The MET Gala is a spectacular night, known for a guest list full of celebrities, over-the-top and lavish costumes, and renowned designers showing off their talents on the red carpet. The event is hosted every year in support of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and is organized by Vogue. A ticket to this illustrious event will set you back around US$35,000, and even then, you’ll need to be approved by Anna Wintour herself. Of course, for most celebrities in attendance, tickets are gifted by designers who are seeking individuals to model their designs at the event. However, it’s not just A-list celebrities that get invited to the gala–even New York politicians grace the red steps. And so, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), one of the most popular politicians among Democrats, walked down that famed red carpet wearing Canadian designer Aurora James’ “Tax the Rich” dress.
The dress captured the attention of the public and commentators on both sides of the political spectrum. People criticized AOC for attending one of the most ostentatious events in America, claiming that it was in diametrical opposition of her progressive ideals and work. Some even went as far as to accuse her of ethical misconduct regarding her position as a congresswoman. Others worried that wearing a dress with “Tax the Rich” splashed across the back of it took the edge and importance out of the message, reducing it to a slogan.
AOC responded to the accusations by reminding people that New York elected officials are regularly in attendance of the gala to perform their responsibility of overseeing public cultural institutions. As for the other criticisms levied against her, I believe that the argument that she shouldn’t have attended is rooted in a misunderstanding of AOC’s political position. These arguments against AOC are similar to those surrounding leftist political commentator Hasan Piker, who purchased a US$2.7 million home—both of which demonstrate flawed argumentation.
When it was leaked to the public that popular socialist twitch streamer Hasan Piker had bought an almost three-million-dollar house in Los Angeles, many on social media accused him of selling out his ideals. Many asked, “how can a socialist buy such an expensive house without being a hypocrite?” A similar question dominated the AOC debate: “How can a woman who fights for working-class families attend and rub shoulders with some of the richest celebrities in the country, and still be seen as a champion for the poor?”
These questions rest on a few misconceptions. The first is that those who fight for working-class issues must also be materially or socially exclusively working-class. This sentiment may seem logical, due to the amount of resistance or apathy the rich have towards such issues. But those in all social classes can champion the expansion and protection of economic equality. It is not solely a working-class or low-income issue. The other problem with this line of thought is that it assumes those that are socialist must live in subpar living conditions or be unable to improve their quality of life, lest they participate in the capitalist systems they fight against.
The second implication in such queries is that attending a rich event in some way takes away from the message and meaning that AOC was trying to embody in her dress and work. I disagree with this interpretation. While putting such a message on a luxury dress risks watering down the gravity of the policy prescription, the medium and the setting through which that message was transmitted also reached new audiences and brought attention to the issue of economic inequality in a room, I might add, that often is not forced to think about such concerns. Many attendees at that party are part of ‘the rich’ she’s fighting against.
In the end, while AOC’s appearance at the MET gala may not have been the best public relations move, there is no reason to believe that she has abandoned her political beliefs and positions. Nor is there a strong foundation to accuse socialists like her and Hasan Piker that their attending the MET gala or buying a house in one of the most inflated housing markets in the U.S. is an indication that their activism and beliefs are baseless or performative. To do so would subscribe to being an ideological purist, which frankly just makes you sound like a hell-bent super-woke social justice warrior with no capacity for nuance.