Is Taylor Swift’s #GirlSquad A Marketing Ploy Or Nah?

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Today in zeitgeisty outrage we have Camille Paglia, scolding our Insta trends from the sweet spot between FOMO and fear of a female planet. The iconic social critic, and feminist that feminists love to hate, wrote a takedown of Taylor Swift's #GirlSquad gimmick in The Hollywood Reporter.

Paglia’s piece sends a clear message: #GirlSquad culture is just another ploy for men at the top of the entertainment industry to exploit women. Mainstream pop culture is selling out feminism. Swift and her squad are phony, Paglia claims, pointing her rhetorical finger at money-hungry men for what she calls Swift’s “Nazi Barbie” routine (harsh).

It’s not the first time Swift's squad-parading gimmick has been called out. On the 1989 tour, her on-stage parade of high-status women was met with less than enthusiastic response from the audience. “Swiftian performance art—‘Here is my pretty acquaintance’—is not good entertainment,” Gawker’s Dayna Evans wrote in “Taylor Swift Is Not Your Friend.”

Perhaps squad parading is not meant to be entertainment but status posturing, like so many high-school cliques. That solidarity among women in the public eye is not just about empowerment but is a necessity to survival in our “swarming, intrusive paparazzi culture,” as Paglia correctly observes, recalls another member of Swift’s squad, Lena Dunham. Remember that Girls is a show about young white women who aren’t friends so much as they are allies. They even sort-of hate each other. Teamwork toward a common goal is implied in the word “squad” more than love or friendship, right? In this vital way Girls differs from Sex and The City, whose “similar dynamic of affectionate intimacy” between “four feisty, mutually supportive professional women,” Paglia writes, “prefigured today's fun-loving but rawly ambitious girl squads.” (We'll never forget Paglia’s inadvertent cameo in SATC, when Miranda slammed Samantha as the “dime-store Camille Paglia” for giving Carrie, who had unintentionally taken money for sex, questionable advice on sexual empowerment.)

Taylor Swift and celebs like her certainly have enough autonomy and intelligence to figure out that performing solidarity is a great marketing strategy. That’s not to say Paglia is wrong about our #SquadGoals being a trend that, too, will pass. It’s part of a larger "feminist spurt,” like when Beyoncé performed “Flawless” before a lit-up marquee declaring her a FEMINIST, which Paglia pegs as a blatant act of appropriation.

While she’s not wrong about the phoniness of pop’s flirtation with feminism, Paglia confuses patriarchy with capitalism. Follow the money and these women performers have plenty of their own to gain by performing feminist solidarity as a marketing gimmick. The idea behind a squad of famous girlfriends keeps those women at an elevated status apart from other women. Beyoncé’s pseudo-feminist “Flawless” is actually a perfect example. Bey sings “Bow down, bitches,” sending fans mixed messages: We are commanded to worship her at the same time as we are called upon to empower ourselves. Rise up, just not too high. There is a hierarchy in the alternate universe of the celebrity girl squad. Feminism is good, just so long as you know your place in the Yoncéarchy.

There’s also the possibility that there’s nothing disingenuous about it, that Paglia’s critique may be too cynical, even to the point that it’s enabling an already pervasive cynicism that holds back progress toward equality. When she points out that Beyoncé’s claims to feminism are disingenuous because her career has been managed by others, "first her parents and now her domineering husband, Jay Z" (domineering? I have no opinion on this but maybe, like, cite your sources for that rather personal accusation?), her argument quickly loses credibility. It’s important to note that famous women like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have teams who work for them, not necessarily manipulating them for profit as Paglia suggests. For that argument, her evidence begins and ends with Marilyn Monroe, which was certainly a real thing… in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s.

If Paglia is right, and the big bad businessmen have coaxed the entertainment industry’s leading women to promote feminism as an ideology — not because it's a good idea but because it makes a quick buck — well, there goes our faith in humanity. As is, we’re not buying it. Nor do we buy into the idea that exclusionary, status-based solidarity has any place in feminism.
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