If Taylor Swift wants to have a conversation about sexism, perhaps she should take a look at her own work first.
Written by Tanya Ghahremani (@tanyaghahremani)
In case you haven’t heard, Taylor Swift was a little peeved about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s comments at the recent Golden Globe Awards. The two comics made a mostly good-natured joke about Swift—specifically, they said she needs to stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son, commenting that, "[She could use] some 'me time' to learn about herself"—but the pop star didn’t quite take it as such. As she so often does in her music, the 23-year-old singer aired out her feelings, telling Vanity Fair:
"You know, Katie Couric is one of my favorite people, because she said to me she had heard a quote that she loved, that said, 'There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.'"
In a single sentence, she condemned two women to hell while simultaneously saying that women should always help other women. There’s some irony here, but I'm going to let that go because she wasn't finished:
"For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated – a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way – that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist."
Taylor Swift wants to talk about sexism and feminism. Good. This is a necessary conversation to have, as women’s rights are still at the forefront of the cultural conversation—especially in Congress, where crusty men have lots of opinions about oppressive laws that don’t involve them on account of their having dicks and balls.
Devaluing a woman for wearing heels and condemning her for being promiscuous is repulsive. Even more so when one considers the fact that Swift’s fanbase is mostly made up of impressionable young fans who consider her words to be something like scripture.
But there’s a problem here. Swift wants to discuss feminism, but only because it's affecting her. She didn’t seem to care much about the topic when she was asked about it by Ramin Setoodeh of The Daily Beast last October. The question was posed: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”
"I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life."
Putting aside the fact that women have to work much harder than men to reach the same level of success (among other inequalities), her response is not an inherently offensive one. But it doesn’t do much to explain these suddenly strong feelings she seems to have about women getting along.
If Swift wants to say that Fey and Poehler, who tirelessly promote women, are making sexist remarks, then she should take a hard look at her own work. In case she doesn't want to, we'll take the liberty of doing it for her.
First: Taylor Swift’s infamous 2009 music video for “You Belong With Me”—yes, the video that won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Music Video over Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” much to Kanye West’s disdain. In the video, we meet shy, nerdy, cute little Swift, who's in love with her jock neighbor. Their bedroom windows face each other in a very '90s teen movie fashion (Whatever It Takes, specifically), and they often write notes to each other in notebooks that they hold up for the other to read. Blonde Taylor Swift's bummed that the object of her affection is dating a brunette version of herself, and wastes no time comparing the two of them in the song: “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts/She’s cheer captain/and I’m on the bleachers.” Apparently, brunette Taylor Swift must be demonized because she’s a cheerleader, wears short skirts, and is dating the guy that blonde Taylor Swift wants. Got it.
Swift spends the rest of the video more or less slut-shaming her double, asking why the guy of her dreams would ever consider dating anyone else—“Hey, what you doin’ with a girl like that?”—and going on and on about how “different” she is because she wears sneakers or something. The jock dude only notices the error of his ways when he sees blonde Taylor Swift at the pivotal school dance wearing a flowing white (read: virginal) dress, with her messy curls tamed and her makeup lightly done to perfection. He’s entranced by her, and blows off his now ex-girlfriend, who's wearing a scantily-cut dress in red, which is obviously the color of sex, lies, and Satan.
There’s a lot wrong with this video, but we’re going to focus on the fact that it's four minutes of Swift putting down a girl who appears confident, just because she’s dating the guy that Swift wants. She explains this girl via what she wears, and then proceeds to devalue her because of it.
This isn’t anything new for Swift. The singer has practically built her career with songs about how she’s been scorned by men, and the women who have stolen them from her, alike. How is she being “supportive” of other women if she’s making music videos like that, or writing songs like her 2010 single “Better than Revenge,” which says of Camilla Belle (who began dating Swift’s ex Joe Jonas after they broke up), “[she's] an actress/ but she’s better known for things that she does on the mattress”?
She's not. Songs like Swift's sell because they're in line with the bullshit women are spoon-fed from day one: Other women are catty bitches, and having some internalized sexism is completely normal and justified because women are such catty bitches. It all plays into the patriarchy, causing young girls to think that it's a fact that females are backstabbers while males have “less drama.”
To Swift, sexism only arises when someone says something bad about her—not when she’s going on and on about how other women use their sexuality to reel men away from her, while assuring that she doesn’t do it and ends up heartbroken every time. It’s another ideology that women are fed from the moment they become teenagers: Either you give your heart and virginity to someone only to end up heartbroken when someone else more promiscuous than you comes along, or you become the promiscuous girl and know you’ll be demonized for being comfortable with your sexuality. It's the virgin or the whore. And it's explicitly a part of Swift's music.
This isn’t to say that Swift is only hard on women—she has a whole bank of songs ragging on men who have wronged her, in various ways. One such example, from her 2008 single “Picture to Burn”: “So go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy/That's fine I'll tell mine that you're gay!” The fact that she used the term “gay” as an insult is a subject for a whole other article.
If Taylor Swift really wants to have a conversation about sexism, feminism, and women supporting other women, she should take a look at some of the things she’s included in her own songs and music videos. Fey and Poehler’s joke was, as Fey said, “benign.” Devaluing a woman for wearing heels and condemning her for being promiscuous is repulsive. Even more so when one considers the fact that Swift’s fanbase is mostly made up of impressionable young fans who consider her words to be something like scripture.
While it’s not Swift’s job to preach feminist issues, the fact remains, she’s got a great platform. Instead of using it to bitch and moan about how everyone is mean to her, she could make a difference with her music and interviews. Not talking about “special places in hell” for a woman like Poehler, who runs an entire YouTube channel dedicated to empowering young girls, is a start. In fact, I’d suggest pairing up with Poehler for a video on that same channel! Band together!
Because if she’s going to start accusing women of sexism, she might want to build up a bit of her own cred first.