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On Taylor Swift and Feminism

It’s easy for feminists to hate on Taylor Swift.  She sings about wearing dresses and plays a sparkly guitar, and worries a lot about her love life. There’s a tendency to call her “anti-feminist” because of these things.  It’s silly and pretty contrary to the ideals of feminism to suggest any kind of expression of female identity is illegitimate. A big part of that is the tendency to read anti-feminist messages into Taylor Swift: she’s often accused of slut-shaming and a celebrating virginity.  But if you take more than a passing glance at her lyrics, and at the identity she constructs, it’s pretty clear that those things aren’t actually in the text.

Take the above example of a section of her song “You Belong With Me”. It’s often read as Taylor slut-shaming a girl who is dating a boy she likes.  But it requires several assumptions in order to get there, which aren’t actually backed up by the text.

For starters, short skirts does not always code for “slut”. It’s amazing how often people who get angry when people overtly make the connection between sexuality and clothes then do the same thing when it’s the other way around. Saying that “short skirts” automatically codes for “slut” in reinforcing a really stupid and dangerous idea, and assuming Taylor does so – despite CLEAR evidence from the rest of the text otherwise – is silly.

But if you go further than the above phrase, and actually look at the whole song, this is not a song about a virgin/whore dichotomy. It’s a song about a popular and fashionable / geeky and awkward dichotomy.  In the context of the song, it clearly “short skirts” codes for “fashionable and popular”.  Taylor’s not talking about sexual experience here, she’s talking about popularity and peer groups and teenage identity. A geeky awkward girl feeling overlooked for a popular girl is not slut shaming: it’s an expression of a very common teenage experience. The second time the cheerleader/bleachers contrast is used, in which Taylor sings: “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers”.  Short skirt and heels vs. sneakers and a t-shirt is an image, but it’s not an explicitly sexual one. Fashion, especially when you’re a teenager, is more about your social identity than anything else.  Reading it as being inherently sexual is looking for something that isn’t there.

Beyond the teenage experience, the song is about a more universal feeling: feeling that you’re a better match for someone than the person they’re with, but feeling overlooked because of the way you present yourself. There’s nothing inherently antifeminist in that. Who hasn’t felt like that at some point? Feminists shouldn’t be in the habit of telling people their emotions are illegitimate.  You can dislike another woman and still be a feminist. You can want to be in a relationship with someone who is in a relationship with someone else and still be a feminist. You can feel like people who are more fashionable than you get opportunities you don’t, and still be a feminist. None of these are inherently non-feminist attitudes.

The urge to identify Taylor an antifeminist because she is pretty “girly” is incredibly irritating.  It undercuts the core message of feminism, which is that women people should be able to be whatever they like and to construct the gender identity they choose.  There is nothing in any Taylor song that implies “you should me more like me”.  Taylor’s music tells personal stories: Fearless is a really wonderful take on being a teenager, and specifically being a teenage girl, and all the confusion and frustration that accompanies it.  It isn’t trying to be universal or a how-to: it’s one person’s memoirs of their teenage life. “Speak Now” is a really powerful collection of stories about the first phase of adulthood: its loneliness, its disillusion, its excitement. It’s a whole album about making mistakes and learning and forging your own identity.

There’s something, to my mind, incredibly empowering about a woman telling stories about her lived experience and becoming massively commercially successful in doing so.  She might not be your idea of what a woman should be, but really, who gives a fuck. The point of feminism is that we all get to be our own kind of woman, and we shouldn’t say Taylor is anti-feminist because she’s not “our” kind of woman.  There’s nothing wrong with pink and sparkles.

Contrary to popular opinion, nothing in Taylor’s music promotes the virgin princess ideal.  And don’t give me the “Abigail gave everything she had” thing, because it’s wrong, andJonathan has written the definitive takedown of it.  If you read that as being about sex, you’re projecting.  There is implicit sex in many of her songs- and given her audience, you can hardly blame her for not being explicit.  Sex is part of relationships, and Taylor sings about relationships, and there is sex in her songs. In “Tim McGraw”, she’s hooking up with a guy in a pickup truck, in “Mine”, she’s at least somewhat living with her boyfriend.

But even if there were hints of virginity in Taylor’s music, saying that renders them illegitimate is as destructive as slut-shaming.  Feminism is about people being free to make the choices that are right for them, even if they are to not have sex. There is nothing inherently wrong with the decision to not have sex, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the decision to have sex. If you are saying one is better than the other, sure, that’s a problem, but Taylor doesn’t do that. At all. Ever. In any of her songs. But art doesn’t just exist for publicly-sexually-expressive people who have expressed their gender identity in nontraditional ways. It’s for everyone.

I’m a feminist because I believe people are equal, regardless of their gender identity. I am a feminist because I believe people should be free to express their gender however they choose. I am a feminist because I believe people’s choices about their sexual activity are up to them. But that goes as much for the girl in the pink sparkly dress as anyone else.

Taylor is a woman who is telling moving stories about her lived experience. As feminists, we should celebrate that.

 

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