Performative Activists Are Annoying, But AOC Isn’t One Of Them

In defence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's controversial 'Tax The Rich' dress.

I don’t know about you, but this week I’ve felt bewildered – no, attacked – by the scale of outrage levelled at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young NYC congresswoman who is such a ubiquitous part of  ‘the discourse’ that she needs only a three-letter-acronym to identify her. After the politician showed up to this week’s Met Gala in a custom-made dress with a clear and succinct message – 'Tax The Rich' – emblazoned on the back, we've seen her cop criticism from just about everyone: from the “keep politics out of the Met Gala!” set, to progressives bemoaning her attendance as a form of “performative activism”.

Let me be clear: there's nothing I enjoy more than having a dig at celebrities and their very funny attempts at supporting normal people; whether it’s actor Gal Gadot getting her wealthy pals together for a sobering rendition of  Imagine or Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s suggestion that we take the pandemic as an opportunity to become counsellors, for some reason.

And look: everyone is entitled to their opinions. Opinions about why AOC’s appearance at the Met Gala was so deeply problematic, so tone-deaf, so ironic. But it is with the greatest of respect that I explain why that opinion is wrong.

Argument 1: AOC’s Dress is a glaring example of Performance Activism

Is it, though? Performative activism is a big gripe of mine; not least because I live in Melbourne, the Australian city containing the highest density of performance activists and hipster anti-racists in the world (probably). I’ve met a lot of nice, middle-class white people, for example, who do their best to appear anti-racist one day, before making a shitty racist joke the next.

But what AOC did at the Met Gala isn’t anything like that. Performative activism is similar to the term Slacktivism, in that it’s about superficial, self-serving performances of activism that aren’t actually accompanied by an attempt to bring about genuine change. Think, for example, of all the media organisations who posted Black tiles to their Instagram page during last year’s Black Lives Matter movement, while not actually supporting their Black employees. Lorde summed it up well when she said: “One of the things I find most frustrating about social media is performative activism, predominantly by white celebrities (like me). It's hard to strike a balance between self-serving social media displays and true action.”

But accusing AOC of a self-serving and superficial engagement to her message of tax reform? A lie. This is a congresswoman we’re talking about, one who has been actively working to levy taxes on the obscenely rich for years. That’s substantive action; and is completely at odds with what performance activism actually is. 

Argument 2: The Met Gala is expensive and elitist; thus the dress is hypocritical

There’s definitely a dissonance to seeing someone roll up in a ‘Tax The Rich’ dress to a spectacle like the Met Gala. As lots of people have mentioned, tickets to the event cost $30k USD a pop, a fact made even more jarring when we consider that the world is still suffering from a pandemic which is making the divisions between us even more stark.

But that doesn’t make AOC's appearance an act of ‘hypocrisy’. Maybe things would veer that way if she had dropped $30k on the event, but as she didn’t pay for a ticket (or even the dress), this argument really doesn’t make any sense. Ocasio-Cortez knew what was coming, and defended herself on social media before making her Gala debut.

Like most of us, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez exists in this world. This one. Her job as an elected official means that she is likely invited to a bunch of disgustingly swanky events. Hitting up one of Hollywood’s most lavish events of all, a celebration of wealth, decadence and excess, armed with the message that these people basically have too much money? Isn't the dissonance the point? 

Argument 3: Words on a dress won’t do anything

Fashion can, and always has, effected social change. This week, The Conversation published a piece that details acts of fashion provocation that have changed the course of history. Abolitionist handbags produced in the 18th century, for example, helped shore up support for the abolition of slavery. At his inauguration, George Washington decided against dressing in a sumptuous material like silk or velvet; what historian Peter McNeil calls a “firm demonstration of North American independence”. And Gandhi intentionally dressed in a dhoti, made of locally-spun material, to resist British rule. 

Ocasio-Cortez has made it clear that she knows what she’s doing. As she herself has explained in an Instagram response to the pushback, “The message is the medium”. Her decision to drop this message amid the opulence of the Met Gala was intentional. It created a rupture that got people talking. We were forced to stop luxuriating in the glow of haute couture and think, for a moment, about why these garish displays of excess exist at all.

The dress was a great piece of performance art, and even with all the backlash, I doubt she regrets doing it. AOC didn’t have a hand in creating the power structures that we inhabit. But by all accounts, she’ll definitely have a hand in dismantling them.

Written by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer for MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter, at @purpletank

More from Reena:

You Can Actually Just Quit 

We Deserve Better Than Dan Andrews 

Why I Refuse To Use A Goal-Setting Planner

Latest News