AOC’s Dress ‘Started a Conversation’ — What’s That Worth?

Our “awareness” is about as “raised” as it’s going to get. Now what?

Justin Ward


(Nrkbeta / CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The designer “Tax the Rich” dress that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore to the Met Gala sure pumped a lot of fuel into the ol’ discourse machine. Everybody had a take. Conservatives were calling it hypocritical. Critics to her left dismissed it as performative. Others leaped to her defense, arguing that it was a clever provocation intended to start a conversation.

If that was the goal, then mission accomplished. The dress got everybody talking.

But talk is cheap, as they say.

The issue was never a lack of conversations or “awareness” about problems like wealth inequality.

We talk about these things all the time.

Not only that but poverty and precariousness are realities that the majority of Americans live every single day. You don’t get much more “aware” than that.

What it really comes down to is a question of power — what power really is and what it means to wield it.

It’s one thing to have the ability to impact the national conversation. It’s another to have real power to shape policy.

Eloquent and charismatic, AOC is an incredible political talent all around. Nobody can deny that. And when it comes to posting on Twitter, she’s undefeated.

But in the grand scheme of things, what difference does that make?

These things only matter insofar as they can be translated into power. While AOC has a great deal of celebrity and an outsized presence in the national press, she doesn’t have a lot of real power.

Because so much of what we call “politics” these days is just a spectacle that’s alienated and abstracted from the material reality of day-to-day life, nobody really understands the difference.

So a stunt such as this seems like some sort of meaningful act because it has a major impact on the space where most people engage in politics: online.

But the “Tax the Rich” dress fails even in the shallow and pointless goal of “starting a conversation.”

Nobody’s talking about the half a million people sleeping on the streets right now. We’re not talking about the millions facing eviction now that the moratorium is over.

We’re not talking about the workers on strike at Nabisco nor are we talking about Uber drivers working 16 hours a day with no healthcare.

We’re not talking about the two-thirds of Americans who can’t afford a $500 emergency.

Hell, we’re not even talking about taxing the rich. Not really.

We’re just talking about the damn dress.



Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD