The smart, outspoken, social-media-savvy Democratic freshman congresswoman from Queens is confounding to Republican men, whose only response to strong, intelligent women is sexploitative vitriol.
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I did not think the American public could go so low, so fast. Nevertheless, we are less than a month into 2019, and the American public is having a debate about a congresswoman’s nudes.
The congresswoman is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of Queens, who has quickly become one of the dominant faces of the Democratic left since her surprise defeat of incumbent Joe Crowley in a June primary. The “nude” is fake; or, to be exact, it is a photo of someone, but not of Ocasio-Cortez. In fact, the photo in question—a private photo taken by activist and cam worker Sydney Leathers, featuring Leathers’s feet and calves in a bathtub, and leaked against her will—would probably not be scandalous, or even all that sexual, in any other context. In this context, though, it’s content that white supremacist tabloid Daily Caller is flogging as a “nude selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” days after Leathers came forward to debunk the rumor. It’s one more, particularly vicious weapon in an ongoing crusade: To take one of the brightest and most effective young politicians in the country and reduce her to her sexuality.
On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez condemned what she called “completely disgusting behavior from Conservative outlets,” noting that a different paper had been plying her boyfriend’s family for stories about her: “Women in leadership face more scrutiny. Period.”
She’s right. The GOP’s typical approach is to desexualize their female opponents, painting them as freakishly masculine. Think of all the “Janet Reno is a man” jokes you probably heard throughout the ’90s, or Bill O’Reilly claiming that Maxine Waters was wearing “James Brown’s wig”; think of the years of racist freak-outs generated by the muscle tone in Michelle Obama’s upper arms. The denigration doesn’t always have to be so blatant (or so blatantly transphobic). It can also be a matter of painting women as cold (Elizabeth Warren), frumpy (Angela Merkel), matronly (everybody but Nancy Pelosi, according to one 2007 New York Times article), or schoolmarmish (Elizabeth Warren again).
What matters, in all these cases, is that powerful women are portrayed as being bad at femininity. Power, intelligence, ambition, authority: In our culture, those qualities are all “masculine,” too. We’re being reminded that, if women manage to possess any of those leadership qualities, it’s only at the expense of their feminine graces. The caricatures the GOP typically creates are monstrous in the manner of Lady Macbeth, praying to the gods to “unsex her” so that she can get on with the male business of killing and ruling. The implication is that by trying to be king, these women have lost their womanhood, and turned themselves into freaks. Just ask the Lady Macbeth of Little Rock.
The smears aimed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aim not to desexualize her, but to hypersexualize her, casting her as an empty-headed pinup with ideas above her station. The “attacks” come in the form of quotes snipped out of context to make her sound ignorant—every mistake or verbal stumble is blown up into a full news cycle, and her statement about the difference between being “precisely, factually, and semantically correct [and] being morally right,” intended to point to the contrast between her mistakes and Trump’s lies, has been used to argue she isn’t interested in facts at all—or in the age-honored form of men calling her crazy and making memes about her emotional instability. But alongside those smears, driving home the message, there are the videos of her dancing on a roof. There are rumors about her “nude selfies.” There are the Sarah Palin comparisons, the constant, ancient implication: A woman that turns you on can’t be smart. Right?
I find it deeply embarrassing that we, as a nation, even have to talk about what Ocasio-Cortez looks like. It’s unavoidable—her prettiness is key to the specific kind of rage she inspires—yet her looks have no impact on her ability to do her job. Talking about how hot she is does nothing to advance our knowledge of the Green New Deal, or help us abolish ICE, or explore the advisability of a 70 percent wealth tax. But then, that’s the point; as long as we are viewing Ocasio-Cortez exclusively through a sexual lens, we are not dealing with the whole woman, or with any of the ambitious and challenging proposals she’s put forth.
This is, first of all, racist. Latina women are hypersexualized and fetishized in a way that white female colleagues never have to deal with; Gloria Steinem was stereotyped as just another pretty face, too, but the attacks on Ocasio-Cortez have developed a uniquely cruel, obsessive, intimate quality in a very short time. And objectification is a problem for all sorts of women, but the fact that Ocasio-Cortez is caricaturized as uneducated and over-emotional and hypersexual is, pretty clearly, an attempt to box her in as a stereotype of a “fiery” Latina. Her attempts to fight back and define herself in the public eye are more fraught than any white woman’s would be.
The “bimbo” portrayal of Ocasio-Cortez also betrays the gulf between her age and that of her critics. It was easy to mock powerful Boomer women as desexualized or androgynous because they had been trained to desexualize themselves in order to survive hostile work environments. Read that 2007 New York Times article on congressional fashion, and what you come away with is a bunch of women saying things like, “you want people listening to what you are saying and not looking at what you are wearing,” and, “[you] evaluate everything you wear. Does this detract? Does this get in the way of my message?” Our mothers and grandmothers wore those pantsuits, and those stiff professional haircuts, because they were told that they needed to look more like men—or less like women—to avoid discrimination. Sexual harassment was presumed to be an inevitable part of work, and if you came into the office looking like you were dressed for a date, you would be told you were “asking for it.” A woman wearing shoulder pads and a boxy polyester skirt suit is a woman in armor; we’re just too young to remember the war she was fighting.
Men pressured women to look androgynous at work, then they mocked successful women for lacking femininity. So it goes. But for millennial women like Ocasio-Cortez, those workplace rules are as outdated as fax machines. A woman in an office is not strange or exceptional, and dressing up is just a way to appear put together. It’s why women with Ph.D.’s post complicated skin-care routines online—or why Ocasio-Cortez tweets out the brand and shade of her lipstick. Women of her generation haven’t been taught that feminine self-presentation is incompatible with intelligence or seriousness.
The 9-million-year-old white men running the GOP, however, have been taught exactly that. So they treat Ocasio-Cortez like they’ve been taught to treat female colleagues who stand out. They punish her for the fact that they’re attracted to her, even though she did nothing to elicit those feelings and almost certainly doesn’t want them. They portray her as a sex object because sex objects don’t talk back, unless it’s to ask what more they can do for you. In so doing, they give themselves an excuse not to deal with the more serious challenge she poses. Ocasio-Cortez is not meant to be challenging, she is not meant to be argumentative or assert herself, she is not meant to have bold opinions or radical ideas, because she is not meant to have ideas and opinions at all. She’s not supposed to think. She’s supposed to be looked at. She is supposed to be consumed.
When she ages, men will decide she’s not worth looking at, and that, too, will be cited as a reason not to listen to her. If Ocasio-Cortez were less conventionally attractive, or less feminine in her presentation, she would be damned for that as well. There’s no special contempt the world holds for pretty women or young women or old women or frumpy women; there’s just misogyny, which inevitably finds something wrong with every woman, because it is built to keep them silenced and disempowered no matter what.
The slut-shaming of Ocasio-Cortez does, however, indicate a new frontier. More and more young women, leftist women, and women of color are going to pour into Congress over time, bringing new ideas of what it means to be a woman in power with them. The caricatures and demeaning jokes the right uses to discredit those women will shift, too. In this, as in much else, Ocasio-Cortez is on the vanguard. What the GOP and conservative media does to Ocasio-Cortez is a test of what they can get away with—it foreshadows what they will do to every other woman who stands up. We owe it to Ocasio-Cortez, and to the future, to make sure they fail.
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