She’s been intimidated, mocked and had her personal life raked over, all in the last week alone.
It hasn’t even been a week since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in to the House of Representatives.
One hand on the bible proffered by speaker Nancy Pelosi, the 29-year-old from the Bronx made history as the youngest female Congresswoman in the history of American politics.
And then she got to work, announcing a “radical” plan to tax the super-rich at 70% to pay for the Green New Deal, which would establish a green economy in America and move towards renewable energy and carbon neutrality. She picked out her new offices, surpassed two million followers on Twitter and continued to use social media, in particular Instagram lives, to breathtaking political effect, ushering her followers right into the very belly of Congress alongside her. She also dealt with the Conservative trolls who unearthed a video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing to a Phoenix song – ah, were we ever that young? – at Boston University, shaming her as “America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is.”
How did Ocasio-Cortez respond? She filmed another video, this time dancing to War by Edwin Starr, outside her shiny new Congressional offices. “If Republicans thought women dancing in college is scandalous, wait till they find out women dance in Congress, too!” she posted. The video has been streamed more than 20 million times.
For Ocasio-Cortez, this kind of nonsense is all in a day’s work. In the almost-year since she quit her job as a bartender and ran for Congress, Ocasio-Cortez has been a particularly appealing target for the right wing press. Her background, her socio-economic status, her style, her policies, her opinions and her use of social media have all been attacked. She has been called a Commie and a “little girl” by talking heads. And yet she keeps relentless charging forward, with a 24/7 social media cycle and all those “reality politics” Instagram stories placing her squarely front and center in the legislative conversation.
On Sunday, in an interview with Anderson Cooper on Sixty Minutes, the journalist simply could not comprehend Ocasio-Cortez’s approach to politics. “What you are talking about, just big picture, is a radical agenda compared to the way politics is done now,” Cooper managed. The subtext was clear: you are so far from following the rulebook that you might as well throw the whole thing out the window. What makes you, a young woman in her first week on the job at Congress, think that you can change the way things are done around here?
When Cooper asked Ocasio-Cortez if she thought Trump was racist and she responded “obviously,” the journalist spluttered: “How can you say that?” Ocasio-Cortez calmly explained how (the wall, the immigration ban etc etc) and then added on Twitter: “The President is racist. And that should make you uncomfortable.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ocasio-Cortez has found herself the target of everyone from Republicans to conservative trolls to the press. She’s young, intelligent and she has real plans – many of them involving taxing the super-rich – that she wants to enact. Criticism doesn’t stick to her, and threats and intimidation only make her stronger. Compare her to Sarah Palin and she’ll clap back. Unearth a video of her dancing as a teenager and she’ll film herself dancing in her shiny new office with a big grin on her face.
But, as many are pointing out, these scare tactics aimed at Ocasio-Cortez are not merely an attempt to shame the Congresswoman. They are an attempt to shame all women, and young women in particular, into thinking that politics is not a space that might be welcoming for them.
As actress Zoe Kazan tweeted today: “It is designed to shame all young women into thinking they should not/could not run for office – that old videos or pictures or rumors of them would surface, that they could never dress/act/speak unimpeachably enough.”
“This doesn’t just extend to politics,” Kazan added. “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 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, protect and defend the future for all women.”
Writer Rachel Syme compared the treatment of Ocasio-Cortez to the treatment of flappers in the twenties. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how the public shaming of a particular woman always serves this dual purpose; back in the 1920s, publicists invented the idea of a flapper just so they could have a release valve to shame young women for partying. Women’s joy is always terrifying, perhaps just as much as their rage, maybe moreso.”
The subtext in the way people talk about Ocasio-Cortez is that this is not what young women are supposed to do. They are not supposed to run for Congress, they are not supposed to become social media superstars in the process, they are not supposed to win those elections and they are certainly not supposed to turn up to their first week on the job and immediately set about dismantling the establishment.
As Kazan said, you can extend this line of thinking out way beyond the realm of politics. In fact, there’s a lesson that all women should take from the treatment of Ocasio-Cortez: If you try to step into a space that has traditionally been denied to you, people will try to discredit you. Those who have long held power are afraid of young women taking it away from them.
Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t let that stop her, and no woman should let it stop her either. As Ocasio-Cortez tweeted only this week: “Women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT+ and the poor have been treated unfairly in the past. And when many of the decision-making rooms aren’t as diverse as they should be, communities fairly ask: “is it happening to us, again?””