Super Bowl XLVII: Why Beyoncé’s Appeal Crosses Gender Lines

By Rachel Grate. Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on February 1, 2013. 

Beyoncé is the Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show performer this Sunday, and it’s a fascinating choice. The Super Bowl is one of the most traditionally masculine events of the year, with its encouragement ofmanly soda or beer drinking, bro talk about cheerleaders, and a slew of sexist commercials andtactics to get your girlfriend to stop distracting you with questions (because girls couldn’t possibly understand sports).

Beyoncé, on the other hand, is an (admittedly controversialfeminist icon. In a recent interview inGQ magazine, she said,

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

Why are spaces as hypermasculinized as the Super Bowl and GQ willing to feature Beyoncé’s promotion of female empowerment?

 

 

One answer could be Beyoncé’s sexuality and seeming openness to the male gaze. Many pointed out the contradiction of Beyoncé calling out this sexualization while appearing in her a tiny cotton jersey and underwear on the cover of a magazine run by men that in fact declared her the sexiest woman of the century. However, I resist the notion that any show of sexuality is inherently disempowering – in fact, one of the consistent qualities of Beyoncé’s music is her ownership of her own sexuality.

Back in her Destiny’s Child days (rumored to be reappearing together during her half time show), “Bootylicious” was about owning her own body and being proud of her sexuality even if men don’t appreciate it (“can’t handle that”). More recently, in “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé asserts that she “don’t need no permission” to express her sexuality, with “gloss on my lips, a man on my hips” – the man no more integral to her expression of her sexuality than an accessory like lip gloss. However, with her repeated challenge to “put a ring on it,” Beyoncé would be happier with a specific man by her side, just like many of us who crave companionship.

Whether she wanted to express herself sexually in this particular spread we don’t know, but this self-promotion is a necessary part of a job in the music industry, and it took guts for Beyoncé to speak out against men defining sexuality in a magazine reliant on the male gaze. Beyoncé took advantage of the photo shoot to promote her Super Bowl appearance, appearing in (sexual) jerseys and posing with footballs and helmets.

Her combination of feminine apparel with sports items in the spread signifies a second reason for male acceptance of Beyoncé’s feminist persona: Beyoncé makes it clear that being pro-women is not being anti-men.

While Beyoncé’s songs assert women as independent beings who are empowered by earning their own money and owning their own sexuality, the presence of important men in these women’s lives in no way threatens their empowerment. Individual men are shown as a threat to this empowerment (see: “Survivor”), but never men in general.

Beyoncé urges both men and women to be financially independent and self-reliant. ”Bills, Bills, Bills” is about rejecting a relationship with an unequal financial balance – in this case, the man relying on the woman to pay his bills. One line in particular stands out – “a scrub like you don’t know what a man’s about.” While this language seems to reinforce a stereotype as a man as a supporter, it’s clear that Beyoncé wouldn’t want a man paying her bills either – advising in “Independent Woman” to “make sure it’s your money you flaunt / depend on no one else to give you what you want.”

Relationships built on equality are clearly Beyoncé’s ideal. “Independent Woman” (“try to control me boy you get dismissed / pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills / Always 50/50 in relationships”) reflects the same sentiment as Destiny’s Child’s newest single, “Nuclear,” which opens with “You had your dreams and I had mine” and continues to assert that “you had your half and I had mine.”

Because the relations between men and women in real life aren’t typically as equal as Beyoncé’s ideal, she encourages women to stand up for themselves – but once again, not at the expense of men.

Beyoncé values the lived experiences of women, emphasizing in both “If I Were a Boy” and “Schoolin’ Life” that gender inherently influences standpoint. Beyoncé speaks for seemingly all women in “Schoolin’ Life” when she declares, “I’m not a teacher, babe, but I can teach you something.” With women in generally lower-ranking positions than men, this belief in lived experience (“Who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life?”) values the voices of many women.

“Girls (Run the World)” is one song about female empowerment that is more idyllic than true – saying boys “disrespect us no they won’t” and that “my persuasion can build a nation.” In reality, women are disrespected on a daily basis, and the fact that persuasion is her method of rule implies that there is someone, most likely a man, who she needs to persuade – after all, women are still underrepresented in politics.

The reason these masculine spheres still accept Beyoncé with her self-proclaimed feminism is because she doesn’t shun men to make her point about women’s power. Even in “Girls (Run the World),” Beyoncé disclaimers her song with the lines, “Boy I’m just playing / Come here baby / Hope you still like me,” indicating that she welcomes them in this idyllic world (as long as they “pay” her what she’s worth – wage gap shout-out).

Some songs – such as “Cater 2 U” and “Naughty Girl”- go so far in welcoming boys that some feminists have critiqued them. Like “Dance For You,” these songs depict her doing things for the man she loves. In “Cater 2 U” she sings, “I’m here to serve you / If it’s love you need / To give it is my joy / All I want to do is cater 2 U boy.” The important consideration for this song is that it’s a love letter.

Like anyone in love of either gender, Beyoncé wants to pamper her significant other, just like we all want to be pampered once in a while – and based on her other songs, I bet Beyoncé’s expecting to get pampered back in due time. As Jezebel wrote defending the song, “There’s a giant difference betweenwanting to do something for a man and having to do it.”

And this is why Beyoncé’s music crosses gender lines: It asserts female power while proving female empowerment does not exclude men. This is what feminists have been trying to convince men of for ages – that we are not anti-men, we are pro-equality. Beyoncé is pro-equality and questions gender roles, and her spreading that message to the Super Bowl – to a space largely defined by those roles – is in many ways a feminist victory.

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. Follow her on Twitter or read more of her work on her blog.

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Violence Against Women: What Qualifies A Woman For Protection?


By Rachel Grate. Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on January 7, 2013. 

 ”For the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act is no more.” –The Maddow Blog

Apparently, only some women are worthy of protection against violence. The Violence Against Women Act had been reauthorized without significant challenge in 2000 and 2005, but because the new version of the bill would extend protection to 30 million more women, House Republican leadership did not reauthorize the bill in 2012.

Essentially, in these politicians’ eyes some women are unworthy of the bill’s protection – specifically Native Americans, immigrants, and LGBT women who would have been included under the new bill.

Native American women are twice as likely as other demographics in the U.S. to be sexually assaulted, according to the Justice Department. One in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetime. About ten percent of hate crimes against gay men and lesbians include sexual assault. The Human Rights Watch found that at least 50% of the agricultural work force is undocumented immigrants, who cannot come forward about sexual assault because of fear of deportation.

In Jessica Valenti’s 2009 book The Purity Myth, she observed that, “The rates of sexualized violence against women of color in the United States are far higher than those regarding white women. In fact, violence against white women is actually declining, while it continues to increase among women of color… [T]he average annual rate of intimate-partner violence from 1993 to 2004 was highest for American Indian and Alaskan Native women – 18.2 victimizations per one thousand women.”

Why are the women who are most in need of support the women House Republicans are least willing to protect?

Valenti argues that “it’s not possible to prove that these increased rates of violence in particular communities are a direct result of society’s positioning women of color as impure. But a society that portrays them as such absolutely contributes to a culture of violence against them – women who transgress purity norms are punished, and women of color transgress simply by not being white.” Similarly, in consideration of which women House Republicans opposed protecting, LGBT women transgress simply by not following the heterosexual purity guidelines.

We have seen other politicians punish women for transgressing these purity norms recently with the constant redefinitions of rape. From Todd Akin’s now infamous “legitimate rape” qualification to Roger Rivard’s “some girls rape easy,” it is clear that these Republicans only believe a certain type of women can be raped – women who meet their preconceived idea of purity. And while these men lost the election, the House Republican leadership is perpetuating the same beliefs that only certain women – chaste, white women – are worthy of protection.

You don’t have to look far to see these beliefs reflected and reinforced by popular media. Native American culture is constantly overtly simplified and sexualized. In the past year alone, Victoria’s Secret featured a Native American headdress in their fashion show (removed from the TV screening), No Doubt pulled their stereotypical cowboys-and-Indians themed “Looking Hot” music video after backlash, and the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using the Navajo name to sell products like underwear and a flask.

Native American women suffer from these sexual appropriations of Native American culture, and they’re not the only ones. This sexualization is rampant in the media concerning all minorities – the same minorities, incidentally, that the House doesn’t want to protect from violence. Because such portrayals sexualize these demographics, these women lose the protection of “purity” – they lose the respect of men who believe women’s worth lies in their sexuality. This leads to the high rates of sexual assault of women of color, and to politicians considering these women unworthy of protection, all based on stereotypes perpetuated by the media.

After all, as politicians (of both parties) have expressed time and time again, rape only counts if the woman was pure. It’s this idea that’s reflected in our media, and by both our law makers and law enforcers. SlutWalks, for instance, were created in response to Toronto Police Officer’s statement that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” The problem with this statement – beyond it’s obvious victim blaming – is that no matter how modest one woman’s outfit is, it can’t undo the widespread sexualization of women in the media that is too easy to internalize.

When the media portrays women as objects, or only valuable if they meet a racialized standard of purity, it creates a rape culture in which no woman is safe. A rape culture that the Violence Against Women Act had helped to combat.

It’s important to note that this is not a political issue. This is a human rights issue. Nonetheless, House Republicans refused to support the measures expanding protection to millions more women because they considered them “politically driven.”

Despite this political party divide, only 2 of 25 Republican Women in the House opposed reauthorizing the bill, and even those 2 seemed willing to compromiseThe Senate had approved the bill 68 to 31, and the bill was co-written by conservative Mike Crapo from Idaho. This divide isn’t political – it’s ideological. It’s a divide between those who respect women, and those who only respect women who have earned their approval by fitting their standards of purity. The latter isn’t truly respect at all.

This is not the end of the Violence Against Women Act. The 2005 version of the bill will continue until a new version is passed, though its services are threatened by budget crises. Because of these economic difficulties, if a new version of hte bill is not approved, it is estimated that 200,000 victims of violence will lose services.

Senator Patty Murray has promised to reintroduce the bill in 2013. But if we want real change, in both our politics and our personal lives, we have to go further than a temporary fix.

It’s time to end the “purity myth.” We need to challenge these degrading, sexualized portrayals of women and acknowledge that all women are worthy of respect, regardless of their ethnicity or sexuality. This is what MissRepresentation.org has dedicated itself to, and we hope you and the 113th Congress sworn in Thursday will join us.

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.

Happy Holidays & Good Gifts

Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on December 14, 2012. Editorial Intern Rachel Grate continues her series on Christmas traditions and gender stereotypes

by Rachel Grate

Now that we’ve educated ourselves on the problematic aspects of Christmas traditions, the sexist elements in popular Christmas songs, and the gender stereotypes in Christmas advertisements, it’s time to look on the bright side.

We may be surrounded by the Christmas season portrayal of a perfect family, and it can be depressing when that family doesn’t look anything like our own, but it can also be liberating. Christmas is what we make of it – if we even choose to celebrate it. For those of us who do, we can make our own traditions, listen to the music we choose, think critically about commercials, and vote with our wallet.#NotBuyingIt isn’t just a Twitter campaign, it’s a dedication to boycott brands and products that are selling something you don’t agree with.

This Christmas, let’s use our money to support products that support women. With that in mind, we’re wrapping up this critical look at Christmas with a #MediaWeLike Good Gift Guide.

For All Ages:
Parks and Recreation is a delightful comedy starring Amy Poehler as a determined, smart and hilarious government worker with aspirations of the White House. (You may know Amy Poehler from her YouTube channel “Smart Girls at the Party“.) Get the latest season or some memorabilia.
Feminist Ryan Gosling (the book).
-A “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-Shirt from the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Miss Representation on DVD, or one of our many T-Shirts, including “Future CEO” and “Future President.”
A donation! There are many deserving charities and non-profit organizations that need your help.MissRepresentation.org is just one of such organizations. Another personal option includes making a loan to a female entrepreneur through KIVA in honor of your gift recipient. Once the loan is repaid, your gift recipient can either take the money or reinvest in another woman’s future.

For Children:
-Books that portray complex, strong women include Just Ella or Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine.
-A Mighty Girl has a thorough list of gender-neutral or empowering toys in their 2012 Holiday Guide.
New Moon is a bi-monthly advertisement-free magazine dedicated to empowering girls.

For Teens:
-Books with powerful, complicated women include The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Divergentby Veronica Roth, Matched by Ally Condie and A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray.
-The online magazine Rookie just released a Rookie Yearbook One with some of their best articles, interviews, and illustrations.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great TV show to introduce to budding feminists.
-A classic feminist film, such as A League of their Own.

For Adults:
The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic feminist novel that still remains relevant.
-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie (based on a novel) that portrays a complex, powerful female character – not necessarily a good role model, but certainly a refreshing break from the average portrayal of women in the media. (Mature)
-A feminist magazine subscription. Ms. MagazineBitch magazine, and BUST magazine are all great options.

These are just some of suggestions that are personal favorites, items which have changed who I am as a person and helped me develop my beliefs. Still don’t see the perfect gift? There are many other great feminist gift guides, including Ultraviolet’s Holiday Gift Guide: A Non-sexist Guide to 21st Century Holiday ShoppingJezebel’s Gifts for Budding Feminists, and Bitch Magazine’s Bitch in a Box: Holiday Gift Guide.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

Happy Holidays & Offensive Advertisements

Originally posted by MissRepresentation.org on December 13, 2012. Editorial Intern Rachel Grate continues her series on Christmas traditions and gender stereotypes

by Rachel Grate

With Christmas shopping underway, commercials are starting to seem like little kids jumping up and down screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” And unfortunately, some retailers are resorting to tired stereotypes to win our business.

As we learned yesterday, Christmas songs often describe kids choosing gendered toys – Barney and Ben want boots and guns, Janice and Jen want dolls (“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”). But this phenomenon isn’t limited to songs – the gendering of kids’ toys is inherent in most advertisements. As a business model, it makes sense – after all, if a son and daughter refuse to play with the same toys, parents have to buy twice as much to satisfy their kids’ demands.

Take the above Hallmark advertisement, for instance. While the concept is cute, I can’t help but question why the girl wants “a ballerina tutu, a pink bike” and “a princess doll.” If a little boy were writing to Santa, Hallmark wouldn’t put any of those items on his list – but a boy in real life might.

Advertisements don’t have to be gendered to be successful. Top Toy, a Swedish toy maker, recently released their Christmas toy catalogue for Denmark and Sweden – and in the Swedish version of the catalogue the genders of the kids playing with toys have been switched. In the glossy pages, boys are shown playing with dollhouses and girls with Nerf guns – just as kids play in real life.

This sort of gender-neutral advertising isn’t seen in the United States. Eighth grader McKenna Popenoticed this oversight in the advertisements of Hasbro when brainstorming gifts to get her four-year-old brother. In a video (below), her little brother tells her he wants a dinosaur and an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas.

“Why don’t they have any boys in the Easy-Bake Oven commercial?” McKenna asks her brother. “You think they should put boys, right? Because boys like to cook too, right?”

In response, McKenna started a change.org petition with over 38,000 to feature boys in the packaging of the Easy-Bake Oven, as a step to achieve gender equality in toy advertising – against the societal norms that McKenna notes reinforce that girls are the only ones in the kitchen.

Christmas commercials aimed toward adults further enforce these harmful societal norms. Asda and Morrisons, both UK companies, have released Christmas ads that do acknowledge how stressful Christmas can be. Unfortunately, they do so by relying on 1950s style gender roles – the women are running around cooking and shopping to exhaustion while their foolish husbands stand back, suffering from what The Frisky diagnosed as “‘Doofus Husband Syndrome,’ where they are unable to make decisions related to the home.”

“It doesn’t just happen by magic. Behind every great Christmas, there’s Mum,” the Asda commercial concludes. The problem is, a Christmas where the mom is burdened with all the work and none of the reward is not a “great” Christmas. In fact, it’s a pretty awful one.

As Bitch magazine noted about the Morrisons ad, “It might be refreshingly honest if it didn’t end by saying she ‘wouldn’t have it any other way.’ If you’re a mom, Christmas SHOULD make you miserable!”

Consumers aren’t siting back and accepting these stereotypes – instead, the Asda ad received over186 complaints in the first ten days it was on air, in addition to social media action. As a result, Asda apologized for any offense they’ve caused – but the ad continues to air.

In America, this Sears ad shows the other side of this stereotype- the “Doofus Husband” running around trying to find the perfect gift for his wife, and losing his child in the process. In addition, the man is portrayed as an idiot for thinking of getting his wife power tools – because of course her real preference is jewelry.

Jewelry commercials are perhaps the most obvious example of gender stereotypes there are. Nonetheless, the Zales Christmas ad (below) surpasses its peers by suggesting that jewelry can be exchanged for sex.

These messages both reinforce unhealthy relationship dynamics. Sexualized images of girls and women result in boys’ developing unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of their appearance (Girl Scouts) – and in the context of the Zales commercial, also of their behavior.

Girls between 11 and 14 see on average 500 ads a day. Advertisers know that kids constantly begging adults for toys they saw in ads is a more effective tactic than targeting the ads to adults – and kid see the advertisements targeted towards adults as well. Unfortunately, when kids internalize this gendered advertising, it has negative effects on their future.

In my letter to Santa this year, I’m asking for an end to sexist advertising. But just in case Santa is a little to busy to get to me, I’m using Twitter to tell these advertisers that I’m #NotBuyingIt. Will you join me?

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

Happy Holidays & Sexist Songs

This blog was originally posted by MissRepresentation.org on December 11, 2012. Editorial Intern Rachel Grate continues her series on Christmas traditions and gender stereotypes.

by Rachel Grate

It’s that time of the year again. The time of year when you can’t walk into a store, flip through radio stations, or generally leave your house without hearing Christmas music. While these songs can be comforting, they can also be downright creepy – and in ways more serious than Santa’s disturbing ability to “see you when you’re sleeping” (from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”).

The main issue with many Christmas songs is that many of the stereotypes they propagate are as outdated as “a one horse open sleigh” would look speeding down a highway. There’s a plethora of Christmas songs detailing children’s gift lists – lists entirely dependent on gender roles.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” reports that “Barney and Ben” want boots and “a pistol that shoots,” while “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk is the hope of Janice and Jen.” This sort of gendered gifting implies that boys should be violent and adventurous, while girls should care for dolls – not surprising considering that the song was written in 1951.

Christmas songs, however, aren’t recognized as outdated like most popular songs are. “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” was written in the 1860s and remains popular, despite “Johnny” wanting skates while “Suzy” wants a “dolly.” Similarly, “Up on the Housetop” was written in 1864, and describes “Will” getting a “hammer and lots of tacks, also a ball and a whip that cracks” while “Nell” gets – you guessed it – a doll.

The gender roles these songs socialize kids into don’t disappear once the children grow up, either. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” written in 1952, is a lighthearted song that nonetheless reinforces heteronormative family ideals.

1953’s “Santa Baby” is a drastically different interpretation of the Santa Seduction story. This song relies on the gold digger trope, reinforcing a materialistic portrayal of women. Furthermore, the song includes an outdated polarity between good and bad, saying, “Think of all the fun I’ve missed/ Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed/ Next year I could be oh so good.” This sort of slut-shaming attitude – that kissing boys she wanted to would have been bad – was, again, expected for the time period it was written, but with all the remakes of the song, why hasn’t the line been changed?

One remake in particular stands out to me: Michael Buble’s version, in which he refers to “Santa buddy” and “Santa pally” rather than baby. The version is incredibly awkward, and changes the desired gifts to tickets to sports games and decorations bought at Mercedes, rather than Tiffany’s. Instead of a ring, “and I don’t mean on the phone,” Buble just wants “one little thing, cha-ching, No I don’t mean as a loan.” Nonetheless, Buble keeps the line about kissing, but he kisses “hotties” instead of “fellas.”

Instead of using the gender switch to reduce the gender roles in the song, Buble’s song highlights them with his discomfort wanting the ‘girly’ items in the original – even switching the “light blue” of the convertible to the more manly “steel blue.” While some argue that this song doesn’t rely on sexuality to get the gift’s, if that were the case Buble wouldn’t make these changes – Santa could be his “baby,” too.

On the top of both Feminist Frequency’s and Chloe Angyal’s lists of problematic Christmas songs is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written in 1944. Angyal describes the song as “a relic of an era when it was accepted that any respectable woman would both refuse a man’s invitation to stay at his house drinking alte into the night, and that when she said ‘no,’ she actually meant ‘yes.’ Why the song is still a beloved classic … when our culture’s views on consent have changed considerably, is beyond me.”

The traditional cat-and-mouse dance portrayed in the song certainly tip-toes on the line of sexual intimidation, with the lady continually protesting “I really can’t stay” and “I’ve got to go away.” Some have even argued that the line “Say, what’s in this drink?” implies date rape.

On the other hand, it is true that societal pressures, rather than the woman’s own desires, seem to be her reasons for leaving. She mentions her mother, father, sister, brother, and even her maiden’s aunt as people who would question her – as well as the neighbors. Thus one could read the man as convincing her to do what she really wanted to all along, when she finally says, “Well, I really shouldn’t, alright.”

But that doesn’t excuse the man’s disregard for her refusal. Additionally, his argument centers around questions like “How can you do this to me?” and “Think of my life long sorrow,” rather than actually questioning the woman’s desires.

Some new songs are flawed as well, such as “All I Want For Christmas is You” which portrays a one-dimensional woman obsessed with love, rather than caring about other things like her career. AsFeminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian wrote, this is “not really a huge issue but the larger media pattern is definitely problematic.” Unfortunately, the larger media pattern is defined by 1950s standards for what family and gender means.

But for some reason, even though these old songs are remade year after year by new singers, the lyrics aren’t updated. These songs – like any Christmas traditions that reinforce outdated stereotypes – should be either shelved or rewritten to reflect modern sensibilities. (A Feminist Christmas Carol is one fun example of rewriting songs.)

It would be impossible to shun these songs, even if one wanted to. But keeping these messages in mind is important, especially when around children who may be absorbing these limiting messages without considering their historical context.

So just as one might have to explain that carriage rides aren’t necessarily as romantic as they sound when you’re traveling “home” for Christmas, don’t be afraid to mention that girls don’t need to ask for dolls for Christmas, or boys for tools. (Check back tomorrow for how Christmas advertising adds to these gendered expectations.) The red and green of the Christmas season shouldn’t transform into gendered pink and blue gender roles for the rest of the year.

Rachel is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her viaLinkedIn.

In Defense of Taylor Swift

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.


Taylor Swift at Harvey Mudd College on October 15.

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.

Facing the Fiction of the “Freshman Fifteen”

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on August 1, 2012.

By Rachel Grate

We’re only weeks away from a rush of new college freshman struggling to condense their entire room into a dorm-sized pack, taking their first nervous steps on campus without parents and meeting their roommates. As a result, stores are filling up with packing check lists, parents are freaking out and many students are – worrying about impending weight gain?

As out of place as that statement seems, it’s true. I was there just one short year ago, when every teen magazine I bought, like Seventeen, promised to help me “figure out what college is like – before you even get there!”

Unfortunately, instead of making me more confident about the upcoming transition, flipping through the magazine just made me more anxious about the adjustment I’d have to make and about the most damaging of irrelevant worries, my weight. (I wouldn’t have been surprised by this inverse effect if I’d know what the Keep It Real campaign has since brought to my attention – that 3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine.)

The “Freshman Fifteen”. Friends had joked about the weight gain, but I had never seriously worried about the weight gain until being bombarded with articles that referred to it as inevitable, “dreaded”, something you must “fight”, “fear” and “beat”. I mentally mapped out my battle plan, with circles over the gym and the dining hall’s salad bar.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t follow the prescribed diet once arriving at school. Instead, I fell into my old routine: running every other day and enjoying the fresh-baked cookies at dinner. Yet, surprisingly, I finished the year the exact same weight as I started it, as did most of my friends. So I decided to do some research, and found out that this result wasn’t as surprising as I’d thought. The average college freshman gains a healthy 2.5-3.5 pounds for normal body development, the 2011 study “The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or Media Myth?” found.

The “Freshman Fifteen” rhetoric which frames all weight gain negatively has a lasting effect on girls’ self-esteem and perception of health.

Finally, some numbers that made sense – a lot more sense than the theory that I’d magically gain fifteen pounds unless I made the drastic changes magazines suggested. Unfortunately, in my research I stumbled on another statistic that was all too believable: since 2000, the number of college students dieting, vomiting or taking laxatives to lose weight has jumped from about 28 to 38%(American College Health Association). College challenges students with stresses without their old support system, which often triggers eating disorders. So why aren’t these numbers being reported, rather than the mythical “Freshman Fifteen”?

Suddenly, I realized that was only half the question. What I now wanted to know was, could one of the reasons these numbers are so high be because of the over reporting of the “Freshman Fifteen”?

After reading ten articles about the “Freshman Fifteen” in magazines aimed at teens as part of a self-designed research project, the answer seemed to be yes.

Only four of the ten articles I read acknowledged the fact that the “Freshman Fifteen” weight gain isn’t real. Two of those articles were from CosmoGirl!, a magazine that has since been discontinued and its subscribers transferred to Seventeen. Seventeen, the very magazine that coined the term “Freshman Fifteen” in 1989.

Even the articles (like this one from Cosmopolitan) that did admit that the Freshman Fifteen wasn’t real still dedicated themselves to making readers fear any sign of weight gain. They all adoptedweight-shaming diction, calling the Freshman Fifteen a “pitfall”, “nerve-racking”, “unhealthy”, “scary” and “dreaded”; something to “fear”, “beat”, “avoid” and “fight” because if not, “Eek!” There was not one single word used to describe any sort of weight gain as something natural (much less positive) at this stage in one’s life.

Moreover, despite the framing of the “Freshman Fifteen” as a health issue, only two doctors were consulted across all the articles I read. The other health “experts”? Personal trainers, dieticians, and overwhelmingly, college students sharing anecdotes about weight gain. One student was considered an expert because she had written a book called “The Dorm Room Diet”, and the magazines emphasized her two sources of knowledge for the book: she lost ten pounds her freshman year. People magazine introduced her disturbingly competitive rhetoric, asking “Don’t you just hate her?”

(By the way, if you were wondering what the teen’s advice is that she filled a book with, People gave a lovely sample of a few of her tips, including such jewels as recommending you drink “Perrier – the bubbles will fill you up.” The phrase sounded more like it belonged on a pro-ana website than in an article claiming to focus on health.)

Even magazines dedicated to teen athletics, such as Dance Spirit, printed articles such as “Avoid the Dreaded Freshman Fifteen” with the subtitle “Hoping to keep your rockin’ bod after orientation? Here’s how.” This rhetoric (even more blunt in articles from the more mainstream magazines) forces a false connection between appearance and health and encourages fat shaming. Outward appearance and weight are not indicators of one’s health – even the BMI method is flawed.


The media rhetoric surrounding the “Freshman Fifteen” has even infiltrated medical sources, as illustrated by this image fromteenhealth.org.

In some cases, it is true that students experience unhealthy weight gain in college. But this does not validate the media’s fat-shaming campaign under the guise of warning readers of the Freshman Fifteen. In fact, this weight gain may be a result of the media’s confusion between health and appearance: freshman’s dietary restraint is linked to the development of disordered eating but did not prevent students from gaining weight. (“Weight Gain, Dietary Restraint, and Disordered Eating in the Freshman Year of College” by Eating Behaviors, 2008.)

In other words, all the media hype about the Freshman Fifteen? Great for disordered eating, but it doesn’t do anything to actually combat unhealthy weight gain.

Not so surprisingly, very few of the articles I studied discussed health as a concept distinctive from appearance. The photos accompanying the articles, instead of illustrating the healthy habits they supposedly encourage, featured skinny girls smiling at the gym.(The examples below are from online articles from Seventeen and Teen Vogue.)

Since the magazine industry isn’t taking responsibility for misleading its readers, it’s time we set the record straight. Call out the fat shaming in magazines using MissRepresentation.org’s #KeepItReal campaign. Tell your college-aged friends and family to stop stressing about weight. Spread the facts and call out the fictions in magazines. After all, college is a time for learning, and there’s no better way to start than by educating yourself about your own health.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Rachel read recent print and online articles fromDance SpiritTeen VogueCosmopolitanCosmoGirl!Seventeen, and People for her research project. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn for more information about her research.