Opinion

There’s a deeply sexist subtext to the ‘controversy’ around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s haircut

Posted by
Hannah-Rose Yee
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A conservative journalist just tried to shame AOC for “splurging” on a “high-dollar hairdo”. But this latest controversy about the politician isn’t merely silly, it highlights the double standard between the way the media treats men and women in the public eye. 

EXCLUSIVE! Breaking news! Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got a haircut.

Such is the stop-the-presses content coming to you hot from the pages of Washington Times, a conservative newspaper in the US. The publication reported on 9 October that Ocasio-Cortez – “self-declared socialist” – had been caught red-handed in the act of splurging on a “high-dollar hairdo”.

“Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has allowed life in Washington to go to her head – literally,” the newspaper reported. “The self-declared socialist, who regularly rails against the rich and complains about the cost of living inside the Beltway [in Washington DC], spent nearly $300 on her hairdo at a pricey salon she frequents in downtown Washington.” 

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The actual cost of that “pricey” hairdo? $80 for the cut and $180 for the lowlights, plus a tip, which usually amounts to around 20% of the total bill. We’re not sure about you, but for a haircut and colour in a big city, that cost sounds fairly reasonable. In fact, we think she might have bagged herself a bargain here.      

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The story has been widely ridiculed online since it was released.

“Does it count as an exclusive if it’s too stupid for anyone else to print?” NBC reporter Brandy Zadrozny wrote on Twitter.

“Does anyone actually realise how bonkers it is to be finger wagging at AOC for not getting a $20 haircut,” writer Laura Hudson added on Twitter, “while actual BILLIONAIRES paid a lower tax rate than working class people last year? THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED.”

“Breaking: men discover women’s haircuts are unnecessarily expensive,” joked writer Talia Lavin on Twitter

But this non-story around Ocasio-Cortez’s hair carries with it a darker subtext. As feminist writer Jessica Valenti summed up, this is the kind of article that is never written about a man. And, furthermore, if her hair had not been perfectly cut and dyed courtesy of that “high-dollar hairdo”, someone would have written a scathing indictment of how ‘unkempt’ Ocasio-Cortez looked in her public appearances.

“Sorry you don’t get to create beauty standards that require women to spend hundreds or thousands a year to be considered presentable and then hate us for it,” Valenti added.

Women in the public eye are forced to adhere to rigid and outdated standards of public grooming, standards that simply aren’t given to their male counterparts. Susanna Reid, in a recent column for the Daily Mail, revealed that a TV producer “once gravely warned me ‘no greys on air’,” and as such she meticulously times her hair appointments to avoid a stray grey.

What would happen if Ocasio-Cortez missed a salon appointment and turned up to work with the messy hair of a certain orange-hued male politician in the US? She would have been slammed. This is the impossible balancing act that women in the public eye have to endure. They are forced to gussy themselves up in well appointed outfits and full hair and makeup for their job, but are criticised when they put a toe out of line.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivering a speech at the Women’s March in New York.

It becomes even harder for women in politics or public service, because not only do they have to adhere to all those strict grooming standards, they need to do so in a way that doesn’t appear profligate. Just think about how much criticism Ocasio-Cortez received when she wore what her detractors deemed an exorbitantly expensive coat. (It was plain and black, which a reporter for the Washington Examiner said didn’t look like it belonged to “a girl who struggles”. Sigh.)

Or how much criticism she got for, once, throwing a plastic bag containing the peelings of a sweet potato into a regular bin instead of a compost one. Absolutely shocking stuff, that. Or the time the New York Post ran a front-page cover story decrying Ocasio-Cortez for travelling in an “emissions-spewing” car. 

Of course, not all of these criticisms are about Ocasio-Cortez’s personal appearance. But looking at the broad spectrum of anti-AOC content – and broad, vicious spectrum it truly is – emphasises how baseless these criticisms are. Ocasio-Cortez can do nothing right in the eyes of conservatives. There is always something, there is always, always something that the tabloid media can jump on.

At the risk of sounding like a bit of a broken record, there is a reason why Ocasio-Cortez has become such a target. Because she is a woman. She is a loud, opinionated women with ideas of her own and a plan to implement them. She wants more. She speaks out. She claps back. And that makes her powerful.

When the first wave of criticism of Ocasio-Cortez in the media started to hit back in January, actor Zoe Kazan perfectly summed up why it was so troubling. “What they are doing to AOC is not just designed to shame her,” she wrote on Twitter. “It is designed to shame all young women into thinking they should not/could not run for office… That they could never dress/act/speak unimpeachably enough.”

“This doesn’t just extend to politics,” Kazan continued. “It is designed to intimidate us into thinking that we similarly will be attacked/undermined if we try to assume/wield power in whatever field. Protect and defend AOC. Protect and defend the future for all women.” 

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t just breaking the glass ceiling of American politics, she’s taking a baseball bat to it. And for the traditional denizens of power in that arena – on the whole, white men – that is a terrifying prospect. The simplest thing to do is attempt to poke holes in her wherever they can. If it means publishing an ‘exclusive’ story about the fact that she pays a pretty reasonable amount of money to get her hair cut in the manner of many women living in the world, so be it. 

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But it’s not working. In fact, it’s having the opposite effect. Because instead of making Ocasio-Cortez look like a hypocrite, it’s making those media organisations and the voices who power them look desperate. Really, really desperate. Like, Trump is out here on the record as having lied 66 times in the last week alone, and the worst thing that can be pinned on Ocasio-Cortez is that she paid for a haircut.

And while these media organisations scramble to find something that sticks to Ocasio-Cortez, she’s only getting stronger. 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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