Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.

Could Taylor Swift be my next feminist hero?

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With the release of Taylor Swift’s fifth album, Amy Adams celebrates the feminist awakening of one of the world’s biggest popstars.

Taylor Swift on the Speak Now tour in 2012. Photo: Flickr/Eva Rinaldi

Taylor Swift on the Speak Now tour in 2012. Photo: Flickr/Eva Rinaldi

With her fifth album releasing today, there has been a notable shift in Taylor Swift’s message. In the press she is known mostly for her songs about famous exes, and a couple of years ago the non-Swifty media had reached almost dizzying heights of speculation. Just how many men has she dated and what were the age differences? How do the exes feel? Straight guys must be terrified of going near her lest they become no more than a catchy chorus in her next single!

There was a time when Taylor Swift couldn’t even be seen making eye contact with a man without it appearing all over the media. As the rumours stacked up, the “maybe SHE’S the one with the problem!” vibe grew ever stronger. (God forbid that a woman play the field, ditch the men she doesn’t see a future with, and then sing about it. After all, it’s not like men have ever written scathing songs about their exes, have they Ed Sheeran?)

But in a world where the narratives of Taylor Swift’s relationships are seen as public property, I’m proud to be a fan of a woman who reclaims control of those stories through her music. No matter how much they are spun out of all recognition, she is determined to have the final word. So even before she self-defined as a feminist, I was still happy to put her in the “empowering female musicians” category and listen to 22 on repeat for days on end.

But things have changed between her last album, Red, and now. The most obvious is that Tay-Tay hasn’t been dating anyone at all for well over a year and a half. “I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime,” she told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “And I’m just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore.” Instead, she’s made more female friends, moved to New York, openly identified as a feminist for the first time, and bought another cat.

Of course, every right-minded single lady in her 20s is morally obligated to love cats, but it’s the feminist awakening that I care about most. Since befriending Lena Dunham, she has been regularly talking about feminism in interviews and calling out sexism wherever she sees it. Significantly, part of that discussion has involved admitting that she didn’t always understand what the term meant, and that she held many of the same assumptions and prejudices that continue to make feminism a dirty word amongst the “why not rebrand it as equalism” crowd.

But as more and more female celebrities come out in favour of the movement, there’s a lot of talk about how they’re not doing the work of “real” feminism. All this standing in front of a giant neon sign is just detracting from the difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable work of ending violence against women and fighting economic inequality. Now, I don’t want to say that this opinion is invalid, because of course those are very, very different and important goals. Improving the lives of women should remain central to feminism, and I’m not saying that 21st-century feminist debate begins with Beyoncé and ends with Emma Watson.

However, I don’t think that this makes their contributions any less worthy or exciting. The fact that these highly influential women are speaking up at all is a shift that could sway the opinions of millions of people who are starting their own feminist journey.

It’s a step. They’re all steps. But when individuals take steps together, society begins to move. Gateway celebrity feminism isn’t taking away from more serious feminist activism. It’s just that: a gateway. And once we’re through, there should be room for everyone, doing lots of different kinds of work, united by a common belief that all genders should be treated with the same amount of respect.

Taylor Swift has been called the “voice of a generation” for years. But the 16 year olds who were once dreaming of a love story are now in their early 20s, and they’ve survived an economic downfall, political unrest, and a world that seems intent on tearing itself to pieces.

Taylor Swift is not the same girl who wrote a homophobic lyric in Picture to Burn, one of her earliest singles. She’s not even the same girl who subsequently changed that lyric in her music video, and stopped singing it in concert. In fact, she’s come so far that she’s now started actively queering her own lyrics on stage.

Of course, anyone who noted the the cultural appropriation in her video for Shake It Off will also know that she still has a lot more to learn. I’d like to see a feminist who hasn’t.

We’re all on a journey, and we can’t expect every new feminist to instantly know how to change the world – but we can welcome them into the fold, forgive them for their mistakes, and help them to grow.

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