Taylor Swift & The Problem With Female Friendships In The Media

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.
The media’s portrayal of female friendships is frustratingly simple. Women are either strategic friend collectors, gathering others into the fold for image management or professional advancement, or they're enemies. It's a reductive dichotomy that's also extremely disappointing. Three days before the Grammys, Us Weekly published an article with the headline "Grammys 2015: Show Organizers Making Sure Taylor Swift Doesn't Cross Paths With Katy Perry, John Mayer." After the show on Sunday night, the tabloid published a story about what viewers didn’t see on TV that lured readers in with details about a Swift/Perry confrontation. "The two frenemies were dangerously close to one another at the Grammys," Us wrote. "According to eyewitnesses, Perry walked directly past Swift's seat during the show. The 'Style' singer avoided a confrontation by staying glued to her cell phone — keeping her eyes on her screen, typing away and not looking up as Perry brushed past her. Insiders add that Perry did clap for Swift when she took the stage to present the award for Best New Artist, but that was apparently the extent of goodwill between the pair." That story pretty much sums up the media narrative of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry's relationship over the past few months. Swift supposedly made a dig at Perry in her September Rolling Stone cover story, and the entire dismantling of their relationship crumbled from there. Sources and eyewitnesses told news outlets that Perry was planning a targeted dig at Swift during her Super Bowl performance. After the halftime show had passed, sites like Hollywood Life grasped at straws for evidence that such a visual burn had actually taken place. Apparently, it had: The high-waisted polka-dot swimsuits Perry’s backup dancers wore during "California Gurls" were supposedly evocative of the suit Swift wore a few summers ago. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the quickly assembling female tribes of Hollywood. Groups form around one alpha celebrity like Kendall Jenner, Cara Delevingne, or Beyoncé, and their coterie of friends are added one by one to form glossy, colorful rings around them. They're publicly introduced in tabloids with language that's evocative of a gallery curator adding another rare painting to a collection in order to enhance all of the individual works as a whole and show them off to the public. In other words, a new friend is often portrayed as a PR move and a chance for professional gain for everyone involved. Why is the media portrayal of female friendships so black and white? "I think most of the media doesn't want to portray women as the complex people that they are," Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (the book on which Mean Girls was based), says. "They think it will sell way more or have more eyes on the page if they simplify women down to bitches or fake manipulators.Obviously, women do buy the concepts, and it's a self-fulfilling cycle where no one is forced to take responsibility for what they do (no matter how small their part) that contributes to this mess. And, it's to all [of] our downfalls. The more we look like this, the easier it is to dismiss what we say and do." Wiseman raises an interesting point. Over and over again, the media tries to slot women into these one-dimensional roles. In the fascinating 2012 documentary Sellebrity, about the commodification of celebrity culture, tabloid editors reveal how blatantly they massage what's happening in stars' lives so that they can become characters in the narrative arcs these tabloids need to tell in order to sell more and more magazines (or generate more clicks online). The drama continues to unfold in a serial fashion, and readers get hooked.
Photo: Courtesy of OK!.
In the Jennifer Aniston-Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt story, for example, Aniston was painted as the victim and the jilted wife. Jolie was the seductress and the other woman. Pitt was almost extraneous as the male. The media mainly wanted to pit Aniston and Jolie against one another, and even though it's been almost a decade, the victim/sad spinster narrative still pervades stories about Jennifer Aniston. Never mind that she,s engaged and has stated many times that she's very happy. The media consistently reduces women to conniving friend-collectors or as locked in an eternal underhanded cat fight. To Wiseman's point, once a celebrity has been slotted into a certain role, it becomes a self-perpetuating prophecy and cycle that repeats itself over and over. The public never tires of stories that Taylor Swift is on the outs with another female celebrity. Due to the way her friend-collecting is portrayed in the media — sample language, "Adding another famous face to her friendship roster" — we find ourselves defaulting to cynicism when she describes her ever-expanding friend group in interviews. Take, for example, the story she told Rolling Stone about how she came to be friends with Lena Dunham. "Swift met Dunham in 2012, after she watched Girls and became obsessed. She went on Twitter to follow Dunham, and coincidentally saw that Dunham had just tweeted admiringly about Swift. 'I was really scared she was being ironic, but I decided to follow her anyway, just in case. Within five minutes I had a direct message from her. Let me see if I still have it.' She spends a minute scrolling through her phone. 'I still have it! She said, 'I am so excited about the prospect of being friends with you that I added the adjective best in front of it.' 'The idea that you like my show is so thrilling, and I can't wait to lavish you with praise in person.'" Even Rolling Stone couldn’t be objective about Swift's growing number of famous BFFs. The magazine ran a sidebar with that interview called "Taylor Swift’s Inner Circle: Sizing Up Her Famous Friends." The first line: "Taylor Swift collects friends like Pokemon." It then ranked the celebrities who frequently show up on Swift's Instagram feed from most to least famous and by cool factor, suggesting the strategic partnerships being formed by these associations.
On BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen took the dissection of Swift's menagerie one step further. In a piece from January 2015 called "The Genius of Taylor Swift’s Friend Collection," she wrote, "Swift has spent the last two years 'making friendship fun.' But her choice of Instagram girlfriends is also an incredibly savvy image maintenance strategy." According to Petersen, Swift's recent focus on female friendship being magic is a targeted way to change the conversation about the singer that dominated headlines for the past few years. She'd been linked to too many men "and seemingly written songs about all of them," and it was time to reclaim her story. This time around, it was going to be about close female bonds and sisterhood. The only problem is that Swift can't entirely bury her past, which is exactly what the media dredges up when incidents like the "feud" with Katy Perry emerge. Swift and Perry can't simply be two quasi-coworkers in the same cutthroat industry who simply don't care for one another. No, that's not interesting enough to make headlines. There needs to be a fight over a man (in this case John Mayer) or backup dancer poaching, which is what Perry's Super Bowl bathing suit stunt supposedly addressed. Neither singer has directly confirmed her dislike of the other, but the ever-image-conscious Swift knew that rumors were circulating in the tabs. She couldn't let John Mayer's name become a part of the narrative; not after she'd refocused her life around her female friends. So, she addressed the situation her Rolling Stone interview: "Swift's focus on sisterhood cuts both ways, because when another woman crosses her, she's equally fierce about hitting back. The angriest song on 1989 is called 'Bad Blood,' and it's about another female artist Swift declines to name. 'For years, I wasn't sure if we were friends or not. She would come up to me at awards shows and say something and walk away and I would think, 'Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?'"  Swift also hinted at a professional dust-up that left her believing that the two were "just straight-up enemies." Again, she didn't actually identify who this person was, but Swift's comments gave her the strategic upper hand in future media narratives about her rivalry with Perry, who in this description could be easily slotted into the Regina George role to Swift’s Cady Heron. Lest this seem like a Taylor Swift-specific issue, let's play a little game of word association. We'll just list pairs of female celebrities, and you can take a second to slot in what you've heard about them in relation to one another.
Selena Gomez & Demi Lovato Beyoncé & Kim Kardashian Gwyneth Paltrow & Martha Stewart Paris Hilton & Nicole Richie Nicki Minaj & Mariah Carey Hilary Duff & Lindsay Lohan Christina Aguilera & Britney Spears Rihanna & Beyoncé Ariana Grande & Victoria Justice Katie Holmes & Busy Philipps For many of those pairs, the two are merely contemporaries in the same industry. Yes, some of them have had personal or professional problems in the past. The media is quick to flip that ampersand into a deadly "versus," but their personal problems with each other aren't really the public's business. As for their professional relationships, the way they act toward one another in a work setting could do a lot in terms of educating younger women how to conduct themselves should they ever find themselves forced to interact with disagreeable coworkers.  "It's why I do what I do with girls," Wiseman tells us. "Not focus on mean girls, but to empower girls to hold themselves and others accountable." Female friendships are not a PR move. Taylor Swift might simply be friends with Lorde because they're both creative women who forged their own way in the music industry at an incredibly young age. We may never be able to completely change how the media pits women against one another or paints famous female friends as being born out of strategic curation for image control. What we can do is not buy into the narrative. Sometimes a polka-dot bikini worn during the Super Bowl hafltime show is just a bathing suit. 

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