How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turns clothing critiques into teaching moments: 'Get used to me slaying lewks'

Elena Sheppard
Wellness Editor
Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez smiles after a group photo with the 116th Congress in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Since she announced her campaign back in 2017, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been under a relentless microscope. That’s nothing unusual for a woman in politics, but for Ocasio-Cortez — who is also a Latina, a Democratic Socialist and only in her 20s — that focus has been particularly sharp, with critics more often than not veering into shaming territory. 

Such an attack went viral recently, when Eddie Scarry, a writer at the conservative Washington Examiner, tweeted a picture of Ocasio-Cortez from behind (and seemingly without her knowledge) at a congressional orientation. It read, “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

The tweet was quickly mocked — the most obvious argument against the tweet being that people who fight for the working class can also wear well-fitting clothes. Ocasio-Cortez replied too, easily turning this slight into a teaching moment, as she’s inclined to do, saying: “If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh & take a picture of my backside. If I walk in with my best sale rack clothes, they laugh & take a picture of my backside.”  

And she’s right. No matter what she does, Ocasio-Cortez will likely face shaming. 

“Using Ocasio-Cortez’s dress choices as a proxy to invalidating her political view is a typical example of contemporary racist discourse,” professor Henry Navarro Delgado, who teaches fashion at Ryerson University in Canada, tells Makers. “Commenting on her choice of dress allows [people] to tangentially question the validity of Ocasio-Cortez — without the recourse of perceivable bigotry.”

In other words, making fun of her outfits is a thin veil for what’s really going on.

Scarry’s tweet feeds into a larger conversation about Ocasio-Cortez and where she “belongs,” according to the American public. His point, like that of many other casual shamers, is that she is somehow not being honest with her constituency and is different than she presents herself to be, and that she therefore does not belong in the hallowed halls of Congress. It appears to be partly based in pushback of the idea that Ocasio-Cortez won her district on the grounds of her policy vision and her personal history — without taking money from big donors. 

Navarro Delgado cites other instances of this type of clothing-centered “bigotry.” In September, for example, when Ocasio-Cortez wore a $3,000 outfit for a story in Interview magazine, some conservatives were outraged. On Fox and Friends, commentator Pete Hegseth sarcastically quipped, “It’s tough being a socialist. It really is.” To which Ocasio-Cortez tweeted back, “You don’t get to keep the clothes [from photo shoots], duh,” and then, “Get used to me slaying lewks because I am an excellent thrift shopper.”

Once again, the message from critics was that Ocasio-Cortez is not who she purports to be. Her response, though, was that her naysayers need to open their eyes and know that the landscape of America and its representatives is changing.

Vox correspondent Liz Plank thinks a lot of the backlash comes from a place of fear. “She is delivering a powerful and effective message for working-class Americans, and that drives many conservatives crazy because they view this demographic as their base,” Plank tells Makers of Ocasio-Cortez. “They are attacking her clothes or her appearance because attacking her ideas only draws attention to how enticing [they] are. Free health care for seniors? A guaranteed living wage for everyone? Clean air?”

Attacks on the freshman House member have also gone beyond her wardrobe, though, to address her background and her finances more directly.

In July, conservative radio host John Cardillo tweeted a picture of Ocasio-Cortez’s childhood home, with the caption, “This is the Yorktown Heights (very nice area) home @Ocasio2018 grew up in before going off to Ivy League Brown University. A far cry from the Bronx hood upbringing she’s selling.”

Ocasio-Cortez fired back, calling out the misinformation (as she actually went to Boston University) and accusing Cardillo of trying to “strip” her family of its identity — which is proof, she says, of his fear of her.

Needless to say, when Ocasio-Cortez mentioned, in a New York Times interview, her D.C. housing dilemma, critics took issue once again. “I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real,” she noted in the interview. In response, Fox News contributor Judy Miller said: “I think what she’s talking about is all of the money in Washington, all of the wealth in Washington, all of the power — and a little, simple person like her from New York can’t find a place to live. It is a brilliant political line.”

The essential part of that sentence is the description of Ocasio-Cortez as “a little, simple person.” Of course, her policies are the opposite. And her place — as the youngest woman in congressional history, a minority, a person who dares to wear bright red lipstick in the House — is one that is shaking up Washington in a way that makes many people afraid. To the establishment, she doesn’t belong, and they want to make sure she knows it.

As Plank puts it: “By talking about her financial struggles, she is opening up a whole new world to a class of people who never thought running for office could be for them. More working-class people running for office is a threat to the status quo that elects the rich to protect the rich.”

Or, as Ocasio-Cortez herself said, “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office — or win.”

And yet there she is, digging in, it seems, in her incredibly chic thrift-store stilettos — and, as of Tuesday, taking the lead in poking fun at her clothing choices, as she pointed out on Twitter that she’d shown up wearing the same outfit as new Rep. Ilhan Omar, prompting responses that included, “Please run our country,” and, “It’s so refreshing that we finally have Representatives who are … actual people.”