The Problem With Ms. Swift : Thank You, and Also, Wait a Minute….

The Taylor Swift verdict against former radio DJ, David Mueller, for groping her generated significant praise for Ms. Swift. Ms. Swift deserves praise for standing up for herself and demanding justice for being assaulted. She also did so with no financial motive but as a matter of principle. I laud her actions and hope it will encourage other women to come forward too. However, while we can all appreciate Ms. Swift’s actions and the deserved justice she obtained, we must also reflect on the fact that Ms. Swift has been a part of, advanced, and reflected a culture of female subservience which legitimizes victimization of women. Let me unpack this. In my mind, Ms. Swift’s musical work has always been problematic because it was drenched in slut-shaming and romanticized female subservience to men.

Let’s take her song “Love Story” which portrays her as a Juliet and her love interest as a Romeo. In the song, her father tries to keep the lovers apart. Finally, she meets up her “Romeo” on the outskirts of town and she gets what she wants because he: 1) marries her and 2) got her father’s approval:

The idea that a woman’s goal is marriage and that she must have her father’s approval to do so is, albeit traditional, problematic in that it deprives “her” (as the main character) of agency. In “You Belong With Me” Ms. Swift tells the story from the perspective of a female friend who pines after her male friend. The male friend in question is already in a relationship. She describes “herself” (the “Good Girl”) in “t-shirts” and “sneakers” while her antagonist, (the “Bad Girl”) is in “short skirts” and “heels”. The slut shaming is subtle in the lyrics but becomes evident in the video clip. Ms. Swift also used themes pertaining to teenage girls having casual sex as “giving everything” as though virginity is an object of value (which, again, objectivizes women and reduces them to their sexual experiences). In Fifteen, she sang:

Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday
But I realized some bigger dreams of mine
And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind
And we both cried

These observations are not new. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Andrea Lampros detailed her experience at a Swift concert with her children:

If you're thinking you'll see a sweet Southern singer/songwriter on stage with her guitar, a few pretty dresses, and simplistic but heartfelt lyrics, you won't. The overwhelming message of the Swift concert to the sea of girls ages 5 to 55: be pretty, be conventional, be quiet (well, it's OK to scream for me), and definitely put on some lipstick.

Now, admittedly Ms. Swift was young(er) when she was pushing this message. In fact, she may have not known better herself. But that would actually be a part of the problem.

The problem is that young women, including tweens and teens who avidly soaked up her messaging, undoubtedly internalized the message that girls have to be polite, demure and pretty. This has catastrophic consequences which, very often, play out in circumstances of sexual coercion like the one Ms. Swift was subjected to.

As Laura Bates writes in her New York Times piece A Thank You to Taylor Swift, “We raise girls to be pretty, pliant and polite. We raise boys to be loud, demanding, and confident.” During her trial, Ms. Swift’s mother testified about her daughter’s anger at her own reaction to the assault. She told the jury that Ms. Swift reflexively thanked Mr. Mueller. That type of counterintuitive behavior is not only completely normal, it is also heavily gendered and makes prosecution of sexual assault and harassment very difficult. This culture of “politeness” is devastating for women, both in the moment and in its aftermath. It makes it harder to set boundaries during inappropriate interactions, which may at times discourage the behavior or nip it in the bud, and raises unfair but effective questions about “Why didn’t you say anything back then?” The point being that while Ms. Swift deserves praise for pushing forward with her case we have to also consider how she was a part of the system that overwhelmingly undermines women’s ability to speak up regarding sexual assault.

Moments like these should be opportunities to take stock of our culture and also open the door for dialogue. Let’s talk about why there is no such thing as a “good girl” and a “bad girl.” Let’s talk about the fact that sexual harassment and sexual assault are about power and control, not about whether a girl dressed a certain way or said certain things. Let’s talk about why male attention is not the end all be all of a girl’s or a woman’s life. Let’s talk about how politeness is overrated and sometimes a well-placed expletive is the right thing to say. Let’s talk about the fact that looks are relative that women are so much more than beautiful. All of these conversations increase the legitimacy of women as human beings with their own identities, unrelated to how they are perceived by or in relation to men. Ms. Swift is a great role model now, but she was also considered a role model when her thematic was problematic. Let’s take this as an opportunity for cultural self-reflection. Maybe Ms. Swift will do the same.


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