Close Reading The Late Show: What Comedy Tells Us About Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez inspires such vitriol from conservatives (a years-old video of her joyfully dancing on a rooftop apparently classifies her as a “clueless nitwit”) and such enthusiasm from liberals (the same video prompted appreciative nods from the likes of Shaun King, Molly Ringwald, and Phoenix) that it would require active avoidance of the news to remain unaware of her. If, however, you didn’t recognize Alexandria Ocasio Cortez as you watched her walk out to a cheering crowd on The Late Show this past July, you would have little reason to peg her as a U.S. Representative. Cortez enters, not with the buttoned-up demeanor of a professional used to maintaining an image in front of a crowd, but like a Stephen Colbert fan who can’t believe she’s been invited onstage. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, she rushes into Colbert’s arms and then turns to wave vigorously at the crowd before sitting down at his desk, though she meets her host’s eyes for mere moments before her gaze flits disbelievingly back to the crowd. “Hi, wow!” she exclaims with an unbridled energy that seems both youthful and genuine--two adjectives an average American would be unlikely to employ if asked to describe “politician.”
Those two adjectives are, however, at the root of Democratic socialist Cortez’s appeal; at a time in which disillusionment with the political system transcends party lines, serving as an antithesis to the traditional is intelligent branding. It’s also effective. As a visibly impressed Colbert explains, a mere three weeks before the primary election, Cortez polled 36 points lower than incumbent congressman Joe Crowley--who she ended up unseating in what the Times called “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade.”
Cortez’s unprecedented success (add “youngest woman to ever serve in Congress” to the list), like her profession, belies her demeanor on The Late Show. She fills gaps in her sentences with “like,”s punctuates them with “literally”s, but these speech habits do not imply lack of polish or self-awareness like some of the comments on Colbert’s Youtube channel suggest. Cortez simply isn’t interested in refinement; as epitomized by her November 20th tweet “I am who I work for,” she’s aligning herself with those people (mostly young, mostly liberal) who feel cheated by and jaded with our democracy, those who don’t see themselves or their interests reflected in smooth talking candidates.
Cortez’s relatability is evident in her appearance on Colbert, from the way she walks out onto the stage (just as excited and starstruck as any of us would be) to the way she refers to herself at the end of the interview: “I don’t think Trump knows how to handle a girl from the Bronx,” she exclaims to a cheering crowd. Not a “politician” from the Bronx. Just a “girl.” Cortez isn’t the first politician to try to provide an accessible, relatable figure to win over millennial voters, who have surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation--Hillary Clinton whipping and nae nae-ing on The Ellen Show in 2015 comes to mind. But young voters don’t want antics. Whether this reaction was rooted in misogyny or not, millennials mocked Clinton’s performance on The Ellen Show, likening it to a robot masquerading as human.
Cortez, however, has been successful in actually impassioning America’s youth. Halfway through her interview, she tells Colbert about two young supporters she encountered on election night--“19 year olds voting in an off-year midterm primary election,” she impresses on him, her pitch rising. These young boys weren’t responding to an appearance of accessibility--Cortez’s authenticity isn’t manufactured. She is a 29 year old woman who spent her post-grad years bartending and waitressing to help her mother keep their home in the wake of her father’s death. That intrinsic knowledge of what it means to be a struggling young person cannot be fabricated, and doesn’t need to be--Cortez’s campaign spent $194,000 compared to Crowley’s $3.4 million.
This discrepancy in spending should not be confused with a discrepancy in effort; Cortez’s campaign shoes, riddled with holes she earned knocking on door after door in the Bronx, are now on display at the Cornell Costume Collection exhibit as a physical example of her hard work. Try as Republicans might to brush off Cortez’s success, attributing it to demographics, politicians should pay attention. She’s figured out how to achieve the seemingly-impossible task of inspiring voters: understanding that pandering to young people is dehumanizing and underestimates their intelligence. Cortez doesn’t rely on branding, but holds herself to relentless hard work and authenticity, refusing to cloak herself with a cultivated public image--which, as it turns out, results in a singularly positive public image.