On August 21, Taylor Swift just about broke the Internet by posting a cryptic video of a snake’s tail on her Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts after deleting virtually all of the content she had posted on her social media outlets. Following a wildly successful world tour that ended in December of 2015 featuring her 1989 setlist, Swift seemed to disappear throughout what one could only describe as a tumultuous – if not traumatic – election season in 2016. Feminism came to the forefront of the national conversation, as we witnessed the first nomination of a woman to a major political party’s candidacy.
While a multitude of celebrities – particularly pop stars who find many of their most ardent fans in the teenage/young adult women demographic – came out in support of Hillary Clinton, Swift only encouraged her fanbase to “vote” in a simplistic and blatantly non-partisan Instagram post. As such, many feminists lambasted Swift for her bystander attitude in an election where the empowerment of the very women who attend all of Swift’s concerts seems to be at stake.
And so, we find ourselves wondering: is Taylor Swift actually feminist? If you’ve seen Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech at the United Nations in 2016, or if you’ve listened to Beyonce’s “***Flawless” featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you likely know that feminism is the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. The definition reads in a pretty straight forward fashion. But, how does the intersectional focus of the third-wave feminism we’re experiencing now fit into that definition? It seems that racial equality is excluded; sexual equality is excluded; religious equality is excluded; disabled equality is excluded; indeed, even gender equality is excluded (yes, sex and gender are different things). To many self-identified feminists, these other structures of inequality are inseparable from mere equality of the sexes. Men and women cannot be equal, for example, unless Black and White men and women are also equal to one another. This is where Taylor Swift seems to run into trouble.
Many young feminists have called Taylor Swift a “White feminist,” meaning not that she is both White and a feminist, but that she is someone who only stands for gender equality when it serves her and who fails to be an ally when issues of race arise. This was a major critique of second-wave feminism, during which White women were making strides towards being included in the workforce and politics while women of color continued to bear the burden of racism throughout the mid to late-twentieth century. Today, these trends have brought us to a corrective era where an emphasis is placed on intersections of gender, sex, race, ability, sexual orientation, and religion, resulting in a variety of conversations that highlight intersections of privilege and lackthereof.
Indeed, Swift self-identifies as a feminist; however, her actions are ambiguous. Just prior to her social media hiatus in August, Swift took a legal stand against a DJ who had groped her at a meet-and-greet, countersuing him for just $1 in response to the defamation suit he brought against her. In the media, Swift was lauded for using her platform to shed light on sexual assault. But, she’s not the only major pop star to stand with victims of harassment and assault – Kesha has been fighting a grueling legal battle against her producer, Dr. Luke, on charges of sexual assault and battery amongst many other charges for quite some time now without the gracious media coverage Swift received. So, why the obsession with Swift?
Moreover, Swift often stumbles into conversations about race. In the music video for her single “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift draws upon old-American-South vibes reminiscent of Beyonce’s “Formation” music video, and employs a squad consisting mostly of men of color to back her up during a sexy hip-hop dance break. While her inclusion of people of color is nice, it seems slightly tone-deaf given the composition of her actual friend group, which is made up of mostly supermodel-esque White women like herself. In her music video for her single “Shake It Off,” Swift similarly utilized dancers who were women of color as twerking props as she looked on in an oversized leopard print hoodie balancing a boombox on her shoulder. Thus, viewers are left wondering whether this dancer squad is meant to be inclusive or exploitative of people of color.
Perhaps most notably, “Look What You Made Me Do” and “…Ready For It?” exude hip-hop vibes and even feature rhythmic and melodic structures that mimic rap music. Both hip-hop and rap music has developed out of communities that were marginalized in the sociopolitical and musical landscapes throughout the twentieth century in America. So, for Taylor Swift – a White pop megastar who got her start in mainstream country-pop – to draw upon these genres only when it seems that they will benefit her financially strikes me as an appropriation of the musical culture of such marginalized communities. When paired with the racial disparity between her real-life model squad and music video hip-hop squad, this argument only feels stronger.
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