This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on October 23, 2012.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Taylor Swift recently. Not only is her new CD “Red” out this week, but I also go to a college in a consortium with Harvey Mudd College, who recently won Swift’s “Taylor Swift on Campus” contest. So last Monday night I was in the fourth row of her concert, for free. And it was incredible. In addition to getting a ridiculous amount of free stuff from her sponsors, the concert itself – Taylor Swift’s performance and oft-critiqued live singing – were great.
But the sentiment was not so united in my Gender & Women’s Studies class. One girl expressed her desire that the campus-wide Humans vs. Zombies competition hadn’t ended the week earlier so that zombies could rush the stage. I’ve been a fan of Taylor Swift since “Tim McGraw” first came out while I was in 8th grade, and I knew the words to every single song she sang at the concert, but feminism is integral to my identity. I needed to understand the hate.
So I did my research. And I wasn’t convinced.
The Taylor Swift criticisms I read all seemed to rely on distinguishing “Taylor Swift the product” from “Taylor Swift the person” (Jezebel). Or, as Salon phrased it, “Taylor Swift, lyricist, vs. Taylor Swift, public figure.” According to them, Swift’s business success is the most compelling pro-Swift argument, but her lyrics hold her back.
The thing is, you can’t separate two halves of a person. Taylor Swift the businesswoman is the same Taylor Swift writing and performing love songs. When young girls hang posters of her in the room, they aren’t distinguishing between the two – so neither should we in figuring out what her impact on them is.
Since Swift’s business savvy is generally accepted as a good model, I’ll delve into the criticism of her lyrics – most of which relies on claiming they reinforce a virgin-whore dichotomy.
First of all, since I don’t think you can separate the person from the artist, I feel the need to point out that Swift is one of the few teen stars recently who resisted the purity ring trend. In fact, as public as Swift is about her relationships, she’s kept her sexuality private and never implied any judgment about sexuality. Even her ex, Joe Jonas, followed the purity ring trend. Admittedly, the song she wrote about that breakup is problematic. “Better than Revenge” claims that his new girlfriend is an actress but “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”
I can’t deny that this song relies on criticizing another woman for her choices, sexual and otherwise. But I also can’t deny that I listened to it on repeat when my boyfriend dumped me for someone else in high school. Was that girl a slut? No. Was she the one I should have been mad at? No. But I was, and so was Swift.
That doesn’t excuse the girl-on-girl rivalry that this song sets up, nor the slut-shaming in it, but just as with all feminist works, it’s important to keep in mind the specific historical context. And the context of being dumped for someone else doesn’t often lead to being level-headed.
I concede the virgin-whore dichotomy in that song, but I haven’t been swayed by any other songs. An oft-criticized song is “Fifteen,” in which Swift’s friend “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried.” A critic on Astrostraddle responds by saying, “I’ll spare you the time of listening to the song and give it to you straight: 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.”
The issue is, without listening to the whole song you’re not getting all the context. The phrase “giving it all up” is common to refer to giving one’s virginity, and while I agree that the diction surrounding a woman’s first time is generally sexist and demeaning (“losing it” implies a loss, rather than a gain), Swift did not create this diction. She’s just using it. Swift doesn’t even specify that “everything she had” is sex – it’s the reader, the critic, imposing our expectations of this sexist diction on the song. Everything she had could have been her heart, or too much of her time.
But, granted that it likely means sex, it must be pointed out that Swift never mentioned marriage. She never said Abigail should have waited til she was older and married, she just said she chose the wrong guy. And Swift doesn’t shun Abigail for her choice, instead they simply cry together and take it as a growing experience. The song is hardly a lecture on abstinence – it’s a story of growing up, which includes mistakes of all sorts.
The other song I’ve seen heavily criticized for a virgin-whore dichotomy is “You Belong with Me,” in which Swift positions herself against a cheerleader who wears “short skirts.” I’m not a fan of the girl-on-girl rivalry created by this song, but as Notes on Pop Culture writes in response to a post by Bitch magazine, “Sady [Doyle] calls the comparison between the two girls ‘girl-on-girl sexism”. What Sady forgets is that this is what people do. That is what girls do, that is what teenage girls do, this is what girls do when another girl has the guy they like. It’s tame, and pretty damn fair.”
There’s also something to be said for the fact that Swift plays herself and her rival in the music video, which provides at least a visual deconstruction of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Notes on Pop Culture concludes that the biggest issue with the Swift criticism is “reading the music from a very adult perspective, completely forgetting that Taylor is singing from a teenage girl’s perspective TO teenage girls.”
As a teenage girl (for one more year, at least!) I agree. Swift’s songs helped give voice to my experiences in love, and otherwise. (Contrary to popular belief, not all of her songs are about romance – check out “The Best Day,” one of my personal favorites, or “Never Grow Up,” “Safe and Sound,” “Ronan,” “Change” and “The Outside.”) It is a privileged experience, to be sure, but that doesn’t call for its dismissal.
This categorization of all of her songs as love songs (which Swift actually made fun of herself for at the concert I saw) is an oversimplification. Astrostraddle wrote that Taylor Swift, “according to her lyrics, has spent her entire life waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets.” While “Love Song” and “Begin Again” and others are about wanting boys, as I’ve pointed out, Swift does write about more. Furthermore, songs of hers like “White Horse” and “Should’ve Said No” aren’t about waiting around for a man, they’re about taking back your life and rejecting the fairy tale ending for your own sake. (In “White Horse”, Swift writes that “I had so many dreams about you and me / Happy endings, now I know / That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale.”)
That’s what Taylor Swift does. She writes about her dreams in love, but she also writes about moving on and becoming a stronger person for it. A stronger woman. Even Sady Doyle (who wrote the Bitch article “Taylor Swift Wants to Ban Access to Your Lady Bits”) admits, Swift describes “women being suitors, not desired objects.” Women may be set against each other to get the guy, but they’re not passive in the experience – Swift isn’t spending her life “waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets,” as has been argued, but she’s out there making her dreams happen. In her lyrics and in real life.
I’m not arguing that Swift is a feminist. Her songs clearly aren’t written with issues of equality in mind. But calling her “a feminist’s nightmare” seems ridiculous in an age when Lil Wayne posted the picture below on his Facebook with the caption “That dick made them rest in peace, I got a bunch of dead hoes!”
I’m also not saying that this means it’s not worth criticizing Swift’s lyrics. Sexist rap or pop songs haven’t stopped me from taking a closer look at their lyrics in the past, and this look is valuable to raise awareness. But separating Swift into two parts to tear one apart – without having to take responsibility for the fact that in doing so you’re also tearing down a successful woman – isn’t the way to go about constructive criticism.
What is important here is perspective, and reality. I love Swift because as generic as they are, her songs have given voice to my emotions throughout my teenage years. I may not have a guitar, but plenty of tears were shed in high school to “Teardrops on my Guitar.” And, in one aspect, isn’t Swift giving voice to the lived experience of women, a goal of feminism?
I’m not dismissing the criticism that’s been done, or its value. But I do respectfully disagree with the simplification of the emotions and situations Swift describes into a “virgin-whore dichotomy.” I propose in the future we deal with Swift as a complex individual rather than dividing her into parts, which seems to be a disclaimer so that we can criticize another woman without guilt. I for one refuse to believe that a successful woman could ever be “A Feminist’s Worst Nightmare.”
Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn or read more of her work on her blog.