The first feminist critique of pop culture that I can remember reading was an article in Bitch Magazine about Taylor Swift and the Madonna-whore dichotomy. At that time, the article was more formative to my feminist consciousness than Swift’s music, which I found annoying. But Swift has come a long way from lines like “she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts,” and somehow in college I became a fan.
Her latest album, 1989, has moved away from her country sound and has met plenty praise from fans. It’s also made me think about Swift as a female artist and whether her self-expression – she still writes her own lyrics – can be considered feminist.
Regardless of the fact that Swift may or may not write about her high-profile exes (I don’t recall anyone giving Bob Dylan shit for writing about Edie Sedgwick, but I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation for this), her music is popular because it is relatable. The tunes are fun, of course, but as critics have noted, her lyrics can be “gutting” when she wants them to be.
The most exciting songs on her latest album are the ones in which Swift, confident in who she is despite whatever reputations she may have, throws mad shade. “Blank Space” does exactly this, with lines like “got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane.” Swift knows what you’ve been saying about her, and she doesn’t care. But this isn’t just a personal victory – the song speaks for more than just Swift.
Part of why Swift’s music is so relatable is surely because, like in the case of being stereotyped as the crazy ex-girlfriend, the shit that she deals with is the same misogynistic shit that almost all girls deal with. (Of course, Swift’s struggles are particularly white – black female artists do not get treated in the same way at all by mainstream media.) That’s also why songs like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” and “Bad Blood” are so great – they call out and rise above a (fairly) universal struggle.
Swift sings almost exclusively about her own romantic relationships, but these relationships do not occur in a vacuum, protected from misogyny and gender-based privilege. When Swift sings, “people like you always want back the love they pushed aside,” is she not talking about male entitlement? With lyrics like these, Swift articulates for us all the hypocrisies of young men blinded to their own foolishness by their strong sense of superiority and entitlement. Not only is she giving young women and girls the perfect songs to sing along and dance to while struggling against the self-doubt that comes with living in a patriarchy, but she also criticizes behavior many of us have encountered and deems it unacceptable.
By no means is Swift a feminist hero. But even as I write this I want to question the practice of judging female celebrities harshly for how “feminist” they are. Sometimes it’s relevant (Lily Allen’s feminism is basically just racism), but it often calls to mind the impossible standards that women in the public eye are held to for their every move. I’m not saying that Swift is a Flawless*** feminist, but her newest music gives voice to the specific struggles that girls and women face in how they are perceived by others and how they are treated in even the most normative heterosexual relationships.