter was pervasive when Mitt Romney or Michael Bloomberg went to the gala, or when then-senator Hillary Clinton attended the gala in 2001. People didn’t fuss when Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney went in 2018. It isn’t the act of politicians going to Met Galas that unsettles people, it’s the idea that a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx is rising into enough power and acclaim to be invited to the fundraiser for public art. 

The category for the 2021 Met gala was: America. Most celebrities didn’t take the assignment. AOC should not be published for taking it in stride.

About Amayah Spence 48 Articles
Amayah Spence is a fourth-year psychology major, minoring in journalism and serving as editor-in-chief of the Oracle. She believes journalism should lend a microphone to those whose voices are not typically amplified without one, and that is the goal she consistently pursues as a journalist. Previously, she wrote for the River, the Daily Free Press and the Rockland County Times.