For Taylor Swift on the Occasion of her 23rd Birthday: From a Feminist Fan
It was my job to empower and inspire teenaged girls in rural West Virginia. It was part of my job to drive teenaged girls around mountains in minivans – to tutoring, to museums and concerts and fundraisers and college tours. The girls in the minivans with me were smart and cool girls who had to apply to our programs and be selected. They had to be curious about the world, they had to be compassionate towards others, they had to hold within themselves a strong sense of justice. They had to have strength within them and want to get stronger. They had to be 12-18 years old.
Being teenaged girls, they wanted to listen to the radio. Being teenaged girls, they wanted to listen to music made by women. Some of them liked Katy Perry best, and some liked Beyoncé, and some liked Lady Gaga. And yes, some of them liked Taylor Swift. Not just liked her, but felt empowered by her.
This past Thursday, writer, literary critic, and Philadelphia-based University of the Arts Professor Camille Paglia, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, released a piece titled “Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Hollywood Are Ruining Women.” In it, she asks the questions, “How is it possible that such monumental fortunes could be accumulated by performers whose songs have barely escaped the hackneyed teenybopper genre? But more important, what do the rise and triumph of Swift and Perry tell us about the current image of women in entertainment?”
I will deal with Katy Perry later, but for now, Paglia describes Swift’s style as a “‘golly, gee whiz’ persona of cultivated blandness and self-deprecation,” that features a “monotonous vocal style, pitched in a characterless keening soprano and tarted up with snarky spin.” OK, so Camille Paglia doesn’t like Taylor Swift, but to assert that she is ruining women? I know, I know, Camille Paglia has also dissed the likes of Hilary Clinton , Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Judith Butler, and former NOW President Patricia Ireland.
But still. This charge that Taylor Swift is ruining women, or that Taylor Swift is a “feminist’s worst nightmare,” as Marie Lyn Bernard, Editor-in-Chief of Audostraddle asserted in February of 2010, or that she is “patriarchy-friendly” as Jezebel’s Dodai Steward asserted of her album, Red, this past October, has been echoed and re-blogged over and over. The general feminist consensus on the Interwebs seems to be that Taylor Swift is not good for feminism, and not empowering to teen girls.
So what about the girls I drove with, over mountains, who found her music empowering? What about me, a twenty-five year old queer woman and college Gender and Sexuality Studies major, who finds her music empowering? I want to push back against this labeling of Taylor Swift as anti-feminist, as “bad for the cause” and give Tay Sway a more thorough examination in the feminist spotlight.
Let’s just take a second and consider the facts, shall we? First off, I know it’s not in dispute, but I think it bears reminding that Swift’s newest album Red, released in August, scored music’s highest weekly sales number for any artist, male or female, since Eminem’s 2002 The Eminem Show, and making Swift the only female artist (and the fourth artist ever) to hit the 1 million first-week figure twice since SoundScan began tracking actual sales in 1991. So clearly millions of girls and women, not to mention boys and men, are buying what she is selling.
So what exactly is Taylor Swift selling? In her online journal, Swift writes, by way of introduction, “I like imagining what life was like hundreds of years ago. I have blurry eyesight. My favorite thing in life is writing about life…I don't really think you can ever stop making new friends or learning about as many new things as possible. I also don't think you should ever take life so seriously that you forget to play.” To this, I will give a hell yeah. Much of the work I did with teenaged girls was to try to foster a sense of play, of risk-taking and silliness, and a sense of a judgment-free zone, to get them to be comfortable being smart or weird or artistic or flawed, with being exactly who they are, and it is no easy work.
The word that comes to mind to describe Swift’s music, when taken as a whole is exuberance. She jumps and bounces and wears sparkles. She’s ridiculous and over- dramatic and silly. She’s wrong sometimes. She’s angry. She’s herself.
This theme of being oneself has always been at the center of Swift’s career. She rose to fame during her teenaged years, and as such, she wrote songs about being a teenager. Swift has been widely criticized for seeming childlike, to which I say: she was a child! In a world of Lindsay Lohans and Katy Perrys and Ke$has, I find it refreshing to hear from a female voice that being yourself is enough, that being 15-years-old is song-worthy. Not because it’s wholesome, but because it’s true. In the creative writing world, the old cliché goes to “write what you know.” In the realm of pop music, the extraordinary and the sensational has been so venerated that we forget what songs are supposed to do: tell stories that speak to our experience. That’s where Swift’s Country music background is most evident and what sets her apart. She’s using her own voice to tell a story about her own life. Eureka!
In a recent interview with Ramin Setoodeh for the Daily Beast about her new album Red, Swift says, “I try to have a normal life and look at things in a normal way, under very abnormal circumstances. That’s always going to be my main goal, that’s always what I’m going to strive for, to be a normal human being.”
It’s pointed out again and again that Swift is boy crazy, that she writes only about boys. While I would dispute this, I do grant that she does write a whole darn lot about love and relationships, but unlike Twilight heroine Bella, Taylor Swift does not roll over and take it from boys. She tells it like it is, she tells them she wants, and if they can’t deliver, out they go.
In “Begin Again,” off Red, Swift writes, “He didn’t like it when I wore high heels, but I do, I do. He always said he didn’t get this song, but I do, I do. He said I’ve never met one girl who has as many James Taylor records as you, but I do…I’ve been spending the last eight months thinking that all love ever does is break and burn and end. And on a Wednesday in a café, I watched it begin again.” Here we get Swift rejecting a boyfriend who tells her what she can wear and what she can listen to and who didn’t think she was funny, and see her re-affirm her own beliefs on these subjects, “but I do,” as well as reach for a relationship with a new potential partner with whom she has, from the music video, animated, silly, and highly engaging intellectual conversations over fatty looking desserts (mmm) and who allows her to regain hope for tenderness and respect in a relationship instead of one that “breaks” or “burns.” I’m down with that. Furthermore, in “The Moment I Knew” the supposed boyfriend misses Swift’s birthday party, then calls later to offer a weak, “I’m sorry I didn’t make it,” to which she responds with a damning “I’m sorry too,” and breaks it off.
In the same interview, Setoodeh asked Swift if she ever worries about guys not asking her out because of her track record of writing songs about exes. Swift responds, “I don’t know. I’ve never had a guy say to me, ‘I was thinking of asking you out, but I was afraid I would end up in that song.’ I have had a guy say, as we were breaking up, ‘You better not write a song about this.’ At which point, I proceeded to write an entire album about it.” Let us not forget indeed “Dear John” off of Speak Now in which Swift wrote, “Dear John, I see it all now it was wrong, don't you think nineteen's too young to be played by your dark twisted games when I loved you so.”
For the amount that Swift is touted as traditional and “patriarchy-friendly” when asked if she saw herself “settling down and getting married” by Setoodeh, she responded, “I have no idea. One thing I’ve learned about life and love, you have no idea what it’s going to throw at you. So I just really have no idea where I’m going to end up.”
OK. So in her excellently hilarious piece “Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos,” Marie Lyn Bernard of Autostraddle tells us why she would not want any daughter of hers to embrace Taylor Swift: “Listen up; if I ever get my life together enough to reproduce other life forms, they will not be joining Taylor Nation — they will be brave, creative, inventive, envelope-pushing little monsters who will find a pretty, skinny white blonde girl in a white peasant shirt strolling through nature-themed screensaver-esque fantasylands singing about how "when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them" not only sappy, but also insulting to their inevitable brilliance.”
Though I would argue that Swift is inventive and creative (she writes or co-writes all her own songs, plays guitar, and has made a successful career as a songwriter for other pop acts), Bernard’s point is larger. The song that Bernard references here, Swift’s “Fifteen” as discussed above, is a depiction of high school life and love. But in addition to the line Bernard offers, we get a description of Swift “laughing at the other girls who think they’re so cool, we’ll be out of here as soon as we can” as well as perspective from an older Swift, “in your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team, but I didn’t know it at fifteen…back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday, but I realized some bigger dreams of mine, and Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.”
Bernard writes, “Abigail had sex with a boy, and later they broke up. That's right. No marriage. She gave him all she had. That's right. All Abigail had was her hymen.” I see her point, but my interpretation of that line was quite different – I took it instead as an understated description of a common occurrence I saw all the time working with teenagers in West Virginia – a girl feels special because a boy pays attention to her, he makes certain promises to her, they have sex, he changes his mind about said promises, girl ends up alone, with or without baby. I’m not moralizing about whether teens should have sex or not, and I don’t think Swift is either. I think she’s saying that’s what happened and it was hard, and it made that friend who was a girl feel powerless and like boys have all the power. And guess what? Sometimes they do, especially in a place like Hendersonville, Tennessee where Swift attended her freshman year, and that’s real, and can be written about in a song. Additionally, I am definitely down with a song that tells teenaged girls, to realize bigger dreams than marrying the boy on the football team, because though it might seem absurd to some of you reading this, if you really hang out with teenaged girls, especially the girls of rural and suburban America and spend time in their world, a world that can at times offer so damn few possibilities, this is a message that is not necessarily obvious.
In October of this year, Dodai Stewart of Jezebel wrote, “Swift has stuck to a formula and carefully curated image: The patriarchy-friendly, virginal, good, pure, feminine, pretty blonde girl that has been an American ideal for decades. She's basically a cross between Shirley Temple, Doris Day and the Sunbeam bread mascot.” The same author also wrote in 2010, “It's been printed on T-shirts and postcards and throw pillows: ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history.’ Taylor Swift's Grammy threatens to refute this. I don't care about her personal choices, but her image of being good and pure plays right into how much the patriarchy fetishizes virginity, loves purity, and celebrates women who know their place as delicate flowers.”
OK so there will be no argument from me that Swift is doing what Beyoncé or Rihanna or Lady Gaga is doing when it comes to claiming female sexuality and bucking socially expected lady behavior. She’s not. But that does not make Swift’s approach necessarily disempowering or antifeminist, and in fact I believe Swift draws upon similar themes of independence and rebellion in her own, different, realm. Swift’s newer collaborations reflect a edgier, more adult Taylor Swift. Last year, Swift toured with Def Leppard, and, clad in a gold sequined mini dress and black cowboy boots, strummed angrily on a black guitar as the Def Leppard band backed her on “Should’ve Said No.” No one would be able to call Swift “childlike” or “pure” as she then backed Def Leppard on “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” headbanging her heart out and stomping around the stage. Finally, in her new album Red, she is grappling with age-appropriate issues drawn from her life as a young adult. The track “22” goes, “we're happy free confused and lonely at the same time, it's miserable and magical oh yeah, tonight's the night when we forget about the deadlines.” Sounds like 22 to me, and in its honesty and openness about emotional confusion, as well as its direct reference to college and academic work, it is creating a realistic and otherwise basically absent portrait of being a college-aged young woman.
Then there’s “Both of Us,” a collaboration with hip hop star B.o.B, a song meant to glorify the small moments of everyday life and draw attention to issues of racism and bullying. When they performed the song live at NYC’s “Jingle Ball” Swift danced along and grinded (ground?) up on B.o.B. in a way that was both silly and sultry, but was unequivocally confident and unembarrassed by her own sexuality. Swift sings the hook of the song and I’m hooked: “I wish I was strong enough to lift not one but both of us. Someday, I will strong enough to lift not one but both of us.” It is this move from “I wish” to “I will” that gets me as much as the catchy melody. That’s what I feel shining through from Swift: I will, I will, I will.
So what, really is it about Swift that drives some people and many self-identified feminists berserk? It seems to have a lot to do with the fact that she’s pretty, white, and blonde. Jezebel’s Stewart describes Swift as a “pretty blonde girl that has been an American ideal for decades” echoing Camille Paglia’s charge that “we’ve somehow been thrown back to the demure girly-girl days of the white-bread 1950s…when girls had to be simple, peppy, cheerful and modest. Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee formed the national template — that trinity of blond oppressors!” Furthermore, Paglia levies this charge at Swift: “Indeed, without her mannequin posturing at industry events, it’s doubtful that Swift could have attained her high profile.” Hmm, you can’t be a strong empowered woman if you are blond, wear make up, wear high heels, wear dresses, are in any way feminine, why does that sound so familiar? Oh I know! Second-wave feminism. Or lots of really misinformed people.
Despite widespread headlines that Taylor Swift reportedly said, “I’m not a feminist,” it’s useful to turn to the actual interview, as that is not, in fact, what Swift said. In response to Setoodeh asking her if she thinks her music empowers women, Swift said,
“I write from a place of my personal feelings about things. It's funny when you write a song and you don't expect it to turn into what it turns into when it goes out in the world. I wrote a song called ‘Mean’ about a critic who hated me. I put it out, and all of a sudden, it became an anthem against bullies in schools, which is a refreshing and new take on it. When people say things about me empowering women, that's an amazing compliment. It's not necessarily what I thought I was doing, because I write songs about what I feel. I think there's strength when you're baring your emotions.”
Then Setoodeh asked Swift if she considers herself a feminist: “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.” OK. So what Swift says is that she thinks it’s an “amazing compliment” when people say that her songs empower women, and then she basically dodges the feminist question.
But she did not explicitly disavow feminism as Katy Perry did, saying, while accepting the Billboard award for Woman of the Year, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women” or like Lady Gaga did in 2009 when she told a Norwegian journalist, “I’m not a feminist. I hail men! I love men!” or like Kelly Clarkson did, also in 2009, when PopEater asked if she was, and she replied, “No, not at all.” Ke$ha is outspoken about sexual double standards and wanting to objectify men as women have been historically objectified in music, but I could find no indicators that she accepts being identified as a feminist.
Swift’s dodge of the feminist question is disheartening but it is par for the course. Of the major young female pop stars, only Pink will identify as a feminist. So the fact that Taylor Swift does not say “I’m not a feminist” actually places her a cut above.
Beyoncé, touted as a feminist icon, had this to say in August of 2010: “I think I am a feminist in a way. It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be; perhaps it’s because I grew up in a singing group with other women, and that was so helpful to me. It kept me out of so much trouble and out of bad relationships. My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.” Yay girls! Not exactly, Beyoncé.
And yet, it’s Swift that takes the brunt of feminist critiques even though it’s clear that Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé are reinforcing definitions of feminism that are as warped and fallacious as Swift’s. “It's like she doesn't understand what a feminist is. Is this what happens when you're homeschooled after the age of 15?” asks Stewart of Jezebel, speaking still about Swift. Seems more like that it is what happens when you’re educated in the United States, and under the age of 65. Certainly this election season brought this fact to the forefront. My blood boiled as Katherine Fenton (the young woman who asked the question about gender salary inequality in the town meeting-style Presidential debate this fall), when asked whether she was a feminist by Salon, responded, “Absolutely not…I’m a 24-year-old woman that lives in the United States and feels like I should be treated the same as anyone else. That makes me a normal human being.” It was so crushing because it was like seeing your team make it all the way to the big game and then choke in the final seconds: yes, yes, COME ON, YES! No.
So that’s a problem. It’s not news that the vast majority of young women today understand feminism as a radical agenda, as looking for “preferential treatment” or a handout, as whining about the fine print in a deal that’s mostly done. That’s a big problem and it’s one that many women and men are grappling with every day and it’s slow going, and we can do our part.
And our part is this: we can choose not to reinforce the wrong, outdated, and toxic idea that feminism is exclusive, that it dictates what we can or can’t do or wear or sing. We can look at our famous women, those who are held up as role models, deeply and critically and evaluate, with complex eyes and open hearts, what is at the core of their message and their art. We can not write off Taylor Swift because she is blond and thin and sometimes sings songs about boys.
Sady Doyle over at In These Times, wrote, “on some level, Swift’s songs are a feminist project. Instead of existing in isolation and assuming that any bad emotional reaction to a man must be her own fault—which is the space the culture wants young women to exist within—Swift is sitting down to write out her own reactions and share them with other women. If listening to the woeful tale of Gyllenhaal’s scarf envy is what it takes to get a young girl to start questioning her levels of self-blame, that’s good enough for me.
What I question is whether such a ballad will necessarily lead the girl into a context where she can connect the hurt she’s experienced to the culture that has systematically given men’s feelings and experiences priority over women’s.”
Fair. If you’re looking for someone to that work in pop music, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and in many ways Ke$ha are your best bets. But the work that Swift is doing, on a micro level, on the level of relationships and school and the many tiny choices we make is also valuable work.
Roxane Gay, the writer and essays editor at The Rumpus, wrote of all the criticism of Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” “Every girl or once-was-girl has a show that would be best for her.” It’s worth bearing this in mind when it comes to pop music too. It may simply be, that Taylor Swift is not your show.
Dodai Stewart of Jezebel again wrote, “I grew up in New York and spent my freshman year going dancing at clubs, flirting my ass off in the hallways, spreading gossip…For Taylor, fifteen means falling for a boy and dreaming of marrying him. My fifteen was more like: Flirt with this one, make out with that one, try a cigarette, get drunk, lie to your parents, read some Anais Nin, wish you lived in France, attempt to adopt Shakespearean euphemisms for sex into casual conversation.”
OK. So Taylor Swift isn’t Stewart’s show about girlhood, and she’s not always mine either (RIHANNA!!) but that doesn’t mean I don’t want her show to be available for those that want it. For a lot of girls, especially girls who have had girlhoods more similar to Swift’s (she grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania) than to Stewart’s cosmopolitan childhood in which she clearly had access to educated parents or at least a good library where she could get her hands on Anais Nin, Swift’s navigation of a small town world where boys and football rule and the possibilities for girlhood can be bleak and narrow, Swift’s show matters, and it tells teenaged girls that it’s OK to trust themselves, it’s ok to not care what others think, it’s OK to express anger, it’s OK to choose loving romantic partners over assholes, it’s OK to wait to have sex or get married, it’s OK to go to college, and that it’s OK to say over and over to yourself like a maniac I will, I will, I will. If you think that these messages are obvious or self-evident or that American rural and suburban girls are getting these messages from basically anywhere else, you are sorely out of touch with the realities of growing up a teenaged girl in many parts of rural and suburban America.
Paglia, in her Hollywood Reporter piece professes to be concerned about the “middle class white girls” at “any suburban prom,” but it’s clear that neither she nor Stewart nor Bernard have spent much time recently hanging out with teenaged girls who don’t live in major urban centers. If they did they’d understand the shocking but true truth of the matter is that Taylor Swift, as watered down and sweet as she may seem to you, actually represents a new voice in the conversation that largely tells teenaged girls that they don’t have power, they don’t have voice, and that their choices are to work at Wendy’s or marry the guy on the football team. Taylor Swift provides them with a world of energy, a world of color and travel and choice and possibility. And I’m down with that.
It’s not ideal. It’s not always the music I would make if I knew how to make music. But it’s not ruining women and it’s not actively degrading feminism.
I feel much less sure that that is true of Katy Perry’s music however. In the way that I have no idea what Katy Perry’s music is actually about or if she believes in it at all. The way Perry flippantly talks about sex and drinking seems to come not from any real desire to claim her sexuality or lay stake to adventure, but rather just because she can, or because she has nothing else to say. But still, Perry’s outlandish dress and colorful persona offers another kind of possibility, and while insipid, “I Kissed a Girl” is one of a handful of mainstream songs that depicts same sex desire that made it onto the one pop music radio station in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and for LGBT teens living in rural and suburban America, this meant something. So I say again, though Katy Perry is definitely not my show, this doesn’t mean I don’t think she should be on the air.
For if feminism isn’t the ability of every woman to make her own choices and fashion a self-identity on her own terms than what is it? It is precisely the narrow definitions of feminism that lock Taylor Swift out of the club that also perpetuate myths of feminism as exclusive, anti-feminine, as harsh and anti-fun instead of what it is: the belief in equality for women in every regard. That doesn’t mean that people don’t still have to wear the term with integrity, they do, and when they don’t, we can demand that they do better.
So the thing about me saying that I feel empowered by Taylor Swift’s music or the thing about the teenaged girls in West Virginia that I worked with saying they felt empowered by it, is just that, we get to say what empowers us, and that makes it true.
Feminism is that it only works if it says you, and you, and you, your responses are valid. It only works if it has an open door policy. What I want, for me and the teenaged girls I worked with, and also for you, is an expansive feminism, a feminism that welcomes sparkly gold mini dresses and raging against exes and teaming up with hip hop stars, that welcomes anger and vulnerability and saying I was wrong. What I want is a feminism that invites us in, that says to every person, yes, instead of no.
Happy 23rd Birthday, Taylor. May you get even stronger this year. May this year be the year that you get strong enough to lift not one but all of us.