Before this essay even begins I would like to stress one important, nay, the most important message of the following production: the following critique is not an attack on Taylor Swift, and if that’s what you’re here to see enacted you may feel slightly underwhelmed. Whilst I personally am not a “fan” of this particular singer (being more a hip-hop and rap kind of woman myself), Taylor Swift is, I’m sure, a lovely person. She entertains millions of people and ultimately makes them happy; a service which in of itself is worthy of commendation. I have no interest in “dragging” a fellow woman, attacking anyone’s character of insulting anyone; whilst doing so may be beneficial for online traction and views, it wouldn’t produce a productive conversation, and certainly wouldn’t stimulate intelligent reflection on the self or society.
In fact, what I should elaborate is that the “Taylor Swift” discussed in the following essay shall repeatedly be credited in quotation marks; for the “Taylor Swift” is not really an individual person but a brand. “Taylor Swift” is team of marketing people whose many faceless shadows slip seamlessly behind the tall, blonde American beauty. She is the action and words of tens, if not hundreds, of advisors and business people, nothing she does or says is entirely 100% her own, and it would be naive to believe that of any celebrity.
I should also disclaim here that I’m not someone interested in the field of celebrity in general, I know very few names, watch around a single film a year and no television, and therefore I’m not entirely qualified to speak on the subject if one were to look at my celebrity-interest credentials. However, I am interested in the presentation and reputation of 21st century, main-stream feminism of which Taylor Swift is, undeniably, a recognised cultural figurehead and has thus lead me to research and write about her. Taylor is one of the biggest influencers of today’s global society, and as a feminist myself, I’m all for women kicking ass in the business world. But I will confess, I’ve always been highly critical of Taylor’s feminism, or rather, her marketing of feminism.
From a critical, objective standpoint, Taylor adopted a fun, kicky feminism which time and time again proved itself to benefit her and people like her only; a branch of feminism which was superficially focussed on girl friendship and skinny, rich, white girl squads, totally disengaged from politics as emphasised emphatically by Taylor’s political neutrality during the American Presidential election last year and her continued silence during the Trump administration since. This, and mainly this, is why I would like to discuss the Taylor Swift brand. There’s something highly suspicious about a woman who spent the past couple of years donning the crown of feminism for marketing purposes to her 85.5 million twitter followers, but fails to discuss anything political during the most uncertain and regressive political environment America has experienced in the twenty-first century. What this essay will argue is that Taylor Swift’s brand of feminism is detrimental to the movement; for it’s an charade of feminism which promotes passive engagement, keyboard activism and superficiality, and encourages a disengagement from politics by subliminally avoiding politics in general, subconsciously implying politics isn’t really part of it.
Over the past few years the biggest criticism against Taylor Swift is that she propagates a persona of “victim feminist”, an identity which has been widely critiqued since the early 1990s, and that many feminist groups have been fighting against. Victimhood—politicians and pundits tell us — is a state of mind, and those who choose to view themselves as victims are self-indulgent, hopeless dependents. Many feminist during the 90s critiqued some women’s movements for inciting the rise in victimism, and for encouraging the proliferation of individuals and groups in their attempts to secure their victim status in order to gain various rewards. Anti-feminists regularly argue that it is feminism itself which “transforms perfectly stable women into hysterical, sobbing victims”, both theoretically and factually, and no domain of contemporary feminism is beyond the ire of this criticism.
The exploration and study of victim feminism is too great to elaborate in this small essay. The challenge to contemporary feminism is largely understood as a long-standing conflict between liberal and radical feminists, and the idea of the victims feminist is problematic for both sides: some argue that the victim feminists damage feminism whilst the other side deeming it a defendable, valid status within feminism. Regardless of your personal opinions on where in the field of feminism the victim feminist stands, from an analytical point of view it seems Taylor adopted the victim feminist status in her early career which I would like to serve evidence towards in this argument.
Let us all flashback to the famous incident 2009. Young, unknown Taylor Swift, whilst accepting her award for MTV video of the year (a major coup for a country singer who hadn’t won any mainstream awards yet) was interrupted by young Kanye West who leapt onto the stage, took the mic and proclaimed: “Imma let you finished, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” This scene immediately went down in music history: the photograph of the shocked, young and scared looking innocent Taylor, dressed in white, unsure of what to say after the incident was tabloid gold, and the award show rolled out into a beautiful act of female solidarity with Beyonce graciously allowing Taylor to take to the stage to finish her speech. The public immediately sided with Taylor, and Kanye did later apologise to her, explaining in an interview that he hadn’t been angry with Taylor for having won, but rather for what her winning represented: the overlooking of black entertainers despite their immense popularity.
This event marked both artists careers; Kanye, who had always said that he wanted, was now universally regarded as an egomaniac and frustrated mouthpiece of the racial inequality in the music industry (the latter entirely valid and commendable Philosophy). Taylor however, whose songs were already full of longing, innocence and tales of disappointment continued to perpetuate this image. From 2009 onwards she sang about her constant heartbreak and about being an underdog riddled with apologetic laments, cruelly left unacknowledged and unforgiven by those whom they were written for.
She, deservingly, created a powerful ubiquity from her ever strengthening album releases, and remained consistently one of the richest musicians of her time with her cultural influence remaining one of the most powerful in the music industry. I’m not here to discredit any of her accomplishments by crediting her fame to the gossip she generated rather than her musical genius, but it is perhaps worth exploring this revenue from a marketing perspective as it does connect to the main critique and analysis of this essay.
Another feminist point of contention, very much like the victim status, was Taylor’s ever-changing relationship status; regarded by some feminists as a powerful woman claiming her sexuality and matching male standards when it comes to romance, but by other feminists as the propagation of an image of a woman always needing man, incapable of being independent, and arguably using men in away they would critique were the gender roles reversed. Again, regardless of your personal opinion, it’s interesting to look at objectively. Tracking Taylor Swift’s relationships became a global pastime because of the overt influence that they had on her music, which ultimately made her famous. The combination of personal ballads with evidential context created a powerful intimacy with her fans which served as a favourable marketing technique, intentionally or not. Her lyrics have been crucial to retaining her core fan base, who procure from them relatability and, ultimately, proof of normality, a normality which only applies to woman of a normative heterosexual femininity like her.
This personal relationship she has with fans allowed Swift to maintain a victim narrative, positioning any potential critics as enemies or relentless bullies. When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler mocked Swift’s dating reputation by stating at an awards ceremony “Taylor Swift, you stay away from Michael J Fox’s son”, Taylor responded in a Vanity Fair interview that there was “a special place in hell” for women who didn’t help other women. Whilst I agree that the joke made was unnecessarily catty (and it’s not the kind of behaviour I would indulge in), I do find Taylor’s response remarkably over-dramatic and incredibly hypocritical considering a year later she released the global hit song Bad Blood which is all about her feud with Katy Perry. So whilst Fey and Poehler are condemned to hell for making a small jab on stage about Taylor, Taylor’s garnered karma throughout her life is enough to protect her from damnation and allows her to profit millions of dollars by marketing off a personal female-female feud…double standards doesn’t really do this justice.
Then we have the release of her album 1989, and like the majority ofSwift’s PR moves was, once again, founded on her victimhood. Here we saw her rise of feminism with a cornerstone of the album being #Squad, a term many critics have pointed out has its roots in black culture, (an irony which will become greater when we come to discuss her engagement with Nicki Minaj). The album features songs that you Shake it off, a fuck you to all her haters, and was marketed by a series of photographs of Taylor with her girl gangs, her #squads, which consisted of mainly tall, skinny, wealthy white women (with the token black woman thrown in that good measure sometimes). The marketing of this album consisted primarily on emphasising female friendships (Taylor’s new priority). How could Katy Perry possibly clap back now when Taylor has such a powerful squad rooting for her?
Now we find ourselves six years from the MTV awards ceremony incident with Kanye and in 2015 the duo once again came back into the headlines but for reverse reasons. It was Taylor who was awarding her “friend” Kanye West the video Vanguard MTV award. Taylor’s forgiving speech and emphasis on the word friend made headline gold once more, and Kanye found himself back in the news, not for his masterful music, but instead framed by a white person for forgiving the upset his political statements caused her all those years ago. But then something else happened around this time; a new feminist conflict arose in Taylor’s path that she wasn’t expecting, and in the blinding white camera light, Taylor was exposed for her naive and sheltered branch of feminism: White feminism. In 2015, Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda song broke streaming records when released, and made such a cultural impact that year that social media was inundated with memes, cover art, inspired Halloween costumes and choreography videos, including a re-creation of the video by Ellen DeGeneres herself. Anaconda was a huge hit, but when the MTV awards came round it wasn’t nominated for either Video of the Year or Best Choreography.
Minaj was obviously upset about this and made a public statement on twitter claiming “If I was different “kind” of artist, Anaconda would’ve been nominated for best Choreo and vid of the year as well.” Through her tweets Minaj pointed out that she had seemingly been snubbed by the mainstream award categories, and used this as an opportunity to remark on American and western beauty standards. She tweeted: “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies you will be nominated to vid of the year.” This is where Taylor Swift made a huge marketing error; for having read the twitter stream and seen that the boot fitted she immediately took the tweets personally, took the victim role she had grown accustomed to, and called out Minaj for not supporting Women:
“I’ve done nothing but love and support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.”
Minaj quickly clarified her comments, stating that they weren’t about Taylor at all but rather “White media and their tactics”, and the systematic racism in the music industry. Realising her grave mistake Taylor immediately tried to diffuse the situation by tweeting Minaj and asking her to join her on stage if she won the award, but as evidenced by Minaj’s powerful reply, the damage is already done: [she retweeted] “Stop using “support all girls” as an excuse not to be critical of racist media that benefits are glorifies you.” Though Taylor apologised and Minaj publicly accepted it, the public saw a side to Taylor which highlighted her flawed feminism. This incident revealed that Taylor prioritised herself at the centre of a struggle faced by women of colour. Taylor’s feminism was not only a branch of victimism, it was undeniably white.
Taylor has undeniably done some wonderful things for her fans, from financially supporting student loans to leaving empathetic comments on fans profiles. The heart of all of this lies a shares sense of victimhood which is exemplified by a comment she left to bullied fan: “we all go through life with a list of names we’ve been called (I have a feeling of mine is much longer than yours 😉 ) but it doesn’t mean that these things are true”. Whilst I completely agree with Taylor’s sentiment, I can’t help but find myself , whilst reading this comment, holding back the desire to scream back “For God’s sake this isn’t about you Taylor!” This narrative continued throughout her world tour which was interspersed with long speeches about growing up, falling in love, and being bullied but staying strong. Whilst all this is admirable, there’s no denying that her insertion of herself into these relatable tragic narratives feed into her brand: for every moment of bonding over victimhood has resulted in the wealth of positive press for Taylor, and fuelled her album and world tour sales.
Then the 2016 scandal with West left the American sweetheart’s reputation in tatters. In early 2016 Kanye released a song Famous which features the lyrics “I think that me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous.” The public once again immediately revulsed, claiming the lyrics were misogynistic and deeply offensive. Kanye quickly defended himself, claiming he had asked for Taylor’s approval of the lyrics before he published them; but Taylor’s publicist claimed otherwise, stating that Taylor had declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a misogynistic message. Then, when Taylor came to accept her Grammy award, the same day Kanye’s album dropped, she made a passionate speech “to all the young women out there” about how “there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit to your achievements.” She then took a deep breath, looked directly into the camera and added “or your fame”, the end of which received a wealthy response from the audience.
This was once again a poor marketing move by Taylor Swift’s team; for little did they know that Kim Kardashian, Kanye West’s wife, had video recorded the conversation Kanye had with Taylor about the lyrics and immediately publicly published the footage in outrage. Here, for all the world to see, Taylor was exposed for not only lying to her fans about agreeing to the lyrics, but also lying about her victimhood. The truth exposed the white fragility that had allowed Swift to navigate conflict, devoid herself of culpability and was, ultimately, imperative to her success. Whilst the whole affair was dismissed as mere celebrity drama, I think the incident is a powerful presentation of where 21st-century feminism is headed. The movement is already been treated with hostility, and is perpetually being damaged by self-proclaimed feminists openly behaving hypocritically and deflecting and rejecting all valid criticism as “antifeminist”.
Well I hate to burst the bubble but I’m a feminist: but I’m also someone who calls out senselessness when I see it. I personally believe it’s extremely dangerous to never critique the side you’re on. To believe your philosophy is infallible is to be idiotic; it deprives you of independent thought and, in extreme cases, results in fascist behaviour. In all the case studies given the final Kanye West situation arguably revealed Taylor Swift as someone who recognised the privilege her white womanhood afforded her (i.e. a presumed innocent and empathy), and she used it in repeated acts which she arguably should have known with damage West’s reputation and strengthen her own. To undertake any opportunity to propagate the narrative of fragile womanhood to visualise a black man is careless if unintentional, ruthless if contrived and, at its worst, dangerous.
The fact that she even felt victimised by Minaj’s tweets or Kanye calling her a bitch proves that Taylor has never experienced oppression, yet she’s been heralded as a mouthpiece and avatar the new way young women viewing establish themselves in the world. This is because she adopted the fun and convenient elements of feminism —friendship, World Cup champions and slumber parties—and used them all for self-promotion. The propagation of this kind of feminism is what I find damaging to the movement, especially during a time when the US cabinet is more white and male than any first cabinet since Reagan’s, and that the Trump Administration currently threatens health and rights of women in the US.
Many sceptics deny that the women’s rights are being threatened by the Trump Administration, but I can give it least six examples off the top of my head which go against their denial. The first is the expanding of the global gag rule: Trump signed this within three days of inauguration and it resulted in the forbidding of foreign NGOs that receive funds from the U.S even speaking about abortion, affecting millions of women in developing countries.
We then have Trump’s attempt to introduce Trump are and scrap Obamacare. Had he been successful Trump care would have defunded Planned Parenthood, ultimately blocking patients with public health insurance accessing care on the Planned Parenthood program. Contrary to popular opinion Planned Parenthood is not dedicated to offering abortions: 45% of the patients use Planned Parenthood for STI screenings, 31% use it to access contraception, 13% use it for other health services for women, 7% use it as cancer screenings and 3% use it for abortions.
Trumpcare also intended to slash maternity coverage, threatening to take away the maternity and newborn coverage used by 9 million women. He has also successfully overturned protections for title X planning program which provided birth control of 4 million women along with other health examinations. He is ended US funds to UNFPA (United Nations population fund) which works on reproductive health, Family planning, HIV/AIDS, and infant and maternal mortality in more than 150 countries — a decision made on an unfounded and erroneous claim that the UNFPA uses finances towards coercive abortions and forced sterilisations (plot twist: there is no evidence to back up this claim). He also confirmed Neil Gorsuch as an associate justice of the supreme Court, a judge who has a troubling record of opposing LGBTQ rights (such as when he ruled against an incarcerated trans woman from receiving necessary hormone treatment) and holds a belief that bosses should be able to impede their employees access to birth control.
What Conservatives, and many members of the right insist, is that these are not serious matters, that women are just playing the victim card when they shout slogans such as “Women want fundamental rights”; but the truth of the matter is that these are serious issues, but due to fashionable feminism as propagated by women such as Taylor, women are joining rallies without researching what they’re marching for. All they know is that they doing it in the name of feminism and that should be enough; but we see it time and time again online when Republicans pull aside a leftist march participant and ask them for an example of what Trump has done to threaten women’s rights and they, embarrassingly, cannot answer, which only serves the rights agenda against the uninformed left.
As cute as they are, girl power platitudes and personal white victimhood isn’t going to help right now. We need a feminism founded on defiance, strength, confidence, unity and driven by anger at a broader inequity and injustice. Since the announcement that Donald Trump was running the president, Taylor Swift, champion of women, displayed no political interest in either the female candidate all the pussy grabbing one. For the PR machine capitalising so much on girl power, her silence was loud. If Kim’s snapchat revealed Taylor’s victimhood fraudulent, Donald Trump’s election revealed her feminism as mere smoke and mirrors. Whilst other pop stars around the world spoke up including Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Lorde, even Lana Del Rey, Taylor stayed silent. The closest she ever came to commenting on women’s rights in America was a flimsy tweet in support of the women’s march — whilst her contemporaries including Rhianna, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Madonna, Cher, Alicia Keyes actually took to the streets. When the going gets tough it would seem Swift becomes 21st century Marie Antoinette; she doesn’t even condemn or publicly disassociates from far right websites such the Daily Stormer who proclaim her as a pure Aryan goddess.
She positioned herself as proud feminist when it suited her, to rebuild her identity and make music; but now, in an extremely significant political climate, she’s nowhere to be seen. Swift is first and foremost a businesswoman, and regardless of what her own political position is, her decision to be quiet is strictly business. Every move she makes is intended to reach the broadest possible consumer base and advancing her brand which has earned her a net worth of over a quarter billion dollars. Playing politics would jeopardise that; Trump supporters are customers too.
Her fan base is largely white women, the demographic that polls show voted for Trump by 53%. Of course, celebrities aren’t under any obligation to offer political commentary; but if you’re going to position and market yourself at the Queen of feminism and girl power, you can hardly excuse yourself from the most controversial political climate in terms of feminism in the 21st-century. But no, I’m not saying her condemnation of Trump would have changed the election result, but I do contest is her claim to feminism and the damage her propagation of fashionable feminism has done to the movement. Her brand of feminism has encouraged to girls and women to adopt a vacuous sentiment of girl power without even knowing what they are positioning themselves against.
Like I emphasised at the beginning of this essay: I am not dragging Swift, but I’m frustrated with the commodification in trivialisation of feminism by powerful and influential figures who ultimately do more harm than good to the movement and drag its reputation down. By encouraging a vacuous endorsement of women’s fundamental rights and shallow victimhood, you arm the right and anti-feminists with valid arguments against the movement. Without reading about politics and knowing what’s going on in the White House or engaging with political discourse, physically marching on the streets with other women means nothing. Female influences shouldn’t encourage their followers to remain politically ignorant as Swift does by example. The levels of post-election anxiety are at their peak; people of all political affiliations are uncertain, with millions in losing their health insurance, being used by North Korea or being deported, and the rising clashing ideologies has resulted in racists feeling emboldened enough to proudly march through the streets.
No Taylor: now is not the time to talk about your reputation. Your country is in the middle of a national pressure cooker, but you choose this moment to resurface and give us a glimpse of where you’ve been the past six months: your own head space; and quite frankly your new song “look what he made me do” has left the world feeling rather confused. For when it comes to political activism we’re not quite sure what you’re talking about: because you haven’t done anything.