Inside Pop Culture’s Obsession With AOC

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is parodied on both ‘The Boys’ and ‘Space Force’. Why?

AOC strawman ‘Victoria Neuman’ from Amazon’s “The Boys” after assassinating a religious leader| GIF courtesy of Amazon Prime

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a supervillain.

No, this isn’t someright-wing conspiracy theory floating around on Parler (although given Parler, who knows really) — it's a plot point of The Boys, the superhero dark comedy from Prime Video. Its massively popular second season revolved around a central mystery: who’s assassinating powerful figures with a Scanners-esque telekinetic explosion of their noggins? In the very final scene, the assassin is revealed to be Congresswoman Victoria Neuham, a minor character eerily evocative of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, down to the viral dance video and everything. Ergo, AOC is a supervillain.

This isn’t an isolated portrayal. Space Force, the shockingly bad Steve Carrell vehicle, uses its own AOC strawman. Anabela Ysidro-Campos — given the nickname of “AYC” — is a minor antagonist in the first half of the season. She’s a well-dressed minority politician who speaks during congressional hearings against the interests of the principal protagonists. Another AOC.

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Ginger Gonzago as “AYC” stares down the protagonists during the third episode of “Space Force” | Image courtesy of Netflix

Okay, okay. But these are both politically-minded shows — it’s natural for them to mock established politicians. One need only turn your attention to Sunday morning headlines to see the latest SNL parody of President Trump’s latest gaffe.

But this…this feels different. For one, the speed of this parody is staggering. AOC only recently emerged into the political arena, taking the oath in January 2019. These two shows were filmed back in 2019 and early 2020 — the writers must have been fictionalizing a barely sworn-in freshman Congresswoman. And heaven knows there are plenty of controversial politicians in the United States, most have more tenure and power than AOC. Why hasn’t a Mitch McConnell stand-in appeared in Season 7 of Veep? Or a Bernie Sanders -type on The Politician? Why her? Why AOC?

To paraphrase Regina George: why are they so obsessed with her?

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AOC smiles after leaving the Capitol | Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom via ZUMA

Before diving into pop culture’s various AOC straw(wo?)men, we should first examine her depiction and brand in the real-world. And since she’s a woman of color and this is America, we must return to these good ol’ fashioned hallmarks of conservative ire: racism and sexism.

Any female leader (especially female leaders of color) must leap over invisible hurdles their male counterparts whoosh by: their confidence is mistaken for shrillness, assertion for anger. For example, when Kamala Harris prepared for the Vice President debate with Mike Pence, she had to carefully dodge and duck around white Americans’ stereotypes for both her gender and race. She said “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” because the American public would have never allowed a “Will you shut up man?”

And yes, at least one of these shows understands the bigotry against AOC. Within the first episode of Space Force, AYC’s confidence is interpreted as anger — “there goes there angry woman congresswoman” — reinforcing how women of color’s image is funneled through a racist and sexist sieve. However, the show never pulls back the curtain to criticism this bigotry; one could even argue this throwaway line is actually an endorsement of bigoted microaggressions.

The Right hates AOC because she embodies this idea that the Left actually enacts what they believe. As such, their criticisms of her center of alleged hypocrisy.

But the more I’ve observed the rise of AOC through conservative news outlets and the festering swamp that is the comment section of Fox News, the more I feel that there’s something else going on. Sexism and racism, yes, but there’s another ingredient in this AOC hatred stew. Within a few months of her swearing-in, a whopping 70% of Americans had already formed an impression of her (that’s far more than Barack Obama during his entire first term). She is uniquely talked-about within politics, even for a woman of color.

What gives? The answer, I believe lies in her persona.

Unlike Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, or Hillary Clinton, AOC doesn’t just present herself as a politician, but also as a person. Her online presence is more indicative of an influencer or celebrity: she hosts make-up demos and talks with queens backstage on RuPaul’s Drag Race and even frequents the cover of fashion magazines. Her Twitter profile isn’t stiff. She frequently discusses her working-woman past. The message is clear: she’s just a normal person who happens to work in politics.

To be clear, this isn’t abnormal in and of itself: every politician has a public persona. “He’s the kind of guy I’d want to have a beer with!” But AOC’s persona is different — it’s more grounded, more modern, more 2020. She doesn't just Tweet, she streams Among Us on Twitch. She doesn’t just post images, she posts GIFs of her dance moves.

In an analysis of AOC’s place within meme culture and social media, reporter Lam Thuy Vo argues that AOC’s appeal lies in her familiarity and accessibility. Her Instagram captions tell jokes, use emojis, and express vulnerability. She tweets more than Trump. She dances inside the Capitol and posts images of it online like a teen TikTok-er. “This kind of political expression allows people to remix their own personal experience with Ocasio-Cortez’s story and political messaging,” writes Vo, “It’s the millennial equivalent of a campaign button.”

Authenticity is a driving force behind her stardom.

But as much as she’s loved, she’s hated. According to a Time magazine report, Capitol police were so concerned with death threats that AOC’s aides have to screen potential visitors. It’s rare to see one of her public images (a magazine cover or a public tweet) not inundated with hate messages and right-wing trolling. Fox News has a field day criticizing her clothes and appearance.

These criticisms go further than the “I hate food stamps because of capitalism” mindset that drives most conservative attacks on socialist candidates. They hate her. As a human being. Despite her age, AOC commands an understanding of policy roughly equal to any member of Congress (according to Nate Silver) but there are entire conservative websites designed to promote her latest gaffes. Of course, sexism and racism are contributing factors, but this hatred is not of AOC, the politician, but AOC, the persona.

The Right hates Representative Ocasio-Cortez because she embodies this idea that the Left actually enacts what they believe. As such, their criticisms of her center of alleged hypocrisy. She “pretends to be a champion of the people,” argues conservative blow-hard Charlie Kirk. She’s “out of touch” and “deaf,” says Nate Church from Breitbart. Columnist Christine Rosen calls her a delusional, out-of-touch hypocrite for *checks notes* calling an Uber.

The media depictions of Ocasio-Cortez depict her as a showboating, shallow, hypocritical politician — because that’s the only way her enemies can reckon with her policy behavior. In a world where right-wing politicians sell their constituents out for a super PAC donation or a single tweet of endorsement from President You-Know-Who, AOC’s fervent enthusiasm is Kryptonite. The Right can’t understand that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t a performative politician.

If AOC isn’t a political facade, then what excuse do conservatives have to hide behind theirs?

Which brings us back to The Boys.

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Claudia Doumit as Victoria Neuman appears on TV during an episode of “The Boys” | Image courtesy of Prime Video

Neuman, the AOC from The Boys, spends the entirety of the second season fighting corruption (except it’s the superhero kind, not the real-world kind). She targets the high-profile Vought, a cash-gobbling conglomerate more than willing to fund terrorism if it boosts their bottom line. It could even be read as an allegory for taking on fracking corporations or the gun lobby, similar to AOC’s MO.

The reveal that Neuman is actually a supervillain shows that she too is corrupt. Her rallies to her constituents were just shallow facades, her negotiations with members of Congress were just smoke and mirrors. Behind everything was a supervillain desperate for power, willing to say or do anything to take it.

Space Force takes a more pedestrian version of the same argument. During a Congressional hearing, AYC uses props, showmanship, and pettiness to argue to dissolve the central space program. In a rousing (yet illogical) speech, protagonist General Naird rebels against her inquiry, complete with stirring orchestral accompaniment. The generals walk away from the hearing with the Congresswoman defeated. The audience clears.

Right-wing news outlooks gleefully took notice of the scene, one even said the series “put AOC in her place.” Again, they don’t actually criticize AOC’s policy, but her manner of delivering it. But through musical and directorial choices, her legitimate concerns are portrayed as shallow, only designed to get clicks on a millennial website.

Space Force and The Boys re-imagine AOC, the public persona, because that’s what America’s collective conscious fears more.

By constructing strawman versions of Ocasio-Cortez, television writers are able to subtly express the idea that she doesn’t actually believe what she says and does. It criticizes her platform as nothing better than Kylie Jenner handing a cop a Pepsi in a commercial: purely performative. And, like most strawmen, it’s pretty compelling, at least at first. And, yeah, as you can probably guess from my tone here, I do believe in AOC’s vision, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that you shouldn’t cave to a strawman argument so easily. It allows a viewer to walk away from these political television shows content to firmly ignore any problems that politicians like AOC are trying to fix.

The Right can’t understand that Ocasio-Cortez and other leftists aren’t just performing the idea of compassion.

I know, I know. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. We’re talking about two TV shows where characters talk to whales and accidentally freeze monkeys in space. “Why can’t you let us enjoy things!” and all that jazz.

But pop culture, especially behemoths like The Boys, both reflect and change our society’s ideals. And right now, they are criticizing authenticity itself, the fervent desire to make the world a better place, by painting it as a supervillain’s alter ego. So maybe AOC really is a supervillain in the eyes of the conservative Americans. And her authenticity is her power.

A queer, herbivorous, leftist Viking. I write about society, justice, and popular media. UChicago grad. Based in Iceland.

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