On September 13, 2021, as the sun set over the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, luxury cars hit the red carpet and celebrities in designer dresses walked into the flashing lights of the paparazzi. The Met Gala is widely known as America’s Biggest Party and features the country’s best-known names, all dressed new to fit a specific theme. This year the theme was “America: A Lexicon of Fashion” according to a traveling exhibition hosted at the Met (Borelli-Persson, 2021). While the theme is often broad and encompasses a wide range of fashion possibilities, this year’s theme resulted in a cacophony of styles and opinions depicted on the red carpet. In particular, the public saw a large number of political opinions expressed in writing on the clothes themselves. From Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress to Cara Delevigne’s “Peg the Patriarchy” vest, celebrities are raising their voices to defend causes close to their hearts. The question I want to ask is: is their message really meaningful?
In recent years, social media platforms have seen an increase in online activism, as local organizations nationally and locally are turning to Instagram to coordinate and spread awareness. This, in turn, led to what people now call “performative activism”. This is where a person will post a photo or phrase without actually recognizing the problem in any meaningful way. For example, the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag movement in June 2020 saw accounts posting black squares in “solidarity” with the Black Lives Matter movement; however, many of those same accounts showed no evidence of ever attending protests, gathering information, or donating money to these causes. Ultimately, the black square symbolized nothing more than a blank screen, devoid of any real help or information to the cause it claimed to support. Moreover, these posts often came without context or explanation, leaving their audience to draw their own conclusions about the real meaning of the statement.
The phrases about dresses and costumes at the Met Gala seem to echo these examples of performative activism. While celebrities and influencers using their platforms to raise awareness on sensitive issues are undoubtedly an admirable sentiment, these statements are without explanation or real support for these causes. For example, Cara Delevigne’s “Peg the Patriarchy” vest seems to express a fiery feminist opinion but offers viewers no idea of how to actually work to undo patriarchal systems of injustice. Kris Jenner’s “Say the Name” covers don’t actually say the names of people lost to police brutality, nor do they direct viewers to places to donate funds to families or organizations. Pete Davidson arrived dressed in a jacket that read “Racism = Nope,” a crude oppressive euphemism that trivializes the experience of blacks in America (Higley, 2021). Even the “Tax the Rich” dress worn by AOC fails to draw viewers’ attention to the work it did in Congress to support impoverished people in America. These statements, separated from their contexts and splashed onto the fabric, actually distract from those who risk their lives every day for progress in America and do nothing more than draw attention to the bearers as “Good people” who care about American problems. They are a demonstration of virtue devoid of meaning, lacking in authenticity and accomplishing next to nothing.
Ultimately, however problematic the nature of these messages, they correspond Perfectly in the theme: an American lexicon of jarring messages and fighting voices, where shouted celebrity statements eclipse the real progress made by individuals and local organizations. The political fashions of the Met Gala represent the sheltered reflections of the capitalist elite in a desperate attempt to appear relatable, and I’m not buying it. When celebrities and influencers donate their fortunes to defeat systems of oppression or spend their days walking the streets to raise awareness, then I’ll be happy to see them parading in their finery. Until then, we’ll just have to do the job ourselves.
If you would like to donate for the issues these celebrities have tried to raise awareness about, here is a list of organizations to consider:
- The Trevor project
- The Land Back movement
- Black lives matter
- Local women’s health clinics