The happy couple.
Photo: James Devaney/GC Images
This essay originally appeared in Take Up Space: the unprecedented AOC, a kaleidoscopic book-length biography by the editors of New York Magazine. We are republishing it today on the news engagement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Riley Roberts.
In the 2019 documentary Knock down the house, the audience was introduced to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s boyfriend. Well we weren’t introduced to him per se to the point that a few people spotted him across the room and immediately started asking anyone for information about him. “Who is AOC’s boyfriend?” explainers appeared on magazine websites. And soon after, many off-brand gossip sites, whose unfamiliar names sounded more like strong email passwords than reputable media headlines, joined the SEO gold rush and aggregated the few details available.
Here’s most of what we know: His name is Riley Roberts. He’s a web developer. He and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez met while at Boston University when they both went to hear the Dean speak. After graduating, the two separated for a little while but got back together for years and now cohabit. In Knock down the house, we see Ocasio-Cortez thinking, “I can do this.” “I know you can,” Roberts replies.
Their interactions in the documentary are sweet, and their backstory is remarkably basic (well, aside from halfway through the couple’s rise to national political prominence). Roberts himself also seems regular. He’s not a celebrity, nor (as far as I know) one of those nauseatingly wealthy non-celebrity types you’ll see in a picture with Taylor Swift or Rihanna, later finding out about People magazine that his grandfather invented cyanide or fracking or whatever and now, as long as he sticks to his CrossFit diet, he meets pop stars. Specifically, Roberts sounds like Boston Regular. Even though he’s not from Massachusetts, with his shaggy red hair and bushy beard, because I can, he looks like a dude you might have seen ten years ago walking out of Sunset Cantina as a friend of his named Sully was yelling his last name in an unmistakably local accent: RAWBITS!!!
The few moments spent on screen by Roberts in Knock down the house were greeted, at least online, with a resounding . . .Him? . . . which was unpleasant for both of them, well, him and to her. Voices from all over the internet questioned their pairing and denigrated Roberts’ looks in ways we’re still socially allowed to do with men, but barely. A now infamous viral tweet compared his appearance to that of a ‘trash can raccoon’, which was especially cruel given that a raccoon in a trash barrel doesn’t even look that different from a trash can. a raccoon in the forest.
The criticism spawned a series of fiery defenses and ultimately a tongue-in-cheek post on AOC’s Instagram stating that “the internet pushed Riley to get a haircut/shine”. Outlets of Refinery29 to Daily mailcovered this makeover, basically working with the story: “Man Visits Barber.” Even the bright photos featured Roberts in a BU t-shirt, with the name of the university printed in letters reminiscent of the Red Sox logo, which looks like the big reveal of the final scene of a show called Right eye for the right guy.
After the initial flurry of attention, Roberts remained largely out of the public eye, save for two appearances on rep Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram account. One was the aforementioned glow. The other was a brief video of him alongside AOC, filmed during an informal Q&A session, in response to a question about “fighting racism as a white person.” It was blogged with the approval of left-wing publications and with the eyes of right-wing racist factories. After that, Roberts’ presence retreated to the fringes of Ocasio-Cortez’s social media accounts, much like Jay-Z does when Beyoncé has an important Beyoncé job to do.
Roberts probably has a bit more intimacy as the male partner of a female politician than when the gender roles are reversed. It’s subject to less ancillary bullshit like the “Wives of House Representatives Flag Day Pie Bake-Off”, or whatever its current iteration is. There’s less pressure on him to look sexy (but modest) in vacation photos or to raise perfect kids while leading a philanthropic initiative to end child trafficking or eliminate pop-up ads (according to the cause that is closest to his heart). He’s getting into web development, a career that isn’t particularly glamorous or glamorous. Imagine if Dr. Jill Biden had a job doing like. . . business-to-business marketing for a company that sells energy-efficient printers. In fact, I think it would be kind of fun.
Roberts is not, himself, a famous or powerful person. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in being famous or influential, either independently or because of his famous and influential girlfriend. Nor is he, to our knowledge, secretly terrible in a way that compromises his partner’s politics; he’s not vice president of Amazon, the company Ocasio-Cortez has argued with over the location of his new headquarters, which would have made for a modern, albeit bleak, update to You’ve got mail . And he’s not an Anthony Weiner-type husband, more famous for his many improprieties and infidelities than for his accomplishments at this point. (What else did Anthony Weiner do for the job? I mean celebrity chef?) We don’t know that a lot about Riley Roberts, and we don’t know need for.
Given the lack of information provided, I couldn’t avoid projecting my own thoughts onto Roberts and Ocasio-Cortez. I’m always charmed by couples who stay together after a member has become famous. Doesn’t everyone feel that? I think it’s because we like to imagine ourselves acting the same way: staying faithful, oblivious to the access and opportunity our newfound fame has given us. It’s also nice to see a guy who knows when to stay away and not put himself in the center of attention; it’s something I should be better at in my skin. Again, I project here.
What we know of Roberts does not fit the stereotype of a politician’s partner. He doesn’t seem focused on focus groups or trained in media for state dinners and press conferences. We know he is supportive and encouraging in private. And his expertise, when it comes to his public image, is his elusiveness and restraint. These are two qualities that require strength, but not in the way we think men are strong. When a man is silent, it’s traditionally in a stoic, authoritative way, like a rock formation that’s also your father, projecting importance. And when a man is supportive, he’s expected to be loud and informative, like a car alarm driving high school football. But Roberts is, publicly at least, neither of those things.
I admire Roberts’ tenacious invisibility largely because I can’t imagine being okay with it. It brings me great joy to see my wife flourish. I’m also chronically wired and terminally online, constantly tweeting silly jokes and even more silly heartfelt thoughts. My whisper from across the table comes out at the volume of a TED Talk. And if I’m being honest with myself, I think it would be hard to give up all that public persona to support my wife’s career. And if I’m quit Afterhonest with myself (who, yuck, who needs it?), I don’t know how much this need for recognition is inherent in who I am deep down inside, and how much I’m allowed to ignore it shoot as a man. I expect to be able to occupy as much social space as I want, regardless of my wife’s needs.
Not Riley Roberts though. He’s the perfect beta version of AOC’s alpha – tiptoeing into the public sphere, leaving little evidence of his presence, the social equivalent of a cyclist’s carbon footprint. I feel guilty even writing about Riley Roberts; he obviously doesn’t want to be talked about and he hasn’t done anything to make me disrespect his wishes. So I hope from now on we leave him in peace, quietly glowing in the shine of someone else’s star.
Adapted from Take Up Space: the unprecedented AOC. Published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2022.