Stop saying Taylor Swift’s feminism is just a marketing ploy
She’s standing up for women and we’re still saying she’s a fake
Last night, Taylor Swift called out Kanye West. There is a song called Famous on his new album that seemingly makes an unflattering reference to Swift (“I made that b—- famous,” he raps). In a Grammys acceptance speech – best album, for 1989 – she rebuked him.
“As the first woman to win album of the year at the Grammys twice,” she said, “I want to say to all the young women out there: there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, some day when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
Taylor has been wronged by Kanye before. Last time, she looked bewildered and awkward as Kanye clambered on stage to insist that the award she had just won for best music video was better deserved by Beyoncé. This time, he let her finish. Her speech is impassioned and dignified. She’s focusing on the work.
Detractors do not. On Sunday my colleague Roisin rightly observed that Taylor Swift’s 18-year old self would not have made it into her squad. It was a very good metaphor for Taylor’s transformation from the people-pleasing girl “draped over your boyfriend at a party, talking about how it’s difficult for her to make friends with girls because they’re so bitchy” into 21st century millennial feminist. Roisin rightly argues that the U-turn is remarkable. Certainly, it is.
The Sunday Times Magazine took a more snide angle, running a cover story about Swift, tagged to the coverline, “nightmare dressed as a daydream?” which is one of Swift’s lyrics. The piece questioned the authenticity of the singer’s “squad”.
Using her lyrics in a snide attack characterises the ferocious way in which people seize upon her perceived inconsistencies: chiefly, that her discovery of feminism and – consequently – independent agency, is a marketing ploy. That her group of friends – on the whole, white, attractive and successful women – is cynical, exclusive and therefore “bad” for feminism. That being a feminist was a rebrand that she knew would work, because she is a “Nazi Barbie” (an unsisterly slight by Camille Paglia); a calculating Machiavellian princess; a “nightmare dressed as a daydream”.
Perhaps it’s cynical. Though, perhaps she grew up. Coming to something later – though incidentally, at the same time as many of her peers – does not disqualify her from taking part. It does not mean her attachment is superficial.
Certainly, when I was 17 – at roughly the same time Taylor was, she’s six months older than me – feminism was just a word to me. I knew what it meant, abstractly, if I were challenged, perhaps I would have said I was one. I don’t know. But I wasn’t sensible of what it really meant, because I was 17. At school, gender roles are prescriptive, certainly, but there is a fun schtick to be made out of being the “tomboy”. It wasn’t until I went to university and assumed a parity of opportunity and treatment – we’d all got in and all deserved to be there, surely? – that I realised there were some people who would never agree.
I felt this yet more keenly when I graduated, and got a job. Now that I had a career that I cared about – that I had worked hard for – I understood that it was tiresome, infuriating, horrible, when someone tries to make you feel small (because you’re a girl, which they do, or because of your age, which they do). At the same time, I recognised – and really appreciated – that there was a wider social shift that was redistributing agency to women. It’s clumsy and it won’t always get things right but it’s important that it’s happening.
But someone is, always – always – trying to make Taylor feel small. A man claims responsibility for her career – and slings a misogynistic slur at you to boot. This specific man has already humiliated you on-stage before. Yes, it’s privileged, 21st century feminism: these are two millionaires squabbling over who said what in an album. It is not a relatable struggle. But this does not mean it is not relevant. And while many people have been supportive of Taylor, many people are still – stubbornly – not.
Swift used to sing about how people’s boyfriends “belonged with [her]” but she became a controversial proposition when she realised that she’d rather hang out with girls and call out boys when they’re sexist. So I reckon she’s in the right fight.