I must admit to having little to no prior interest in Taylor Swift, which was probably due to her a. country genre beginnings; b. target audience of prepubescent girls, and c. being little more than another pop princess to make fun of through her obvious style of songwriting with themes including trucks, boys and crying (this hilarious infograph for further proof), and tendency to reference her big name ex-boyfriends at any given opportunity.
While Swift has made millions from her syrupy teenage girl anthems she’s also been heralded everything from a ‘teenage prodigy’ to a ‘feminist’s nightmare’, with praise and criticism for her particular breed of family-friendly, inoffensive style of pop music. The whole furore over Swift being ‘anti-feminist’ came to the forefront last week when Swift was asked in an interview ‘Do you consider yourself a feminist?’ and replied with some awkwardly non-committal response about ‘playing as hard as the boys’, quick to deflect any notions of becoming a feminist figurehead.
What ensured was the usual Internet spectacle wherein people try to classify a ridiculously broad topic like feminism into ‘yes or no’ territory. Of course she should have identified as a feminist; her music is all about feminine empowerment! Of course she wouldn’t identify as a feminist; she’s so representative of a patriarchal, whitewashed middle class! Among the snarky comment about whether Swift actually has anything to say on the matter of being a feminist, willingly or not, nobody was asking the question on my mind – why wouldn’t Swift want to be considered a feminist?
In my limited knowledge of feminism, it isn’t only about recognizing and calling out chauvinist, misogynistic and unbalanced attitudes towards women, but about self-empowerment and unity. Being a feminist isn’t just about classifying one’s self as a feminist, it’s about being empowered, educated and interested in a culture beyond outdated and unfair stereotypes.
Whilst Taylor Swift doesn’t fit into all of those categories, she certainly fits into some, particularly in her behind the scenes efforts. She writes the majority of her own music and has an almost unprecedented amount of control on her image, label and branding. She falls into a liberated feminist mindset wherein she’s got more going for her than her pre-packaged brand – she is talented, motivated and hard working. Even haters can’t dispute those facts.
But the image Taylor Swift has so finely finessed over time is just that, an image, designed for an audience. Swift’s audience consists largely of tween and teenage girls and she’s usually considered inoffensive on all counts – non-provocative, likeable and harmless. Watching the video for Swift’s latest output, the colossally popular “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, it’s painfully clear Swift wants you to think of her as the average teenage girl, parading around in her pajamas and vehemently denying her jerky ex-boyfriends advances.
This is quintessential Taylor Swift; the girl-next-door, your high school best friend, your teenage confidante. She isn’t going to get silly yet sexy like Katy Perry or tell you to ‘Run the World’ like Beyoncé, because that’s simply not her identity. And while there’s nothing wrong with an artist embracing/ flaunting their sexuality as Beyoncé and Perry do, it would be simplifying and demeaning to assume feminism only comes when you’re being overt about your own sexuality. That’s not to say Swift will be the next Kathleen Hanna, but more than she provides an introductory view of female empowerment, tailored to her audience.
So if Taylor Swift is actually kind of a feminist, why doesn’t she want to be called out for being one?
It comes down to the contradictory nature of the word ‘feminist’ in contemporary culture, particularly for women of prominence in the pop culture world. It’s a divisive topic (when it doesn’t really need to be), with artists either screaming out ‘LOOK GUYS I AM BEING A FEMINIST’ Lady Gaga style, or making little to no reference of it in their public persona despite creating feminist anthems, such as Beyoncé.
Then there’s that messy situation where you have misguided attempts at feminism from ‘controversial’ ladies like Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks, who, while managing to reference some feminist ideals, regularly produce works or make statements that are far to the opposite side of the pond. With all the bad press feminism gets these days, it’s no wonder someone as image-centered as Taylor Swift, America’s Sweetheart, wouldn’t want to be labeled a feminist; it’s apparently both uncool and difficult to be a feminist, let alone to do it ‘right’, as the multitude of different opinions and criticisms surrounding Swift’s quote generated.
And there’s the problem. Swift should want to be outspoken about being a feminist voice, because she has an audience of young girls who need to learn about equality and fair opportunity, to be smart and courageous and stand up for themselves. But Swift has assumed, like many of us have, that feminism is all about ‘hating men’, and she simply isn’t going to commit to portraying an image that would ‘hurt’ her brand and audience. It’s disappointing Swift views feminism this way, but it’s not entirely her fault; she’s simply reflecting a larger negative attitude in our culture towards what feminism actually is and what it means in our current society.
When I think back to my first ideas about feminism, it’s Gwen Stefani refusing to be one of the boys yet being more badass than the lot of them, or The Spice Girls being all about female friendship and ‘Girl Power’, even whilst wearing the skimpiest of dresses and the silliest of costumes. Feminism, just like other beliefs, shouldn’t be merely about who is delivering the message, but how the message is being delivered, and Taylor Swift has the ability to get a new generation of young ladies not yet ready to listen to Bjork, Beth Ditto or M.I.A. to get up and start believing in themselves.