Arts

Ty Burr

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: When politics meets stardom

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

To: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Re: The Avatar

Dear Rep. Ocasio-Cortez:

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Congratulations on your election and your initial successes in the Capitol. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a politician come out of nowhere and assume center stage with such immediate energy, idealism, and ambition.

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Come to think of it, we’ve never seen it. The “overnight sensation” is a thing of the entertainment world, the sudden stars of movies, pop music, TV, and social media. Politics is supposed to be above such things, or below, or somewhere else. Even Barack Obama had to toil in the Illinois and US senates for a decade before becoming a full-on household name. You did it over the course of a single congressional campaign.

I’m guessing this is weird for you. Actually, I don’t have to guess, since you recently admitted as much in an interview for The Intercept, taking time out from an extended discussion of policy to discuss the discombobulating experience of a nobody rapidly becoming a Somebody and wondering what relation to that Somebody the former nobody even had.

“The most stressful time was right after the primary,” you told The Intercept. “A couple of days after the primary, I was in my neighborhood and this woman saw me and just started crying. She just broke down crying. . . . It is something that I grapple with a lot because I know it’s not me, it’s like this avatar of me.”

Congratulations: You have just experienced the upheaval of a celebrity persona being born, a chimera of the public square that looks like you, talks like you, has your name, and hopefully carries forward your values, but that is also not you. You’re right to call it an avatar, since that persona — let’s call her “AOC” — is a more simplistic version of yourself that wanders the cultural landscape between you and the public, each of which battles for control of the image.

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For someone who has written at length about fame and the star personas we often mistake for the real thing, your unprecedented rise and “casting” in the role of AOC has been fascinating to watch, in no small part because you seem to have an intuitive mastery of social media, an ease that eludes many of your peers and absolutely confounds the DC dinosaurs. You’re a natural with the tools at hand, tools you’ve grown up with and use with fluidity and firmness. This has little to do with ideology, with what you believe, and everything to do with seeming comfortable and charismatic in your own skin, actual or digital.

But of course that social media presence — the Instagrammed live-streams where you talk legislation while making black bean soup in an Instant Pot; the sharp, funny clapbacks on Twitter — are part of the projection, the aspect of the avatar you control, and control well. I think you’re learning that you don’t own the persona (the culture does) but that you can steer many of its moves. Did you see “Colossal,” that 2017 Anne Hathaway movie where her character’s emotions take the form of a giant Godzilla-style monster on the other side of the planet? A kaiju beast that mimics the heroine’s slightest move on a gargantuan scale?

That’s what fame is like. That’s what a persona is — a shadow on the wall of our consensual media reality. In theory you’re the puppeteer but more often than not the strings get tangled from all the other fingers pulling at them. “AOC” already means so many different things to different people: activist or troublemaker, progressive savior or socialist devil, hope for the future or hopeless naïf. The broader the fame, the more tangential the persona is to the actual person, since more people, groups, and mind-sets want to get in there and repurpose the avatar to their own ends.

A political cartoon that portrays you as a braying leftist ass is an attempt to corral AOC and redefine what she means. Your refusal to stand and applaud President Trump during the State of the Union address was read as both not-having-it defiance and immature sullenness. You know and subsequently articulated that it was the former, but you’re learning that the image will always be adjusted and warped to the agenda of others.

I assume you understand that all this has little to do with the human being at the back of the projector. That the only ones who truly know you are the people actually in your life: family, friends, colleagues, significant others. All else is our projection onto your projection. And all celebrity personas rest on archetypes, figures who have come before and filled various cultural niches and needs. The history of fame is nothing but a series of fresh avatars replacing previous avatars and spinning the archetypes forward. When I look at AOC, I see a savvy earnestness and a handful of visual/cultural signifiers — Latinx heritage, progressive politics, long black hair — that were initially established on the pop scene 50 years ago by singer-activist Joan Baez. That precursor partly dictates the demonization of the AOC avatar from voices on the right, much as Al Capp crudely parodied Baez as “Joanie Phoanie” in his “Lil Abner” comic strip in the 1960s.

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It’s also generally agreed that, because we are a shallow species, your initial fame has been helped by your being a young, attractive woman. The culture thinks it knows what to do when confronted with such a person in the public sphere: Look at her. And it believes she should be content to be looked at and not speak up. To not play that game — to not even care about the game because there are more pressing matters to attend to — is to cross the wires of those who know only how to look and who become angry when the look isn’t acknowledged. I admire that your response has been to address that anger without necessarily using it as leverage. AOC is still in the process of becoming, in full view of the public, and part of the thrill is in the sureness of your instincts.

Who’s the ‘real’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? It shouldn’t matter to anyone but yourself, but I think I caught a glimpse in Sundance audience award winner ‘Knock Down the House.’

Who’s the “real” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? It shouldn’t matter to anyone but yourself, but I think I caught a glimpse in “Knock Down the House,” a documentary that won an audience award at the recently concluded Sundance film festival. The movie, directed by Rachel Lears and due to arrive on Netflix in the coming months, follows four outsider candidates during the 2018 midterm elections; lucky for the filmmakers (less lucky for the other three) you were one of them.

You spoke in the Intercept interview of how everything changed with your primary win — which is where the documentary stops — and all the footage running up to that win is alive with the youthful enthusiasm of someone trying to bring about change and not thinking too hard about how she’s “projecting.” Maybe in years to come, if the border between person and persona ever starts feeling hazy, you can watch this film and remember who you are. Is it the “real” AOC? Feels like it. But only you’d know.

What’s the real version of anybody? The Buddhists maintain that there is no such thing as the self, and the older some of us get, the more honest that feels. We’re an evolving series of selves rather than a self. We’re provisional, a collection of tendencies, inclinations, and aversions that keeps forming and reforming, depending upon where we find ourselves, and when, and with whom. Sometimes one of those selves escapes into the mediated wild and becomes something else — something larger, with everyone assigning meanings like a game of pin the tail on the donkey. A lot of times, we miss the donkey entirely. But only you’d know.

It will be fascinating to see how the avatar evolves as the person and politician behind it becomes used to the ways of Washington, as the technology surpasses you, as a younger generation comes up from behind. How will you handle your first major gaffe (or second, or third)? That will say as much if not more about whether the cultural construct we’ve agreed to call AOC is built to last as long as you want it to, while your particular goals are being achieved. One senses that ultimately the avatar is of little importance to you, aside from being a cartoon of convenience. More to the point, one senses you’d rather project the persona of the America you want to see — and work to make it so.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.