Join the MQ Swifties as they retrace the progression of Taylor Swift’s career, mapping out her cultural and political presence as a feminist and privileged American in her music, interviews, and the media around her.
Taylor Swift is a singer, songwriter, director and actor. But is she a feminist icon? While usually acclaimed for her contributions to the music industry with hits such as “Shake It Off,” “22,” and “You Belong With Me,” she has also been heralded as a feminist inspiration for young women by some and vilified for her tokenism by others. It’s clear the artist isn’t out of the woods just yet when it comes to her contribution to women’s rights.
Swift began her country music career in the early 2000s, starting in Tennessee with nothing but a guitar and a dream. At the time, the genre was dominated by older, white men, and saturated with conservative values. She fit in as an innocent, “all-American” girl and this image consolidated her success. Her contemporaries who dared to challenge the status quo faced intense backlash, such as The Chicks, whose 2003 criticism of the invasion of the Iraq war made them national pariahs. The Chicks faced everything from radio station blacklisting to death threats, so Swift was encouraged to keep quiet to get ahead. Her career grew, and as the inoffensive “girl-next-door” archetype became ill-fitting, the media tried to cut her down to fit the image that had grown so dear. Her dating life was thrust into the spotlight, and she was cast as a cold and calculated “heartbreaker.” On reflection, it’s clear that a young woman who was confident in sharing her emotions, enjoying her youth and doing an average amount of dating grated on the public.
Swift didn’t just sit back and take the criticism, however. Over the years she has grown increasingly vocal in calling out double standards. As Swift so strongly elaborated in a 2019 interview: “A man does something, it’s strategic. A woman does the same, it’s calculated. A man is allowed to react, a woman can only overreact…” Unlike their male counterparts, women in the public eye receive an overwhelming amount of pressure to maintain a youthful and beautiful appearance, lest they become “discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35” (in the words of Swift). For Swift, this extends itself to her dramatic aesthetic transformations with every album cycle or ‘era’. However, this begs the question of why a woman at the top of her field has to put in so much effort compared to her male peers. This is without mentioning that male artists accused of racist acts, violence or assault often continue to thrive and age in the spotlight without similar pressures or proportionate levels of backlash. Swift has commented on and explored these ideas both explicitly in the press, and throughout her music.
Swift’s first pure-pop album, 1989 (2014), not only contained absolute bangers but two songs that explicitly commented on her portrayals in the media. The lead single, “Shake It Off,” included a playful remark about the media portrayal of her romantic life: “I go on too many dates, but I can’t make ‘em stay, at least that’s what people say”. The following single, “Blank Space,” was a parody of the villain she had been made out to be by the media. The lyrics are filled with references to her supposed plethora of short-term, volatile relationships, filled with lies, games and manipulation: “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane, ‘cause you know I love the players, and you love the game”. The music video, too, emphasised glamorous beginnings that quickly fade in favour of accusations, screaming matches and the destruction of property, featuring Swift smashing her romantic interest’s car with a golf club.
Swift’s following album, reputation (2017), further explored the villainization she endured as a successful woman in the music industry. In the year prior to the album, hate for the singer ramped up significantly, with “#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty” trending on Twitter. Snake emojis flooded her social media comments, leading Swift to disappear from the spotlight. As stated in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana (2020), “Nobody physically saw [Swift] for a year.” The album marked the symbolic death and resurrection of Swift’s career as she returned to the public eye. Swift reclaimed the snake symbol as imagery for the album, and the album cover itself featured her name written dozens of times in newsprint, an unambiguous reference to her relationship with the media. Tracks such as “I Did Something Bad,” “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” provided a new, darker commentary on Swift’s treatment as a female musician and the reputation the media created for her. In a particularly powerful lyric, she sang “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one,” drawing comparisons between the modern media and the Salem witch trials.
Perhaps the most powerful message to come out of Swift’s reputation album, however, was her commentary on sexual assault and her support of survivors of sexual abuse. Preceding the album, Swift herself countersued then-radio employee David Mueller for battery and sexual assault. She sued for a symbolic amount of one dollar, highlighting that the case had far more than just a monetary value. The artist used her position as a prominent public figure to encourage other women to share their stories and speak out. In a moving speech during the Reputation Stadium Tour, she empathised with fans: “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry to anyone who wasn’t believed because I don’t know what turn my life would have taken if people didn’t believe me”.
Swift’s experiences in her personal life not only inform her stance on women’s empowerment but her songwriting. Though Swift was open in her early career about the inspirations behind her ballads of heartbreak and pain, she has remained tight-lipped in recent years about the subjects of her storytelling, to avoid creating a feeding frenzy in the media. An example of this is the parallel between “Dear John,” a popular track from her 2010 album Speak Now, and the recent song “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” from the 2022 Midnights album. The title of “Dear John” referred to the historic practice of writing letters to end relationships with partners stationed overseas, but in reality was Swift’s clever reference to ex-partner John Mayer, whom she dated when she was nineteen and he was thirty-two. In a 2009 interview when asked about her habit of naming and shaming her partners, she addressed the topic: “If guys don’t want me to write bad songs about them, they shouldn’t do bad things.” The young, fresh pain of this past relationship, however, has followed Swift and transformed over time into a more sombre reflection and regret. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” revisits Swift’s relationship with a more mature assessment twelve years later: “Memories feel like weapons, I regret you all the time…give me back my girlhood, it was mine first.” Swift’s tone is raw as she uses religious imagery to explore the “corruption” of her youth by a man much older and more powerful than her teenage self – one whose career still thrives despite these allegations.
Despite continuing to use her experiences of life to inform her storytelling, it appears Swift’s days of directly referring to relationships of the past are behind her. As she sang in “invisible string” from her 2020 album folklore, “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart, now I send their babies presents.” Recently, her target seems to have moved from the individual men in her life to a wider threat: the patriarchy. Reflecting on the gender roles and expectations that have followed her since her debut album in 2006, the latest album drop of Midnights showed the artist has no intention to give in to the milestones women are pushed to meet. This is made clear in the lyrics, “No deal, the 1950s shit they want from me,” from “Lavender Haze” as well as “He wanted a bride, I was making my own name, chasing that fame,” from “Midnight Rain.” Despite her clear career ambitions, and her efforts to keep her long-term relationship with partner actor Joe Alwyn away from the public eye, Swift still finds herself at the centre of theories and conspiracies about marriage and children. All this begs the question, can she ever do enough to satisfy the media and the public at large? Will Taylor Swift continue to be dragged down by the past and the patriarchy, or break free from the chains of the media’s misogyny?
Despite the treatment Swift has endured, she is far from the perfect role model, and far from the ideal “feminist.” It can often appear that she speaks on issues when it is most convenient to her, finding it easy to take on and cast off queer associates and friends of colour when it suits her album cycle. This was particularly prominent during the 2019 Lover era and exemplified in her song “You Need To Calm Down.” The music video featured notable LGBTQIA+ celebrities, including Laverne Cox and members of Queer Eye, with the lyrics poking fun at homophobes: “Shade never made anybody less gay.” All too quickly, however, Swift’s squad disappeared, and she remained silent about the increasingly threatened rights for queer and trans people in the US. This continues even after her latest music video love interest was played by trans actor Laith Ashely in “Lavender Haze.”
Many have labelled the artist a “white feminist”: someone whose definition and practice of feminism revolves around the default of white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied women. They argue that her often oversimplified and tokenistic defence of women’s rights is only transformative for privileged women like herself; a glittery, cookie-cutter version of real, gritty change and progression. For example, her song “The Man” has been called into question for being too simplistic and framing ideal empowerment as patriarchal behaviours, such as “raking in dollars, and getting bitches and models”. The song seems to partially envy the power of the patriarchy that only exists through the marginalisation of others. Swift is fed up with “running as fast as she can”, but the execution of these arguments leaves much to be desired. Hence, many have been rubbed the wrong way by her portrayal as a champion of change, when many Black and transgender feminists are overlooked for their contributions to gender equality.
While Swift may not always take the right approach in her attempts to stand up for issues of gender equality, she’s certainly well intentioned. As she herself has explained in Miss Americana, “I’m trying… to reprogram the misogyny in my own brain. There is no such thing as a slut, as a bitch, as someone who’s bossy, there’s just a boss.” However, many have criticised her for not yet being informed enough, vocal enough, or progressive enough, particularly with her level of privilege and all that she’s endured. It’s clear Swift has felt pulled in disparate directions, as she continued in the documentary: “[Women] don’t wanna be condemned for being multifaceted… I wanna love glitter and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society. I wanna wear pink, and tell you how I feel about politics.” Swift seems torn between the image of her youth, where she was solely a singer-songwriter and performer, not weighing in on current events and taking criticism with a beatific smile and a laugh, and the complicated, whole woman that she has become – with ever-growing privilege that she is learning to wield, with thoughts and opinions people may not like and which feel like a risk to her popular persona that has facilitated so much of her success.
As a woman who has grown up in the public eye and has made her forays into speaking about feminism, there comes the question: does Taylor Swift owe us anything? The artist has received much criticism for her ongoing silence about current events. While Swift is in a position of significant power and privilege with her voice being heard by millions worldwide, she is also a woman who has endured probing and prodding from the media and public for almost two decades. Does she have a right to simply live her life privately and share her art when she so chooses, without weighing into controversy? Or should she be expected to do more, because she has such wide-reaching influence?
To use Taylor Swift’s own words, she’s damned if she does give a damn what people say… but we sure wouldn’t mind if she spoke up a little more.