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Was the 2021 Met Gala a Display of Performative Activism?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

This year’s Met Gala not only broke headlines through the fashion industry but also among politicians such as Donald Trump Jr. for the messages that celebrities brought to the red carpet. With this year’s theme being “American Independence,” fashion’s biggest night was bound to draw attention from the political realm as well. 

Attendees such as Cara Delevingne, who wore a breastplate with the words “Peg the Patriarchy,” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose dress read “Tax the Rich” across the backside, used this year’s theme as a medium to speak out in support of various causes. The words on these outfits were bright red, which was in stark contrast to their white outfits, making their statements impossible to miss even amongst the lavish display of wealth the Met fundraiser brings.

The Gala’s displays of political viewpoints go to show how the boundaries between politics and mainstream entertainment continue to fade away. In recent years, we’ve seen politics seep further into Hollywood’s most exclusive nights, such as the Oscars and the Grammy’s, with winners exchanging the typical thank you speech for a display of advocacy. It is no surprise that celebrities used the Met Gala as their platform as well. 

Critics, however, called out many of these statements as purely performative. They pointed to the irony that celebrities preached financial and social equality while paying $35,000 for a ticket to attend the event itself. In general, all activism through fashion is, in a sense, performative. Designers are trying to buy consumers with their ideas. Because there is always a product on the line, any political statement made directly from a designer or through their model is only intended to uplift the brand’s image in the eyes of the general public.

But the thing is, a statement such as “Peg the Patriarchy” is not even a highly controversial line for viewers of the Met Gala. The general public can agree that we still live in a society where women do not have equal opportunity. Even a statement such as “Tax the Rich,” while admittedly more subjective, does not add a novel idea to the greater conversation surrounding tax brackets on America’s ultra-wealthy. However, this doesn’t mean that displays of broad and common political statements are bad or performative. 

What critics need to realize is that art is intrinsically political. Fashion and politics have long been intertwined. Trying to separate art from the political and cultural background from which it was created diminishes its meaning.

It may do well to think of this year’s Met Gala looks as less of a show of activism and more of a portrayal of the country’s zeitgeist. Taken into context, considering events such as the country entering year three of a global pandemic, racial disparities continuing to divide us, and the economic gap only growing wider, statements such as “Tax the Rich” do not seem as forceful or out of place anymore. 

Celebrities at the Met Gala have long made subtle statements with their stylistic choices; it’s just that this year’s statements were more direct and apparent. The severity that these outfits took on on the Gala’s carpet is just a reflection of the severity of the American situation, a nod to the era of intense and bitter political disagreement that we live in.

Tanya Kurnootala is a sophomore at VCU majoring in biology. She enjoys writing about issues that enrich the female perspective, with a focus on politics and women's health.
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