Politics

“All Sizzle but No Steak”

How Ocasio-Cortez is upending the usual sexist scripts for talking about female politicians’ looks.

Ocasio-Cortez holding a mic and smiling.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at her midterm election night party in New York City on Nov. 6, 2018.
Reuters/Andrew Kelly

In all the noise surrounding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, much of the attention centered on her has been hostile or leering, racist or white-knighty or paparazzish—and predictably focused on her looks. While the left certainly isn’t exempt, the response from the right has been notable not just for its frenzied ubiquity, but for the gendered stink of the efforts to undermine her. NRATV’s Grant Stinchfield suggested he and his guest Jesse Kelly—who found her cute—put a picture of her up to analyze. “Could you imagine that look when she’s mad at you because you didn’t take out the trash?” he said to Kelly, who agreed that “you’d need to lose your hearing.” Red State called her a “sweetheart,” the Blaze upped that to “socialist sweetheart,” and Fox News settled for “liberal darling” when the network wasn’t painting her as a nation-busting menace. While I don’t especially recommend visiting them, the uglier corners of the internet are similarly obsessed and more frank.

This is the kind of thing that can generally sink a female politician, through zero fault of her own. Actors and reality stars can build careers on this kind of attention, but female political candidates have historically been held to conservative standards from which their white male colleagues are happily exempt, and these include attracting only the right kind of attention—unless you want to sacrifice your message to your looks. Discussion of a female politician’s appearance has long been used to automatically delegitimize her. Whether the content was flattering or cruel, the fact that her looks were discussed at all made her seem ineffective and insubstantial to the public. I’m not breaking ground here by observing that a woman’s beauty tends to subtract from her perceived seriousness; a nation socialized to objectify a subset of people doesn’t typically accord those human ornaments agency, intentionality, or depth.

What’s surprising about Ocasio-Cortez is that she seems to be exposing the falseness of that dichotomy. If anything, she’s functioning as a magnifying glass: collecting all those rays of dysfunctional attention and using them to get America to focus differently on matters of national importance. If Jesse Watters wonders if she’s “all sizzle but no steak,” Ocasio-Cortez gets a “Green New Deal” trending. While the Federalist’s Kelly criticized her as wacky but “kinda cute,” adding that “a little bit of crazy can be fun,” she got Americans educating each other on marginal tax rates. (Take this Google Trends chart mapping searches for “marginal tax,” with its big upswing right around her much-publicized 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper.)

Max Tani observed that “AOC has accomplished something abnormal in the Trump era: Getting cable news networks to talk about policy not directly related to Trump or some legislation on the verge of passing.” The effect isn’t limited to media organizations and politicians. She’s getting everyday Americans to debate actual policy. Even those who disagree with her. On Twitter, yet! All this while being ruinously feminine enough that one right-wing commentator intoned: “Don’t deny her hotness. Don’t.” She’s been caricatured. Mocked. Called a whore. Had a fake nude photo circulated. These are grand old scripts intended to shrink Ocasio-Cortez down and put her in her place. Shouldn’t they be making her less effective? Why isn’t the implicit bias of the system working? Why, faced with a very pretty woman who dances well, are Americans talking about marginal tax rates?

Political stardom is frustratingly irreducible. You’re never quite sure why it works. There are a thousand reasons why Donald Trump—a soft old fellow who never served, inherited millions from his dad, and made a career of being petty, arbitrary, and punitive—shouldn’t appeal to right-leaning Americans who insist they value hard work, bootstraps, and military service. But he really does. And it’s not just because he’s tall or gratifyingly grumpy and shouty. It’s not because he promised a wall and a Space Force, and it’s not just because he eats fast food and comes up with nicknames for people he doesn’t like.

It’s that his charisma made it possible for a subset of Americans to openly air grievances they couldn’t before without seeming uncouth: how immigrants are lazy, job-stealing criminals, for instance. Something similar is happening with the rise of Ocasio-Cortez, I think: The combination of her personal and political appeal seems to be channeling the unspoken (and unspeakable) feelings of many Americans. In a country that values bootstrapping, a failure to thrive is shameful, and we have an economy whose sunny reports don’t square with the fact that 40 percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency. Stardom may be opaque, but Ocasio-Cortez’s has created unexpected eddies in America’s political conversation. If Trump’s winky crowd work made it possible for America to open up about its racism and xenophobia, Ocasio-Cortez appears to have helped the country come to terms with other facts about itself. People are tired of being blamed for failing to haul themselves out of their own unlucky financial circumstances. As someone who did just that, she’s in a position to acknowledge that the unsayable sacrifices people make within a flawed economic framework might constitute a problem that’s worth fixing. Or at least discussing.

That’s due in part to the simple accessibility of her story: Her mother scrubbed toilets to send her to school. They moved to a better neighborhood, got a house. Her father died. Her mother had to scrub toilets again. Now that woman’s daughter is a congresswoman—educated, with a degree in economics and a giant platform of her own making. It’s exactly the sort of meritocratic story the right claims to love. (Even though they don’t seem to actually think it’s possible; the number of attempts conservatives have made to “debunk” parts of her biography suggests that they find the American dream literally unbelievable).

But there’s a more complicated dynamic at work in Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to deflect sexist attacks on her. The fact that Ocasio-Cortez is pretty, female, and Hispanic has been cited by some on the right as an unfair advantage: Any attack on her is called sexist or racist, they say, when all they really want to criticize is her crazy ideas! “The press create a shield around AOC, in which any criticism must be due to sexism or bigotry—when in fact it’s in their heads, not ours,” says Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, adding that “this strategy works, by preventing real criticism about her actual beliefs, which are retreads of horrible ideas from previous centuries.” Here’s Gutfeld’s “real criticism” of those ideas—in full: “Socialism with a smile; fascism among friends, Venezuela meets vegan.” (If you weren’t counting, that’s 10 words.)

There is surely some power in being an attractive woman at a moment when talking about a female politician’s looks is finally being recognized as a tired, undermining tactic (see the pushback the New York Times got for tweeting about Nancy Pelosi’s dress on the day of her swearing-in). Thanks to #MeToo and other ongoing nationwide discussions, the public now has a much better understanding of how discussing clothes and looks has historically diminished women. Feminine youth—despite the advantages it confers in certain spheres—has not historically been a political asset in a society that confuses gravitas with testosterone and political ability with old age. For a refresher on standard American misogyny, look no further than Ed Rollins, chairman of the pro-Trump Great America PAC, who recently called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “little girl,” while Candace Owens accused the congresswoman of “constantly infantiliz[ing] her voice to sound like a toddler so that journalists don’t critique her dangerous ideas.”

Yet for Ocasio-Cortez, these hoary old attacks aren’t really landing. She’s too obviously not the cunning, sultry sociopath her opponents want her to be in order for these scripts to work. Her transparency is such that some critics, needing to point to some telling and sinister concealment, have resorted to accusing her of disguising … her voice. (Or her childhood. Or her nickname—Gateway Pundit seemed to find it quite incriminating that the “Yorktown Elitist” and “Bronx Hoaxer” used to go by “Sandy.” Something about her has got to be fake and manipulative, damn it.)

Candace Owens’ is a particularly strange charge: Ocasio-Cortez certainly has her faults, but she hasn’t shied away from confrontation or buried her ideas behind a veneer of fragility. Quite the contrary: She’s pleasant but rather direct in interviews, and her Twitter strategy is aggressive and quick to confront. But maybe that’s the point: Ocasio-Cortez has a gift for getting her opponents to criticize her on specious grounds that reveal the yawning gaps between their outdated cultural scripts—about femininity, Latinos, socialists, dancing, taxes, the left—and the contemporary reality.

Criticism from the right has concentrated along a few reliable axes. The Republican National Committee called her a “mini-Maduro” (as in Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro). There are the constant charges that she doesn’t understand things. Charles Cooke called hers the “unserious face of an unserious movement.” Rush Limbaugh claimed that she’s “right about Amazon, but she doesn’t know why.” The charge, over and over again, is that Ocasio-Cortez is ignorant. “YIKES,” Sarah Palin tweeted. “Ocasio-Cortez Fumbles Basic Civics TWICE In 1 Statement.” (You may remember Sarah Palin: She once claimed that the “department of law” protected the president.) “A remedial class in economics would do you justice,” C.J. Pearson tweeted. But it’s a symptom of the confusing Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon that he was immediately informed, by people who agree with him, that she studied economics. That’s a little weird! In a moment exploding with partisan misinformation, normal Americans—even those who oppose her—are somehow invested in getting things right about Ocasio-Cortez.

Even some of Ocasio-Cortez’s ideological opponents acknowledge that her proposals—unlike Trump’s, say—do actually address fiscal questions that most politicians don’t bother with. A guy who’d recently “liked” a photo posted by Trump adviser Stephen Miller tweeted, “I can’t believe I’m tweeting this. I can’t. But doesn’t @AOC deserve a tiny tiny bit of credit for being honest about what taxes would need to be to pay for stuff? Rather than promising stuff without explaining how to pay for it.”

Grudging admission of Ocasio-Cortez’s basic honesty is a phenomenon that repeats across comment sections in the conservative blogosphere. Many right-leaning readers and commenters seem more inclined to read her charitably than the actual columnists, for whom she must represent (among other things) the ills of the left. Discussing the professional right’s appetite for AOC content, National Review’s Dan McLaughlin suggested that Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal as a target is that she seems “to embody aspects of the other side’s unbridled id.”

The trouble with that kind of projection, for anyone who’s watched her, is that this just isn’t quite true. No matter how hard the right tries to make this case, Ocasio-Cortez simply isn’t a wacky Palin figure for the other side. Gifted though she may be at putting together a polished look while, like Palin, being so expressive and animated that still photos of her are easy to caricature, Ocasio-Cortez is effective and focused in ways that Palin never was. She’s fun-loving and vivacious when that’s appropriate, but she also speaks in ways that are—or at least feel—unvarnished and pained and sincere. What those right-leaning readers are correcting for, I think—with nuance you don’t see much online—is a disjunction between conservative attacks on AOC as the figure they need her to be and the person she actually is.

And it’s notable that the comments about Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance haven’t seemed to distract from her seriousness in the way that such comments directed at female politicians have historically. If anything, the “crush” she inspires in many would-be critics seems to have short-circuited some of their strategies for undermining their opponent. A recent effort to embarrass her by showing an old video of her dancing only succeeded in making her look awesome. Washington Examiner journalist Eddie Scarry implied that she looked too good to be hard up: “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles,” he tweeted, sharing a photo of her from behind. He’d later delete the tweet, but if the point was that AOC was a hypocrite, the subtext was that she looked great (or “ELEGANT,” as he added later in a follow-up tweet).” But you can, I think, feel the effort Scarry is making to avoid sounding like he’s talking about her looks. That strenuous focus on her coat seems like it’s masking a familiar tendency not just to recognize a woman’s beauty, but to interpret it as intrinsically deceptive, suspicious, misleading.

Ocasio-Cortez—and in this she really does seem kind of exceptional—doesn’t appear to be a liar. She seems sincere, and her mistakes (which are real and worth discussing) seem genuine. Compared with Paul Ryan’s lies (a brief sample), they don’t seem like efforts to deceive. Nor is she remotely out of step with the level of knowledge—or the degree of accuracy—her male colleagues in Congress bring to the job. It is a problem that our politicians do not give us accurate information. It is not a problem that has anything to do with AOC’s youth, or experience, or femininity.

It’s hard to measure how a culture—or subculture—has changed in response to a movement. I doubt whether we’ll really know what #MeToo et al. accomplished for decades. But you can see, in the response to Ocasio-Cortez, that many Americans have been thinking openly—and analytically—about sexist scripts they were brought up to unconsciously internalize. Though the gendered attacks against her are probably as frequent as they would have been in a world where #MeToo didn’t happen, the public seems to be brushing them off more easily. Critics will keep trying to cast her as the scary Latino, the ditzy girl, the beautiful ignoramus, the vicious Communist, the resentful victim, the spoiled daughter of privilege, or the liberal Palin. But Ocasio-Cortez—with her youth, industry, intelligence, and ambition—has made the bankruptcy of those tropes easier to recognize. It’s a truism by now that Trump has made explicit our country’s tendency to excuse misconduct, no matter how serious, as long as it’s committed by rich white men. Ocasio-Cortez seems to be going a long way toward exposing how easily we’ve been manipulated throughout history into pathologizing and rejecting bold leaders who happened to be women.

Listen to Lili Loofbourow on Slate’s daily news podcast What Next.