Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is sitting barefoot on the sofa in her apartment, making circles with her outstretched arms. It’s June 2018, a few weeks before her primary against sitting congressman Joseph Crowley, and she’s being filmed for the documentary “Knock Down the House.” She’s about to debate Crowley for the first time.
“I need to take up space,” she says, closing her eyes. “I need to take up space.”
She puts her head in her hands, then looks over at her boyfriend.
“I can do this,” she says. It’s more of a question than a statement.
“I know you can,” he tells her.
This is the kind of moment that, 10 years ago, a female candidate probably would not have wanted on screen.
But that’s changing, says Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “You’re seeing more and more women, like AOC, willing to humanize themselves and let people in on what it’s really like to run for office, and be in office,” Fischer Martin says.
“This film captures a historic moment … a trend among the female candidates in 2018 to share more vulnerability,” says “Knock Down the House” director Rachel Lears. In the documentary, released Wednesday on Netflix, Lears follows four working-class female candidates as they challenge long-serving male incumbents in Democratic primaries: Amy Vilela from Arizona, Cori Bush from Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin from West Virginia and, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, who went on to win a seat in the House representing New York’s 14th congressional district. It was the first time any of them had run for elected office.
“In the past they would have been advised, ‘Never talk about your kids. Never show any emotion on the campaign trail,’ nothing like that. But [leading up to the 2018 election], there was some kind of broader shift happening,” says Lears.
Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t the only successful candidate to sign up for an in-depth documentary in 2018. Throughout her campaign and first few months in office, Rep. Katie Hill (D), a freshman from California’s 25th congressional district, agreed to be filmed for the Vice documentary series “She’s Running.” In one episode, Hill sits cross-legged in flannel pajamas, talking about the hardest parts of her campaign.
“There have been times when I’ve wanted to quit,” she says, looking straight into the camera. “This is a hard thing, especially when I look at my life, right, the things that we were able to do, the traveling, the hobbies, all of that stuff. And some days, it gets to you.”
Other women in the freshman class have talked — and tweeted — openly about relying on each other for support in their new jobs on the Hill. In an interview with filmmaker Ava DuVernay for Interview Magazine, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) described the all-consuming pressure she feels as one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. “You get to feel like you’re drowning in it,” she says, “because you don’t want to mess this first thing up for everyone you want to hold the door open for.”
This trend toward public displays of vulnerability stems from the success of candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who were not expected to win their primary elections, says Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics and gender at the University of Virginia. Throughout the primaries, Lawless says, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley were relatively free to break from standard campaign norms of behavior, sharing vulnerabilities and insecurities with voters because they “were not running in the national spotlight” or being micromanaged by various interest groups or the Democratic Party. When their strategy worked, Lawless says, they saw no reason to change it in Washington. Other young female representatives have followed their lead.
Social media makes all of this openness possible, says Fischer Martin, giving candidates and officials the tools to show as much of themselves as they’d like. It’s now normal for lawmakers — particularly the younger set — to post videos of themselves on Instagram or Facebook. Ocasio-Cortez filmed herself making Ikea furniture; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) filmed herself drinking a beer.
“My sense is that most of [the newly-elected congresswomen] are quite young,” says Lawless. “They have grown up in the digital age, basically communicating every thought and feeling via social media.”
Of course, Lears says, much of the openness is calculated. Among today’s younger candidates and elected officials, she says, “there is almost a race to perform [vulnerability] on social media.” Many of the freshman congresswomen, in particular, emphasize their lack of prior political experience, and the “real” jobs they had before coming to Congress.
“So much of what we don’t like about Washington is that everyone is a professional politician: They are masters of the sound bite; there is nothing real. When you see a person actually experiencing emotions, you think, ‘Maybe that person isn’t like the other 534 people that are there.’”
Filming “Knock Down the House,” Lears spent weeks with each candidate. She captured a lot of vulnerable moments but chose to only use a few. “You don’t want to just throw it all out there. We made sure there wasn’t too much ... because otherwise it kind of cheapens it,” she says. Her favorite moments to capture were the ones where the candidate was feeling too much to think about how she was presenting herself for the camera: for Bush, Vilela and Swearengin, right after losing the primary, or, for Ocasio-Cortez, right after winning it.
On election night, once it had become clear her opponent had won, Vilela started to sob, holding her head in her hands in her living room. In the film, the camera lingers on her as she cries. When Vilela saw that scene for the first time, she remembers thinking: “What in the? You’ve got to take that out.” Now, though, she says she’s glad it’s in there. She hopes her public expression of emotion will convince more working-class women that “real people” run for office — and that they can, too.
“All the time, we’re always told, ‘You can never show them you’re crying. You cannot show weakness.’ But we need people to realize that it’s okay to lose. It’s okay to self-doubt. It’s normal for you to not be sure if this is what you should be doing,” Vilela says.