During my college freshman orientation we played the game “Cross the Line.” The rules of the game were simple: if you relate to the sentence read out by the moderator, you must silently walk over a line drawn on the floor that divides the room. This game is created to be a safe space for those who want to get to know each other without judgment from others.
The game seemed straightforward enough, but when the moderator read “cross the line if you identify as feminist” it suddenly felt complicated. I hesitated, then took a step forward and then one back.
At 18-years-old I did believe that women and men should be treated equally, but did not understand what it meant to be feminist. Across the line stood a small group of young women and men. I looked across their faces as the moderator read the definition of feminism:
“The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”
My face flushed in embarrassment when I heard the definition. I had failed to cross the line in support of equality. Though I had been a supporter of feminist principles my entire life, I did not identify as one until that moment.
Throughout college I developed an understanding of feminism, but my growing worldview required time, self-education, and serious introspection. I continue to learn about my personal prejudices, privileges, and came to the realization that I will never truly be a perfect feminist because one does not exist. We are all bred in a society that perpetuates ideologies that we cannot completely escape.
My recognition of this truth and feminist awakening have made me incredibly empathetic in observing Taylor Swift’s very public journey to identifying as a feminist.
In a 2012 interview with The Daily Beast, Swift was asked, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” She replied, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
This answer baffled many and won Swift massive criticism. I, too, cringed when I read Swift’s statement, but only because I recalled my own misunderstanding of feminism just a few years prior. My fingers were crossed that Swift would come to the realization she was indeed a feminist. It seems that her close friend Lena Dunham, director and lead actress of the show Girls, helped her do just that. In late August of this year, Swift revealed in an interview with The Guardian:
“As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities.”
Swift’s feminist stance may have originated from her upbringing. In her recent TIME magazine interview, it was revealed that Swift’s parents, a financial advisor and a mutual fund marketing executive, gave their daughter a unisex name because they thought she would go into corporate business and did not want potential employers to know her gender based on her résumé. While she has yet to pursue an MBA, Swift’s shrewd business skills are evident by the massive musical empire she has built.
Swift faced challenges in producing her newest album, 1989, with marking executives and label companies questioning her vision for a 80s inspired pop-album, but her optimism prevailed. 1989 has received extensive praise and had more sales than any album in the last 12 years. While the album is musically brilliant, Swift has also been proactive in helping sales by including a series of personal Polaroid pictures in every album, adding voice memos sharing her songwriting process in the Deluxe Edition, and removing her music from Spotify. While the decision to remove her music from the streaming service was in protest of the poor compensation artists receive from the company, it has persuaded many fans to purchase the album. The result: 1989 sold 1.287 albums within the first week of its release despite projections that it would sell approximately half of that.
The album also comes at the birth of her feminist journey. Many of the singer-songwriter’s lyrics reflect her growth. The album’s first track Welcome to New York sets the stage for the rest of the album with the lyrics,
“Everybody here was someone else before. And you can want who you want. Boys and boys and girls and girls.”
Not only is Swift expressing her personal evolution, but also a support for LGBTQIA rights. Meanwhile, Blank Space, one of the album’s two chart-topping singles, pays homage to the many people who have condemned Swift’s dating history and songwriting about past relationships. A satirical take on her supposed dating habits, the music video for the song features Swift playing the role of the crazed girlfriend the media has invented for her. She said in an interview,
“They’ve drawn up this profile of a girl who is a serial dater, jetsetting around with all her boyfriends and she get them but she can’t keep them because she’s too emotional and she’s needy. Then she gets her heart broken because they leave and she’s jilted, so she goes to her evil lair and writes songs about it for revenge.”
Swift is standing up against those who claim that because she expresses her emotions through songwriting she is a hysterical, illogical, vengeful creature. In fact, she feels that the notion is sexist, citing that musicians such as Ed Sheeran don’t receive abuse for writing about their love lives. One of Sheeran’s most popular songs, Don’t from his album Multiply references a cheating ex-girlfriend many have speculated to be Ellie Goudling. Sheeran is harsh and honest about his feelings singing, “Don’t fuck with my love, that heart is so cold.” He continues to describe the lady is question “disappearing with him to have sex, of course.” Sheeran even makes it clear that he is not forgiving of the indiscretion with the lyrics, “It’s a bit too much too late if I’m honest.” However, the budding musician has failed to receive the type of criticism Swift is known to withstand. Swift makes an important point noting the unfair backlash she often faces. She has often been accused of being flippant based on her starkly honest lyrics, but dismissing Swift also means dismissing millions who adore the artist and relate to her songs emotionally. The message being sent to her young fans is “your feelings aren’t valid” which Swift is having none of.
The development continues with the song Style where Swift describes herself with the lyrics “I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” Taylor Swift’s most devoted fans, self-proclaimed Swifties, know that the musician is very purposeful in crafting her albums and little is accidental. One can’t help but wonder if this lyric alludes to one of her most popular songs You Belong with Me from her 2008 album Fearless, which received criticism for perpetuating the virgin-whore dichotomy with the lyrics “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts.” Is Swift’s description meant to dissolve her previous suggestion that women fit into strictly defined categories by saying that a “tight little skirt” doesn’t define her character? I’d certainly like to think so recalling my own role in perpetuating the virgin-whole dichotomy as a teenager.
The many gray areas that are explored in the album strengthen my belief. In the song Style Swift also addresses relationship indiscretions and uncertainty without painting either character in her narrative as the bad guy/gal. Gray areas continue to be a theme throughout the album and Swift even subtly addresses sexuality in Wildest Dreams and Wonderland (Deluxe Edition) while keeping things appropriate for her younger fans. Swift seems to be portraying herself in a more complex light than ever before exploring themes of rediscovery, media scrutiny, and moral absolutism.
Taylor Swift has always nakedly expressed herself through music sharing the truths and turmoil she faced at various points in her life. Together, her albums reveal her journey of attempting to navigate the world and develop her character in the public eye. At the culmination of this journey, 1989 exposes a young woman who has found strength amidst challenges, musically and characteristically reinventing herself. Swift now joins the ranks of Emma Watson, Beyonce, Laverne Cox and other feminist superstars who have the power to make equality part of the conversation everywhere on the globe. The artist has said that she is more proud of this album than anything she has done before, and you know what? She has a damn right to be.
Swift has displayed incredible growth, but her feminist enlightenment will be a continuing process. Her Shake it Off music video featured twerking dancers to the distaste of many who felt she was culturally appropriating the dance style. My hope for Taylor is that she strives to learn about her burgeoning feminist self and grasp past her inherent flaws.
I do not intend to apologize for the young artist, but to support her as she learns about intersectionality, feminism, and her own privilege. The ability of human beings to change is amazing, but it is not without hurdles. Let’s allow Taylor to leave her mistakes behind and move forward with the same grace we, as rediscovered feminists, once did. Listening to1989 for the first time as I took a one woman road trip from a desert to an ocean, I heard the voice of a woman who wanted to do just that.