From the moment of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC for short) confirmation to the US Congress as Democratic representative from New York, her red lipstick has been the object of intense attention by the press, from young women’s and beauty magazines like The Cut and Teen Vogue to political journals like The Hill. Thanks to the scrutiny, we are all aware that her favorite lipstick brand is Stila Stay All Day. Also, much has been made of the fact that the press is following a well-worn script by focusing on the appearance rather than the substance of an influential woman politician. And yet, I would argue that her lipstick is as meaningful as the substance of her powerful proposals, and I would go so far as to argue that it is coextensive with them. What is then the meaning of AOC’s red lipstick?
Elizabeth Arden famously gave lipsticks to the suffragettes as a sign of solidarity in 1912 suggesting the political power of red lipstick. Its power is also apparent in a video that went viral in 2015, where Jasmina Glubovska puts on red lipstick during a protest in Macedonia, and uses the shield of the military police as if it were a mirror. Red lipstick also suggests the sexual power of women. Perhaps actresses of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (1930-1954) like María Félix, Libertad Lamarque and Dolores Del Río wore it best in their Latinized versions of the femme fatale. But, it was the Latina actress Margarita Cansino (aka Rita Hayworth) who gave us the most lasting impression of the femme fatale in the 1946 film Gilda.
The late Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferré (my mother) says in her 2016 Memoir that the political and sexual power of women arrived at her house when she was seven-years-old in the form of Gilda Ventura, her seventeen-year-old nanny. My mother tells that her mother would set as an example for her the American actresses Doris Day and Grace Kelly because they were prim and proper, blond, and well educated. But, when her Puerto Rican nanny took my mother to see María Félix in the local cinema, and she saw her wild dark hair and her incredibly long red fingernails, my mother found her to be more striking than the washed out Hollywood actresses, whom her mother favored. Most of all, my mother loved to see Gilda Ventura expertly put on her blood red cundeamor lipstick with one bold stroke of her hand. Gilda’s simple but powerful act of self-affirmation and rebellion against the family’s mores inspired my mother to fight for social justice later in life.
Gilda’s gesture of resistance is similar to the reaction of Sonia Sotomayor when she was warned to keep her nail color neutral during her confirmation hearings as Supreme Court Justice of the United States. Sotomayor boldly went against tradition and painted her nails fire engine red. AOC wrote that she was inspired by the Supreme Court Justice to wear lipstick and hoops for her confirmation and she continued, “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman”. AOC’s reference to the bravura of Puerto Rican women born in New York City is a fearless reappropriation of a stereotype widely spread by the character of Anita in the musical West Side Story. It is also a reference, conscious or unconscious, to another Puerto Rican, this time of flesh and blood, who went from the West Side of New York City to the US Congress. The Puerto Rican Lolita Lebrón notoriously put on her dark red lipstick before leading the attack that left five Congressmen wounded.
Lolita was a Puerto Rican nationalist who led a group of revolutionaries to the US Congress in 1954 and performed a doubly illegal act. Not only did she shoot a Luger from the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Representatives, but she also cried out “Viva Puerto Rico” at a time when a Gag Law made it illegal not only to display a Puerto Rican flag (which she also did) but also to speak or write of Puerto Rican independence. Press coverage at the time deployed the stereotype of the madwoman committed to a suicidal political cause, and suggested as proof the seemingly incompatible fact that she had gone to Congress in her Sunday best, dressed to the nines, and wearing red lipstick. The Washington Post Magazine recirculated the stereotype fifty years later, in 2004, when it ran a feature story with the title “When Terror Wore Lipstick,” and put the picture of Lolita’s heavily made-up face on the cover all colored red. And yet, behind Lolita’s stereotypical red lips, and despite her famous words “I did not come to kill, I came do die for Puerto Rico,” her story also makes one feel the presence of an act of singular and powerful self-affirmation that cost Lolita her freedom and that she paid for with 25 years of prison.
The character of Anita of West Side Story made her Broadway debut (so to speak) in 1957, three years after Lolita’s attack. Anita was the creation of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robins, and Chita Rivera. Rita Moreno reprised the role for the 1961 film version. Together, they successfully deployed the stereotype of the dark haired señorita with a Puerto Rican twist. Anita performs exciting Mexican and Spanish-inspired dance moves (that have nothing to do with the Puerto Rican musical tradition); she puckers her sultry red lips, and provokes her boyfriend Bernardo to a war of the sexes in the memorable “I Like to Live in America”. The song is a fascinating statement to the creators’ ambivalence about the process of Americanizing a people that clearly resisted the melting pot. Anita’s heavily accented voice with her rolling “r”s comes across as strikingly ambiguous. She likes to live in America to the point of cursing her island of origin. “Puerto Rico”, she sings ironically, “My heart’s devotion. Let it sink back in the ocean.” And, she uses her wicked tongue to defend her friend, María. When Bernardo questions María’s virtue, Anita says “She was only dancing” and when Bernardo adds, “with an American who’s really a Polack”, Anita ends the argument with the withering “says the Spic”. Anita curses her country and does not think twice about wielding the power of the “s” word against her sexist Puerto Rican boyfriend. But, as in the case of Lolita Lebrón, one cannot but feel the singular power of a back talking in-your-face feminine voice.
AOC garners the power of the words from the red lips of these women and liberates them from stereotypes that reduce Gilda to a femme fatale, Lolita to a suicidal hysteric and Anita to a self-hating spoiler. Instead, AOC redeploys this singularity to produce and disseminate bold and ambitious ideas well worth debating and discussing in our legislative chambers, ideas like the top 70 % tax rate plan and the Green New Deal. In this context, it seems appropriate that the name of the color of AOC’s favorite lipstick is in Spanish, and it is Beso. The word has the same Latin root as the archaic English word “buss” meaning to kiss and to smack. In fact, buss is a blend of bass and cuss. The color Beso then suggests the powerful emotions behind kissing, cussing and smacking. Emotions that this Latina Congresswoman harnesses with measured words that land smack in the kisser of Patriarchy.
Note: I would like to thank Kelly Oliver for her invaluable help with this piece.