On Tuesday evening, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held its first Met Gala since 2019. For me, the gala is an indulgent affair — an opportunity to celebrate and mock the aesthetic successes and failures of people I will never be with and wealth I will never have. There are the usual disappointments, like people who fail to follow the theme or play it safe. But this year, the failures of the Met Gala seemed largely failures to stay in touch: Cara Delevigne’s bulletproof vest-turned-jumpsuit with “Peg the Patriarchy” emblazoned on it and, most notably, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, D-NY, mermaid-style gown that would resemble a wedding dress but for the red “TAX THE RICH” scrawled across across the backside.
The dress was the subject of ire from figures across the left and right. Indeed, the Met Gala is a fundraiser targeting wealthy celebrities willing to pay $35,000 a ticket. Activism often feels shallow in the spaces occupied by the wealthy and the parasocial relationships that the populace have with celebrities — which are based on one-sided infatuations rather than genuine relationships — means that celebrities are simultaneously expected to act as political agents and their political attempts feel impotent and out-of-touch. This dynamic is complicated by the fact that the Met Gala exists at the intersection of politics and celebrity because its tickets serve to cover ticket prices for the museum. This means that politicians like Ocasio-Cortez serve a purpose that the late Mark Fisher outlines in his book, “Capitalist Realism”, in which media spectacles like the Met Gala serve as opportunities for anti-capitalist ideas to reinforce capitalism by being consumed rather than deployed as a genuine challenge to the system.
In essence, Ocasio-Cortez has become a celebrity in her own right. People rarely talk about her legislative accomplishments, like repealing the Faircloth Amendment or reducing the price of HIV prevention medication, instead preferring across the political spectrum to discuss the appeal of her methods, her style, her clothing, her social media presence. Politicians, like celebrities, don’t exist to do anything. Even among her left compatriots, Ocasio-Cortez exists as an aesthetic, or — if she’s lucky — an idea. Her inability to exist outside this paradigm is what makes her behavior seem shallow and performative.
Still, the problem with the critics of Ocasio-Cortez is that they fail to recognize that performativity, in the colloquial sense, is not merely attributing aesthetic sensibilities to politics. It’s reducing politics to aesthetics only, with little regard for the material concerns underpinning politics. This is the core project of the rumored CBS game show, “The Activist”, in which celebrities like Priyanka Chopra serve as arbiters of the most important — and thus, most well-resourced — activist projects. Of course, maybe those quoting Fisher are correct that Ocasio-Cortez is merely reinforcing the system she claims to abhor. But this doesn’t mean that her every action is performative. Indeed, her legislative achievements reflect her commitment to economic redistribution, the commitment represented by the dress itself. The role of celebrity, too, is rarely controlled by the person who occupies it, instead controlled by the media conglomerates and social communities which propel these figures and maintain their relevance.
This isn’t to say that nothing can be performative, in the derogatory sense. The phrase “PEG THE PATRIARCHY” from Cara Delevigne’s outfit is clearly performative, a depoliticized political statement which relies on misogynistic and homophobic ideas of penetration as inherently demeaning and destructive. The difference between Delevigne and Ocasio-Cortez is quite simple: one of them is, for better or worse, actually making a concerted effort to enact the vision her outfit represents. The other is not.
Indeed, politics itself often contains — even requires — performance. Every political speech is performance, every tee shirt or laptop sticker performative. Performance is often required for delivering information and articulating a platform. Even the critics of Ocasio-Cortez largely turned to social media platforms, which are designed to reinforce the feeling that individual people have a meaningful audience, even as they are ineffective off-screen. Despite the fact that performance is often uncomfortable, even unseemly, political sloganeering and stumping require it. If someone were attempting to break down the core platform of American progressivism into three words, Ocasio-Cortez might have it right: “TAX THE RICH” is a good start.
In many ways, politics is theatre. But the ideal politician — unlike the ideal actor — never leaves character and doesn’t end the performance. They also don’t refuse to get on stage.