In the most highly publicized celebrity feud of this year, a video of Taylor Swift explicitly approving Kanye West’s lyrics featuring her on his song “Famous” was released by his wife Kim Kardashian. This was after Swift repeatedly proclaimed in the media that she had never before heard, let alone supported, the “misogynistic” mention of her in the song.
Following the video’s release on Kardashian’s Snapchat, Swift was officially caught blatantly lying to the American public. She posted a statement on her Instagram in which she claimed that “being falsely painted as a liar when I was never given the full story or played any part of the song is character assassination.”
She continued, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009.”
Swift has, of course, been a part of many narratives since and before 2009. They include innocent country music darling (remember the cowboy boots and ball gown phase?), psychotic “love-obsessed” girlfriend of many famous male stars, and finally, Hollywood’s feminist protegé. The narrative she’s worked most successfully, though, has been that of victim – or the triumphant underdog: Taylor Swift as modern pop music’s ultimate martyr.
Swift hasn’t been an underdog for a very long time. Perhaps she never was at all.
Despite continuous interview references to the many seemingly insurmountable hardships she encountered on her road to fame, Swift was born into a wealthy family. Her father comes from three generations of bank presidents.
She was famous before many of her peers had even started college, giving her little time to struggle. Show business is considerably less hard when you have parents who can afford to thrust you into stardom without financial barriers.
More importantly, beyond her background, Swift is known for songs that function as attacks on people who have wronged her, whether they be music critics, exes, or frenemies.
Her third album, Speak Now, features the successful, catchy track “Mean” that instructs listeners to ignore bullies because one day you will be “rich, famous, and living in a big city while all they will ever be is mean.”
She admitted that the song was about a music critic, and her hordes of detective-skilled fans easily discovered it was about Bob Lefsetz, who at one point said Swift should have used autotune. At this time, Swift was already “rich, famous, and living in a big city,” and Lefsetz was not “mean,” but rather a little known music critic doing his job of critiquing music.
Swift fans quickly filled his inbox with hate mail, and today when you google “Bob Lefsetz” the most popular search suggestion is “Bob Lefsetz Taylor Swift” – a powerful indicator of her impact.
Album after album features songs that are less than flattering portrayals of her many exes, be it “All Too Well” about Jake Gyllenhaal, or 2012’s smash hit “I Knew You Were Trouble,” whose world tour live performances featured dialogue within the song performed in a thinly veiled, British-accented impersonation of Swift ex Harry Styles. The examples are legion: Swift has built a multimillion dollar empire on songs about how she has been ill-treated.
In recent years, Swift has gained particular recognition for her outspoken statements on women’s rights. In 2013, after Golden Globes hosts/comedians Amy Poehler and Tina Fey made a joke about Swift’s love life, Swift fired back with the famously ironic Katie Couric quote, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
In doing so, she appears to have lost sight of the fact that it was an awards show hosted by two heralded feminist comedians who were doing their typical awards show host duties by making fun of every celebrity in attendance, including Swift. Typically, Swift claimed her victim role.
Swift’s narrative of accusing other famous female celebrities of “pitting women against each other” is problematic because it fails to acknowledge the various intersections of different identities in the women’s rights movement. Not all women have the same experiences of sexism, and acknowledging that isn’t a fault, but rather an essential part of achieving equality.
In 2015 when Nicki Minaj criticized MTV’s VMA nominations’ lack of diversity and pointed out that they “celebrated women with very slim bodies,” Swift took a thoughtful, intelligent comment on racism and sizeism in Hollywood as a personal jab. In fact, she asked Minaj why she was again “pitting women against each other.” Rather than stopping to consider Minaj’s perspective, she immediately placed herself in the position of victim and Minaj in the role of attacker.
Despite this, major news outlets have since proclaimed Swift a modern celebrity feminist icon, ignoring the fact that even her feminism is mostly self-serving.
Swift hasn’t used her newfound feminist position to speak out in favor of women’s reproductive rights, global access to education, equal pay, political representation, or any of the numerous intersectional issues affecting women today.
Instead, her major point of concern remains the media’s obsession with her romantic partners and other issues that affect her particular brand of lifestyle, which is to say an affluent and Caucasian one. Even Swift’s infamous “girl squad” consists almost entirely of beautiful, white, wealthy Victoria’s Secret models – AKA the demographic which her particular brand of feminism serves.
I am not here to call Taylor Swift a bad artist, or a bad celebrity for that matter. Worse examples exist in both categories. In fact, I believe her to be for all intents and purposes a phenomenal, calculating businesswoman who has crafted an internationally famous brand that has only grown in popularity. Economically, her strategy of victim-playing has clearly worked. But that doesn’t make it right.
I am disappointed. In 2016, I believe we are in a position to demand better behavior of our cultural icons. Taylor Swifhas enormous resources at her discretion, which she uses frequently to manipulate the media narrative. She should understand how to use her privilege and influence to make the world a better, more informed place.
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