The congresswoman has become a handy and versatile symbol — the representative representative. For the leftward and younger wings of the Democratic Party, she serves as a figurehead and a hero; for conservative media outlets, as reliable outrage bait. Everyone seems willing to let her be a lightning rod — including, notably, Ocasio-Cortez herself.
It’s not easy to absorb so much static. “At first, it was really, really, really hard,” she recently told Vanity Fair. “I felt like I was being physically ripped apart in those first two to three months.” But Ocasio-Cortez’s own acknowledgment of the attention, which she has incorporated into her public persona as a kind of running metacommentary on fame, spin and bias, is also a handy way to channel it in useful directions. Take, for instance, the lowly clip of routine congressional testimony — from a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on H.R. 1, a bill involving campaign finance and ethics rules — that recently went viral, generating well over 40 million views.
There was nothing especially dramatic about it: no bombshell revelations, no combative exchanges, no emotional outbursts. On the contrary, Ocasio-Cortez was calm, upbeat and pleasant….
Criticism of Ocasio-Cortez has often come wrapped in dismissiveness; early attacks, especially, hinged on the ease with which Americans might be persuaded to see a young woman and political outsider as unserious, unprepared, even vapid. At the start of this year, a clip of her dancing in the style of “The Breakfast Club” — taken from a video made when she was an undergraduate — was circulated gleefully, as if an image of her younger self dancing would undermine her legitimacy as a legislator. Until quite recently, the protocol for a woman subjected to such attacks was to rise above them, brushing off all the negative attention (and even some of the positive), projecting an air of being occupied in stolid, competent work. But Ocasio-Cortez has, thus far, found more interesting reactions. Her response to the circulation of that video wasn’t to strike a more mature pose; it was to have herself filmed, as a legislator, dancing in front of her office.
Part of what makes her congressional questioning on H.R. 1 interesting is that she doesn’t try to play down the qualities that are used to mock or attack her. If anything, she harnesses them for rhetorical effect. Being dismissed as young, inexperienced and female turns out to be something she’s quite good at.
Carina Chocano, “Long Game”, The New York Times Magazine (24 March 2019), 20-21.