Abigail Fenton 10th October 2018
Reputation is a fickle thing, especially in the land of the rich and famous. Be it for very good reason (Johnny Depp) or no reason at all (Anne Hathaway), since the dawn of Hollywood itself, folks have voyeuristically revelled in the rise and fall of countless American sweethearts.
Few more so than Taylor Swift. Once a beloved icon of pop culture, Swift has since been reduced to the punchline of a thousand derogatory one-liners; the human embodiment of the snake emoji (who, you have to admit, churns out some serious bops).
Hating on Swift is basically a universal hobby, at this point — social justice warriors and red pillers alike manage to find ammunition against the pop icon, and many who formerly stood up for her have been seemingly tested over the last year or two.
Much of the bile directed towards Swift can be traced back to July 2017, when equally divisive personality Kim Kardashian West Snapchatted a secretly-recorded phone call in which Swift seemed to amicably approve the lyrics to Kanye West’s controversial rap track Famous after she had swore up and down that she hadn’t.
“I still feel like me and Taylor might have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous,” West brags in the line that would make Famous infamous. After critics pointed out how unnecessary and, frankly, icky the line is, West defended himself by claiming to have gotten approval from Swift, who denied this on account of the fact that she hadn’t been “made aware of the actual lyric ‘I made that bitch famous’“.
In the jubilant celebrations of the #KimExposedTaylorParty, any sort of scepticism about whether eight carefully-selected seconds of an apparently hour-long conversation — spliced together and shared on a platform popular for its brevity and impermanence — could really be considered reliable evidence, was completely absent. Unfortunately for Swift, whose argument that the recordings concealed a key omission from the conversation fell on deaf ears or, at least, ears that were plugged with the fingers of people loudly shouting “la la la” and refusing to listen.
Ultimately (after dancing around the subject and leaving West to take the heat for the full song for far too long), Swift admitted that she had approved the questionable sex line, but still took umbrage at being referred to as “that bitch”, reiterating what she had said in her original comment — that West had not played her the finished track, and she had no idea that this was how she would be referred to. In a last-ditch effort to save her faltering reputation, Swift released the following statement via her official Twitter and Instagram accounts:
Swift’s objection, misleading as it may have initially been, rings true. In the snippets released by Kardashian, the only part of the song confirmed verbatim by Swift and West is, “I still feel like me and Taylor might have sex.” Both parties deliberate between two different versions of the line — a leaked demo has since revealed that what West first wrote was, “I still feel like Taylor owes me sex,” (and, notably, “I made that bitch famous,” was originally in reference to ex-girlfriend Amber Rose, not Swift). In the recorded call, they share sincere-sounding assurances of friendship and respect for each other’s feelings — they made up in 2015, after Kanye’s “Imma let you finish” moment at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards — and joke about the media’s tendency to exploit celebrity drama, with the expectation that when asked, Swift will gleefully laugh and reveal that she was in on the joke the entire time.
Why does the revelation that Swift cleared this one line absolve her of the right to object to being called a gender slur by one of the most powerful men in the music industry?
But the incendiary phrase “that bitch” is nowhere to be heard. If Kardashian had that recording, it would have been in her husband’s interest to have made it public by now.
Still, one has to wonder at Swift’s priorities. “There’s not, like, one line that offends me and one that doesn’t,” she says during the call, regarding the “might have sex” versus “owes me sex” conundrum. Really?! Perhaps Swift wanted to play nice after years of animosity. Or she’s uncomfortable with confrontation, generally. Maybe she managed to convince herself that that line wasn’t really that bad, in the way women often do when faced with misogynistic micro-aggressions. Regardless, why does the revelation that Swift cleared this one line absolve her of the right to object to being called a gender slur by one of the most powerful men in the music industry?
‘I don’t know why she just, you know, flipped all of a sudden,’ Kardashian said, seemingly baffled
Kardashian seemed to recognise this as the real reason Swift was upset and, in a bizarre interview with GQ, defended her husband’s choice by asserting that she, personally, has never found the word “bitch” offensive — dismissing years of misogyny in rap music with an offhand, “That’s just, like, what they say,” insinuating Swift is obligated to be complicit in her own dehumanisation simply because it is the status quo. “I don’t know why she just, you know, flipped all of a sudden,” Kardashian said, seemingly baffled.
Whether the word “bitch” is inherently a slur when weilded by a man is an issue that has been debated among feminist circles for years. Regardless of where you stand on the matter, Swift was clearly speaking her truth. Yet Kardashian would maintain West’s infallibility and, a month later, post the now-iconic tweet that would lead to trolls flooding Swift’s social media with snake emojis, and eventually cumulate in Swift’s six-month disappearance from the spotlight.
But why was Swift the snake?
Kimye’s claim that Swift was, in that famous diatribe, “playing the victim” was at best a manipulation of the truth, and at worst an outright lie. What could have initially been posited as a misunderstanding — West and Kardashian thought Swift was objecting to lines she had approved, Swift thought she was being called a liar for saying that she never approved the phrase “that bitch” — is harder to explain away when you consider Kardashian’s dismissive GQ statements.
The accuracy or inaccuracy of this judgement didn’t matter
Yet the West-Kardashian version of the story was mirthfully seized upon by the court of public opinion, who examined Swift for moral evaluation and found her lacking. A negative reading of Swift as a liar and a person willing to demonise a black man — someone she had called a friend and colleague — to promote her image as the epitome of white female innocence was overwhelmingly embraced as the correct one. The accuracy or inaccuracy of this judgement didn’t matter. Realistically, it was just the excuse people were looking for.
Swift’s downfall had been inevitable for some time. From rampant slut-shaming and accusations that her relationships with men are little more than song-writing fodder, to her surprised face and years of painstaking kindness towards fans being called “fake”, Swift has always been a unique target of intense sexism and disapproval.
For a brief, shining moment, when her 2014 album 1989 was topping the charts and breaking records, hating Swift was decidedly out of fashion. She began publicly identifying as a feminist, routinely shut down sexist comments along the lines of, “All she does is write about her exes!” with grace — and a reminder that literally all your favourite male musicians do the same — and where her early work was laden with problematic sentiments like, “I’ll tell mine [friends] you’re gay,” she proudly proclaimed, “You can want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls,” to the soaring synths of Welcome to New York. She took responsibility for teen slut-shaming on tracks like Better Than Revenge, and refused to engage in woman-on-woman crime like wardrobe-policing those more comfortable with showing a lot of flesh. During this time, the words “I hate Taylor Swift”, previously a badge of honour that separated the cool from the uncool, became universally recognised as a sign that someone was far too concerned with looking like a cool person to actually be one.
It’s easy to see why people of colour would distrust Swift
But it couldn’t last. The keenness to condemn re-emerged in 2015, when Swift derailed Nicki Minaj’s call-out of underlying racism and sizeism in the music industry, accusing Minaj of “pitting women against each other”. Swift was unquestionably in the wrong and, realising this, listened, learned and apologised.
It’s easy to see why people of colour would distrust Swift, who was a little bit too comfortable painting herself as the victim of a scary black man on Innocent (a track about forgiving West for “Imma let you finish”), and later dabbled in cultural appropriation in videos for singles Shake It Off and Wildest Dreams. However, while no one is obligated to forgive Swift for her ignorance of the white supremacist system from which she benefits, a charitable read of the situation might have been that Swift didn’t emerge from the womb with a complete understanding of intersectional feminism, and is learning on the job like the rest of us. One might even consider her response to be exemplary. But the damage had already been done.
The social media horde was convinced that Swift’s relationship with Marvel actor Tom Hiddleston was a publicity stunt — one that she received widespread derision for, and he none
It was all downhill from there. In 2017, the social media horde was convinced that Swift’s relationship with Marvel actor Tom Hiddleston was a publicity stunt — one that she received widespread derision for, and he none. Then in an explosion of insecurity (and probably a little bit of hurt over Hiddleswift), ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris accused Swift of trying to “bury” him, after she claimed a partial songwriting credit for his hit single This Is What You Came For. That it was more-or-less already public knowledge that Nils Sjoberg was actually just Taylor Swift’s pseudonym, and that Swift did absolutely nothing to discredit Harris for his production on the track by eventually claiming her own work, didn’t matter. The fragile male ego had taken a blow, and the masses delighted in the temper tantrum, trending “#TaylorSwiftisOverParty”.
But it was the Kimye incident that sent Swift careening from adored popstar to perceived snakestress.
It would be unspeakably ignorant not to acknowledge that West has also long been the target of intense and often unfounded criticism — he’s an “egomaniac” because he possesses the same delusions of grandeur that go completely unchecked in old white, rock stars and spoilt white kids like Justin Bieber. Most recently, West has been (correctly) condemned for serving as a double agent for white supremacy in his endorsement of Donald Trump and weird revisionist-history take on slavery. However, West has faced relatively few consequences for his long relationship with misogyny.
West commissioned a malleable, life-like nude wax figure of Swift and then filmed himself sleeping next to it
That it is undoubtedly sexist to believe that any woman owes you sex, regardless of whether said woman approved that awful message, is perhaps worth addressing. That it is taking advantage of your male privilege to manipulate people into thinking that a woman lied about something you did to her (and that it was so effective) is maybe worth analysing. Most disturbingly missing from discourse surrounding the ethics of this conflict, though, is the acknowledgement that West commissioned a malleable, life-like nude wax figure of Swift and then filmed himself sleeping next to it.
Celebrity nonsense aside, West’s Famous video features several depictions of naked women sleeping alongside men who have publicly victimised them — Rihanna next to Chris Brown, who almost beat her to death, Hillary Clinton next to 20 times-accused-sexual assaulter Donald Trump, Amber Rose next to West, who has publicly slut-shamed and demeaned her since their relationship ended in 2010 — all without the consent of those women involved. This should be considered a violent act of misogyny, and yet it’s barely a footnote in the discussion of the most theatrical celebrity feud in recent memory.
Much has been said about Swift’s very real white privilege — but often with no cognisance that it does not erase West’s male privilege and ability to exert power over her on the axis of gender. Social status and, subsequently, the power dynamic between a white woman and a black man, is more complex than that, and ultimately there is nothing that Swift has done to West that comes close to what West has put Swift through.
Look What You Made Me Do is about Swift’s rightful anger. She flashes her fangs on hard-bitten lyrics like, “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” and it sounds more like a scathing post-grunge alt-rock hit in the vein of Alanis Morrisette’s You Oughta Know, than the glimmering, tongue-in-cheek Blank Space. “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” bit might be deeply cringey, but it’s also menacing, and Swift’s dead-eyed stare as she repeats the titular phrase evinces that she’s had enough and she’s through playing nice.
This too is held against her. Female anger is taboo and Swift has always been a lightning rod for sexism. She’s “petty”, she’s “misrepresenting her feuds” and, in that victim-blaming rhetoric, she’s “deflecting blame instead of taking responsibility for her actions”.
“You said the gun was mine,” is distressingly apt imagery that captures the way that Swift is vilified in order to justify the onslaught of misogynistic abuse she’s been subjected to for the past two-and-a-half years — the past 12 if we’re really counting. Her pain is dismissed and her rage is treated as an invitation to ridicule, shame and shunning. There are consequences for being an “angry woman”.
This kind of tone-policing has burdened Swift her entire career; you would almost think her the devil for expressing her feelings the best way she knows how. It’s self-masking misogyny, and drawing attention to it only gives rise to more of it. The angrier she gets, the more she is somehow in the wrong. “If a man talks shit then I owe him nothing,” Swift snaps on the snarling, unapologetic 2017 Reputation album track I Did Something Bad, and that’s probably the most accurate assessment of the situation yet, but no one cares. There’s no end to what we think women owe to men, and Swift, apparently, owes them politeness and silent compliance in the face of cruelty and exploitation.
We all know that 39-year-old men who date literal teenage girls would never, ever dream of taking advantage of them
Her feud with West is hardly the first instance of this. Back in 2009, Swift penned the bluesy ballad Dear John, which supposedly details the ways in which she believed that ex-beau John Mayer emotionally abused her throughout their short-lived relationship. For this, she was called passive-aggressive and Mayer accused her of “abusing her talent” as a songwriter. “You are an expert at sorry / And keeping lines blurry,” she croons to a melody that is hauntingly like one of Mayer’s own. Of course, we all know that 39-year-old men who date literal teenage girls would never, ever dream of taking advantage of their naivety and lack of life experience.
Swift is just shady, that’s all.
Swift is hardly the first woman to be called a “snake”. Society has long associated women with the cold-blooded, slithering and venomous. It’s almost literally the oldest trick in the book. The snake as misogynistic rhetoric goes all the way back to Eve causing the downfall of man, and further still to Medusa’s scaly tresses. From there, it’s basically just a hop to Hillary Clinton — images of Clinton as the mythological monster crept up repeatedly during the 2016 election cycle — a skip to Swift and a jump to feminists having “snake-filled heads“.
Swift, though, has become so universally despised that it’s basically sacrilege to admit to liking her. She echoes the accusations of her critics in a poem called Why She Disappeared: “Your kindness is fake / Your pain is manipulative,” and while the verse isn’t perfect, the sentiment rings true.
No matter what she does, Swift is always the villain
People are determined to see Swift as duplicitous. The facts don’t matter. Her reputation was decided before them, and now it seems set in stone; concrete like the inscription on a stele over a grave. Her words and actions are meaningless when her role in this narrative — one that she reminds us she never asked to be a part of — is constantly manipulated to support a forgone conclusion. No matter what she does, Swift is always the villain.
This week, Swift enraged the right-wing by breaking her career-long political silence, choosing to publicly endorse two Democratic candidates in the upcoming US midterm-elections. The general reaction has been one of shock, and not just that Swift is finally taking a public political stance, but that it’s not the Republican party she’s supporting.
“If you’d told me two years ago that Kanye West would be running around in a Make America Great Again hat while Taylor Swift was endorsing Democratic candidates, I wouldn’t have believed you,” several have jested. The question is: why?
Although she has undoubtedly often failed to use her platform to substantially address important political and social issues, there has always been evidence to suggest that Swift has voted Democratic ever since she became of legal age — despite persistent rumours that she performs at Republican conventions (she does not).
Swift strongly implied that she was pleased with the turnout of the 2008 general election
She has, in the past, spoken admiringly of both Obama and Clinton, and she strongly implied that she was pleased with the turnout of the 2008 general election. “I’ve never seen this country so happy about a political decision in my entire time of being alive,” she told Rolling Stone in 2009. “I’m so glad this was my first election.”
Significantly, the words, “As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office […]” practically scream, “I voted for Hillary, you fucking idiots.”
There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that Swift has feminist values — misguided though they may be at times, she has shown time and time again that she’s capable of taking criticism and correcting course. Over the past year, in particular, Swift has successfully sued (or countersued) her sexual assaulter for a symbolic $1, taken a stand against sexual assault as one of Time’s silence breakers, provided a platform for LGBT+ artists on her Reputation tour, given a Pride speech and defended the right of lesbian artist Hayley Kiyoko to call out homophobic double standards in the music industry. It is not by any means a great shock that she might oppose the party that supports Trump and Brett Kavanaugh.
West, on the other hand, was already wearing that MAGA hat two years ago. It’s just that nothing has changed. The outrage and shock following his support of Trump in 2018 feels like intentional obtusity, given that he first voiced it back in 2016. The suspicion of Swift as closeted Trump-voter has always been baseless, yet a prevalent theory among the performatively woke.
It is ultimately an example of how far people will go to believe that Swift is a bad person, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, while continuing to give men like West the benefit of the doubt for far longer than they deserve it.
Illustrations by Ebony Rose-Ellis
Abigail Fenton 10th October 2018