I just can’t seem to get away from Taylor Swift these days. Cultural winds in celebrity-worshiping modern America are such that the release of any new album by a Top 40 artist is practically cause for a national holiday, and this, combined with Swift’s highly publicized performance at “Harvey Mudd College” (By the way, since when is Harvey Mudd located directly across from my South Campus dorm?) has made her impossible to escape.
Everywhere I go I hear her dulcet tones pouring from open windows; at every meal I eat in the dining halls, I’m treated to a blow-by-blow recapitulation of the events of the aforementioned free concert (though this summary, I’ve noticed, tends to quickly devolve into a list of the giveaways provided by the singer-songwriter’s sponsors; I must say, I’ve heard very little about Swift’s performance itself). And then there’s the critical firestorm surrounding the quality of her work and its social value—or detriment.
I’ve tried to like Taylor. I really have. In an attempt to better understand the fascination of my peers, I listened to “You Belong With Me” (or, as I like to call it, “Short Skirts T-Shirts”) on a loop for an entire hour at work, trying, and failing, to learn the lyrics. I even fully intended to enter the lottery for a free ticket but must have been distracted by a passing bit of dandelion fluff or something, because I never got around to it. At the end of the day, I will probably have to admit that what I see as lyrically mediocre rehashes of heteronormative cultural narratives set to power chords are not really my cup of tea.
Others happen to find Swift’s music more pleasing to the ear than I ever will, and I can’t fault them for that alone. I do worry, though, about the messages of Swift’s lyrics, what they mean for the representation of women in popular culture and their effects on young girls. In a well-written piece for the Miss Representation blog last week, TSL‘s Rachel Grate argued that, although some of Swift’s songs (“Short Skirts T-Shirts” among them) do portray (and promote, I would suggest) what bloggers like Sady Doyle have called “girl-on-girl-sexism,” this behavior constitutes a fact of life for actual teenage girls. Grate is right about this—while I don’t have the statistics, I’d guess that most teenage girls, myself included, have often unwillingly participated in the act of what feminist wunderkind Tavi Gevinson calls “girl hate.”
But I think that girl hate is largely the product of a patriarchal society that teaches us to blame one another in order to distract ourselves from the larger societal conventions at play, often manifesting themselves initially in actions taken by men—girl hate, or at least the breed Swift sings about, tends to arise when a boy chooses one girl over the other. It’s the boy that makes the decision, yet it’s never the boy with whom she takes issue. “Better Than Revenge” is a particularly disturbing example, as it takes the form of a rant about the other woman’s trickery, riddled with pot shots at her sexuality, while completely ignoring the agency of the man involved. Surely male feminists and misogynists alike take offense at lyrics like “soon she’s gonna find stealing other people’s toys/On the playground won’t make you many friends.”
Grate describes having found solidarity in this song as a high school student, and the implication in her article is that it’s important for teenage girls to have someone to relate to when it comes to the irrational hatred they have for one another. But here’s the thing: it’s not. As a purported role model for girls who might find themselves in this position, the only implicit advice Swift brings to the table is to keep hating. I certainly don’t believe that our role models should be perfect; it’s definitely easier for me to relate to those who have struggled with the same problems I have. But that’s only half of the equation. What makes them role models is that they make an ongoing effort to find ways to deal with these problems, to conquer their harmful impulses and turn their histories of imperfection into a force for good in the world. If Swift were acknowledging the realities of girl hate and somehow offering an alternative path (and no, moving to Nashville and becoming a pop star doesn’t count as a viable option here), or even just suggesting that there must be some alternative somewhere, even if she doesn’t know what it is, but that it’s important to strive for one because there is nothing constructive about the behavior as it stands—this would be acceptable to me. But as it stands, she’s not presenting a transcendent treatise against girl hate. She’s encouraging it.
After I had read the Miss Representation article—just when I thought that maybe I’d finally gotten away from Taylor Swift—she cropped up again, this time on The Daily Beast. When asked in a recent interview if she considers herself a feminist, Swift said, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
That’s a lovely sentiment; it really is. Unfortunately for the Swizz, in a world where women are systematically oppressed in almost every country, in a nation embroiled in one of the most heated debates over women’s rights and equality in decades, it doesn’t go a long way toward bolstering the thinking public’s perception of her awareness. All over the Internet, I saw reactions ranging from the unsurprised (Jezebel) to the irate to the nonchalant. Why does it matter if Taylor Swift is or is not a feminist?
It matters, dear readers, because insofar as feminism is about striving for equality and ensuring basic rights for all people, everyone should be a feminist right now. Teenage girls, for whom the future is very much uncertain right now, need to know that life is not fair and that it will never be fair, but that we can make it so much better for so many people. As Taylor herself said in an interview with Kelly Ripa earlier this year, “If you’re choosing to put out music and be out there in the public, you have to be conscious of the fact that you are a part of the raising of the next generation and you do have an impact on that. So, choose your outfits and your words and your actions carefully. I think it matters. I think it really does. You can pretend it doesn’t, but it does.” I can only hope she learns to heed her own advice.