This essay originally appeared in Take Up Space: The Unprecedented AOC, a book-length, kaleidoscopic biography by the editors of New York Magazine. We’re republishing it today on the news of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Riley Roberts’s engagement.
In the 2019 documentary Knock Down the House, the public was introduced to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s boyfriend. Well, we weren’t introduced to him per se so much as a few people spotted him across the room and immediately began plying anyone in sight for information about him. “Who Is AOC’s Boyfriend?” explainers popped up on magazine websites. And soon after, many off-brand gossip sites, whose unfamiliar names seemed more like strong email passwords than the titles of reputable news outlets, joined the SEO gold rush and aggregated the few available details.
Here’s most of what we know: His name is Riley Roberts. He’s a web developer. He and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez met while they were in college at Boston University when they both went to hear the dean speak. After graduating, the two broke up for a little while but have been back together for years and are now cohabitating. In Knock Down the House, we see Ocasio-Cortez tell herself, “I can do this.” “I know you can,” Roberts replies.
Their interactions in the documentary are sweet, and their story is remarkably basic (well, aside from one-half of the couple’s rise to national political prominence). Roberts himself seems regular too. He’s not a celebrity, nor is he (as far as I know) one of those nauseatingly wealthy non-celebrity types whom you’ll see in a photo with Taylor Swift or Rihanna, later finding out from People magazine that his grandfather invented cyanide or fracking or whatever and now, as long as he keeps up his CrossFit regimen, he gets to date pop stars. Specifically, Roberts seems Boston Regular. Even though he’s not originally from Massachusetts, with his shaggy red hair and his bushy, because-I-can beard, he seems like a dude you might have seen ten years ago ambling out of Sunset Cantina as one of his friends named Sully bellowed his surname in an unmistakably local accent: RAWBITS!!!
Roberts’s few moments of screen time in Knock Down the House were met, online at least, with a resounding . . . Him? . . . which felt unkind to both, well, him and to her. Voices from across the internet called their pairing into question and disparaged Roberts’s appearance in a way that we are still socially allowed to do with men, but barely. A now-infamous viral tweet likened his appearance to that of a “bin raccoon,” which felt especially cruel considering that a raccoon in a trash barrel doesn’t even look that different from one in the forest.
The criticism spawned a series of spirited defenses and eventually a tongue-in-cheek post on AOC’s Instagram stating that “the internet roasted Riley into getting a haircut/glowup.” Outlets from Refinery29 to the Daily Mail covered this makeover, essentially running with the story: “Man Visits Barber.” Even the glowup photos featured Roberts in a BU T-shirt, with the university’s name printed in typeface reminiscent of the Red Sox logo, which feels like the big reveal in the final scene of a show called Straight Eye for the Straight Guy.
After the initial flurry of attention, Roberts has mostly stayed out of the public eye, with the exceptions of two appearances on Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram account. One was the aforementioned glowup. The other was a brief video of him alongside AOC, filmed during an informal Q&A session, in response to a question about “combating racism as a white person.” It was blogged about with approval by left-leaning publications and with eye-rolls by right-leaning racism factories. After that, Roberts’s presence receded to the fringes of Ocasio-Cortez’s social-media accounts, the way Jay-Z does when Beyoncé has important Beyoncé work to do.
Roberts is likely afforded a little more privacy as the male partner of a female politician than when the gender roles are reversed. He’s subjected to less auxiliary 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 hot (but modest) in holiday photos or to raise perfect children while heading up a philanthropy initiative to end child trafficking or eliminate pop-up ads (whichever cause is closer to his heart). He gets to work in web development, a career that is not particularly prestigious or glamorous. Imagine if Dr. Jill Biden had a job doing like . . . business-to-business marketing for a company that sells energy-efficient printers. Actually, I think that would be kind of fun.
Roberts is not, himself, a famous or powerful person. He doesn’t seem especially interested in being famous or influential, whether independently or because of his famous and influential girlfriend. He is also not, as far as we know, secretly terrible in a way that compromises his partner’s politics; he isn’t a vice-president at Amazon, the company Ocasio-Cortez famously sparred with over the location of its new headquarters, which would have made for a modern, if grim, update to You’ve Got Mail. And he’s not an Anthony Weiner–type failspouse, more famous for his numerous improprieties and infidelities than his accomplishments at this point. (What did Anthony Weiner do for work again? I want to say celebrity chef?) We don’t know that much about Riley Roberts, and we don’t need to.
Given the dearth of information provided, I’ve been unable to avoid projecting my own thoughts onto Roberts and Ocasio-Cortez. I am always charmed by couples who stay together after one member becomes famous. Doesn’t everyone feel that way? I think it’s because we like to imagine ourselves acting the same way: remaining loyal, unswayed by the access and opportunity our newfound renown has conferred upon us. It’s also nice to see a guy who knows when to stay out of the way and not make himself the center of attention; it’s something I should be better at myself. Again, I’m projecting here.
What we do know about Roberts doesn’t fit the stereotype of a politician’s partner. He doesn’t seem focus-grouped or media-trained for state dinners and press conferences. We know he’s supportive and encouraging in private. And his expertise, as far as his public image goes, is his elusiveness and restraint. These are both qualities that take strength, but not in the way we think of men as being strong. When a man is quiet, it’s traditionally in a stoic, authoritative way, like a rock formation that is also your dad, projecting importance. And when a man is supportive, he’s expected to be loud and instructive, like a car alarm that coaches high-school football. But Roberts is, publicly at least, none of these things.
I admire Roberts’s tenacious invisibility in large part because I cannot imagine being okay with it. It brings me a lot of joy to see my wife thrive. I’m also chronically plugged in and terminally online, constantly tweeting dumb jokes and even dumber sincere thoughts. My across-the-table whisper comes out at the volume of a TED Talk. And if I’m being honest with myself, I think it would be tough to give all that public persona up in support of my wife’s career. And if I’m being even more honest with myself (which, yuck, who needs it?), I don’t know how much of that need for recognition is inherent to who I am at my core, and how much is just what I’m allowed to get away with as a man. I expect to be able to take up as much social space as I want, regardless of what my wife needs.
Not Riley Roberts though. He’s the perfect beta to AOC’s alpha—tiptoeing through 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 clearly doesn’t want to be written about, and he hasn’t done anything to compel me to disrespect his wishes. So I hope from now on we leave him in peace, quietly glowing up in the shine of someone else’s star.
Adapted from Take Up Space: The Unprecedented AOC. Published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2022.