This week, from New York, came an interesting story, the kind of news that people notice even if they live far away, on other continents, in different timezones. A 28-year-old woman called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a New York district primary election, having gone up against a well-established incumbent, Joe Crowley.
In the US, it will lead to searching and important questions about the future of the Democratic party: Crowley is a powerful Democrat with close ties to Nancy Pelosi and strong links to Wall Street – he had raised $3m in donations for his campaign. Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand, was relying on grassroots groups for funds, meaning she only raised around $200,000. Her message (which is to the left of Crowley’s) managed to get through, however, in no small part due to a two-minute campaign video that went viral.
In the UK, news of the US primaries are generally only of interest to political geeks and West Wing fanatics, but there are several elements to the story of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory that make it feel more widely relevant. There’s an unlikeliness to it, a hopefulness, which inspires.
Her rise had – only recently – seemed impossible, even to herself. Earlier this week, she explained that she had previously ruled out a career in politics: “I counted out that possibility because I felt that possibility had counted out me. I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.”
Ocasio-Cortez represents real change – she is a Democratic Socialist who is proudly progressive. She speaks movingly about coming from a working-class background: her mother is Puerto Rican and her father was born in the Bronx. After her father died of cancer, she took on a second job to help support her mother. When she talks about the need for better, fairer healthcare and welfare systems, she brings real experience.
There’s a moment, just a fleeting shot, in the viral campaign advert when she changes her shoes, from flats to heels. She wobbles slightly on the subway platform
All too often, women politicians succeed when they are looked upon as sensible mess-clearer-uppers. The so-called glass-cliff phenomenon refers to the fact that women are more likely to achieve leadership roles amid crisis – when the chances of failure are at their highest. (High-profile examples include Theresa May.) But Ocasio-Cortez has not won her support through strong-and-steady messaging; rather, she stands for a new and fresh approach in a quest for a fairer and more equal society.
And she’s doing all that while subtly and unshowily acknowledging what it’s like to be a 28-year-old woman. There’s a moment, just a fleeting shot, in the viral campaign advert when she changes her shoes, from flats to heels. She wobbles slightly on the subway platform as she makes the switch, but then, immediately afterwards, she’s striding through her neighbourhood as her voiceover announces: “This race is about people versus money.” Earlier in the video, she had tied up her hair and applied mascara. In a separate social-media post, she pointed out that she was wearing no make-up in one of her flyers. “Sending out a no-makeup GOTV mailer. Are we living in a feminist utopia yet?” she joked with her followers. These little snatches into the reality of life for a young woman feel powerfully intimate, especially placed alongside her insights about economic inequality and her ambitions for change.
Similarly, when a conversation about Ocasio-Cortez’s lipstick erupted online after she took part in a TV debate, it didn’t feel like it took anything away from her seriousness, her clout. The clamour to find out which brand was behind her perfect red lips was motivated by a deep respect – for that perfect lasting colour and that brilliant, important rhetoric.
Some have pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez’s red lips feel daring for a politician. Female politicians, especially in the US, are expected to follow a set of drab rules when it comes to personal style, with most opting for straightened shoulder-length hair, neat skirt suits and visible but understated make-up. There is a protection, a deflection, an avoidance in this uniform – and that’s an understandable tack to take when you’re a woman in the public eye, particularly when you’re doing your job in a male-dominated environment. When there are more women in politics, we’ll undoubtedly see more variety in dress and appearance.
In the meantime, women beyond politics are adopting a new uniform: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has revealed that her perfect red lipstick is Stila All Day Liquid Lipstick in Beso, prompting a flurry of sales. It’s the red lipstick of the resistance, the red lipstick of hope and change – so stock up.