The Big, Unspoken Problem With All This Taylor Swift Backlash

In July, Gawker boldly declared that "Taylor Swift Is Not Your Friend." Later that day, Salon clocked the start of "The Inevitable Taylor Swift Backlash." The following day, The Washington Post chided the performer: "Sorry, Taylor Swift. Being A Feminist Is About More Than Just Supporting Your Girlfriends." A few weeks later, The Daily Beast asked, "Is America Turning On Taylor Swift?" But on Sunday night, the multi-platinum, multimillionaire recipient of seven Grammys, 16 AMAs, 11 CMAs, and six VMAs, added another accolade to the list. She won the entire show. Because, as Kanye West pointed out in a 15-minute tirade acceptance speech, these awards shows have clear winners — and losers. And that extends well beyond the distribution of Jeremy Scott-designed Moon Men. On a night that was supposed to be all about Miley Cyrus, a host widely capable of stirring up MTV's favorite brand of controversy; or Kanye, the recipient of the Video Vanguard award; or Nicki Minaj, the opening performer, Swift easily became the most talked-about personality of the evening. According to Twitter, Swift's nine Tweets from Sunday night reached 25 million people. Just think about the night's biggest moments. Minaj's opening act ended up being all about a public make-up with Swift, featuring a surprise verse from the singer. West's achievement award went the same way — with Swift both presenting it and becoming the topic of a large portion of his speech. And Miley's most talked-about quote from the day after? A sound bite about how she'd prefer not to join Swift's squad. Because, naturally, figuring out who Swift does and doesn't like is the most compelling kind of drama — in the teen and tween worlds — today.
Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Rex/REX USA.
Except that Swift, Cyrus, and Minaj aren't teens anymore. And we shouldn't be casting their successes and failures using terminology straight from the high school cafeteria. It's tempting, because they grew up in front of us. But the 17-year-old, curly-haired country singer we met in 2008 is now a wealthy, famous, and powerful woman. And she's just a bit wealthier, more famous, and more powerful than all the rest. So, why are we still casting her as Regina George in the Mean Girls version of Hollywood? When the critical masses race to tear her down, criticizing her feminism for not being enough, dismissing her gaggle of girlfriends for being too homogenized or too unattainably beautiful, and ultimately finding fault with her mission to promote and preserve her own brand, it doesn't sit quite right with us. Certainly, there is white privilege on display here, and sometimes all those "#squadgoals" read as affected. But when all is said and done, Swift is a woman who built a multimillion-dollar empire on her own terms (with help, but on her own terms). And self-promotion is another facet of ambition — especially when you are a celebrity. Which speaks to the heart of the problem here. We shouldn't be telling women they aren't "feminist enough." The desire to do right by other women, promote gender equality, and set an example for women to support other women are all good things. They may not encapsulate the whole of what feminism is, but that doesn't mean they don't have value. We have to be able to welcome women with different ideas and levels of ideological sophistication into the fold. Feminism can't be just one thing, or one choice. It should feel inclusive and expansive — and empower a range of women, no matter how empowered they may already seem. Tearing down a woman once she's reached a pinnacle of success (or ever, really), for striving too hard and wanting too much — that flies in the face of feminist values. To celebrate feminism is to allow women to make different choices. It's about allowing for more — and allowing for the idea that women can face different and multi-layered oppression. But it doesn't suggest that one experience trumps another. Or that someone with a more rudimentary understanding of the concept can't participate in the conversation. Nobody is a perfect feminist all of the time. And feminism isn't about perfection. But if Swift's brand of feminism triggers even a tiny sliver of her massive audience to embrace feminist ideals, then she deserves to be celebrated.

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