On Friday afternoon, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood on the House floor in front of her peers in an effort to encourage her colleagues to take the threat of the coronavirus seriously. And she wanted to make sure she was heard.
Though her words were powerful on their own — “shameful!" definitely gets the point across — the image of the 30-year-old standing behind her podium, pointing her fingers and stamping her foot, made them all the more impactful. “She did everything she could possibly do to be strong,” says Patti Wood, a body language expert and the author of SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma.
Ocasio-Cortez represents the 14th district in New York, which is one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, in one of the most-infected states in the country. Dr. Colleen Smith, an ER doctor at Elmhurst Hospital, located in AOC’s district in Queens, gave the New York Times a glimpse at their dire state on Wednesday, decrying the lack of ventilators, the lack of proper protective equipment for staff, and the disorganization as they were flooded with nearly double the number of patients they typically see in a day.
But AOC was ready to fight for her and every other medical professional in the country — and she wasn’t going to be overlooked. “Our community’s reality is this country’s future,” she said, pointing her fingers at others in the room.
She wasn’t the only one to express her frustration. Rep. Hayley Stevens of Michigan was similarly impassioned, expressing her desire for the House to understand the gravity of the situation by raising her voice and also gesticulating. Ultimately, the relief bill that AOC and Stevens were fighting against, which prioritizes big-industry bailouts over immediate relief for workers, despite a stipend agreement, was passed by the House.
In demonstrating her anger, she expressed the urgency that so many of us in New York have felt as confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state reach almost 50,000. There is fear, there is anger, and there is frustration stemming from the fact that we were warned of the disaster to come, and yet our hospitals are still ill-equipped, hourly workers are afraid for their livelihoods, and, our neighbors are worried about how they will pay their rent.
But AOC’s not going to give up on the fight.
Here, Wood analyzed how Ocasio-Cortex used her body language to leverage her time before her peers.
On her large gestures:
Wood calls AOC’s gesturing “highly unusual,” in that it's incredibly dramatic. By raising her hands with her palms out and fingers spread out, she’s emphasizing how important the issue is, and to get her colleagues’ attention — as she says, to take in threat of the coronavirus with “eyes wide open.” Wood notes that the action is rarely done by women, as it’s akin to stage acting.
“It’s an enlarging gesture,” says Wood, “that tells you how important she thinks it is to have our ‘eyes wide open.’”
On her hands:
“[Ocasio-Cortez] starts with her hands in front of her — holding her own hand, both as a way to self-comfort herself,” explains Wood. “Also, she’s doing it top-down to get her emotions to come down a little bit. She pats her hand down, as if to try to keep from screaming.”
On her finger pointing:
“She does an expressive finger fling — she flings them outward when she says, ‘hardest hit in the city’ and ‘the hardest hit in the country,’” says Wood. This symbolizes “frustration and emotion coming outward, [she’s] throwing the emotion at [her fellow representatives] so they feel it.”
AOC begins to express her anger as she says the words, “13 dead in one night,” says Wood. When she mentions Elmhurst Hospital, “she puts her fingers in a symbolic gun,” adds Wood of the subconscious gesture. “It’s a combination of a pointing finger going up in the air as she says ‘Elmhurst,’ and then she’s pointing at [the people in the room] when she says ‘this country’s future.’”
On her downward motion:
“When she talks about hospitals not having protective equipment, she does very rapid pushing down motion,” adds Wood. “She strikes downward.”
She makes the same motion when discussing corporate bailouts. “That downward pointing emphasizes how negative she thinks those actions were. As she does that, her body goes downard too.” Whereas moving upwards indicates joy and excitement, Wood says, “we go down in depression, despondency, and sadness.”
On her foot stomping:
“When a parent stomps their foot in anger, it creates an emphasis of power,” says Wood. AOC stomps her foot when she calls the bill and corporate bailouts “shameful,” Wood adds, “she’s admonishing [them].”
Though she spent just one minute and 30 seconds speaking, her speech, according to Wood, accomplished two things: “It shows her anger and her frustration, but it also shows her strength and her power.”
“She did everything she could possibly do to be strong.”
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