Co-authored by Maggie Stough and Hope Racine
In the wake of Taylor Swift winning her sexual assault court case and taking the world by storm with her self-aware “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, the Swifties and innocent bystanders might be eager to believe that TSwift is back and better than ever. Well, she’s back, but I’m not sure about better. Success and winning don’t always align with being right – just look at our current president. Nor does success and winning get you a free pass from constructive criticism, yet so many seem to believe it’s time we leave Taylor alone.
But I can’t. Not when so many fans are eager to be a part of her squad and think she’s the pinnacle of feminism. Or subsequently when so many are too quick to come to her defense under the guise of the “Rules of feminism.”
Okay, in the name of transparency, let me clear a couple things up: One, by NPR standards, I’m somewhere between Taylor Agnostic and Taylor Atheist at this point in my life, although in high school when “You Belong With Me” was played everywhere, I was much closer to being a Taylor Devout. Two, I am no queen of handling criticism. It’s hard, especially when it’s about how you live your life or your creative projects.
However, thoughtfully expressed, constructive criticism is important. I would even argue that it’s a hella important component to a lot of my strongest, healthiest female friendships. From my writing critique group who’ve torn apart chapters of my novels to friends who’ve messaged me to say something I’ve blogged or tweeted is problematic, to roommates who I’ve shared long, late night discussions about our beliefs, dialogue about my actions, words, and thoughts has only helped me to become more introspective and self-aware. I know I’m a better writer and friend because of these critiques and conversations, even if they were initially hard to take. Let me repeat that: I’m better because people called me out on my shit, not because they constantly told me I’m the best and I gotta shake it off. And I still have a long way to go.
Unfortunately, somewhere down the line, Taylor and the rest of the White Feminists got it in their heads that feminism is solely about cheering and uplifting other (white) women. While it is important to support each other and toss those toxic, competitive female relationships into the dumpster, the standards are high for females when it comes to proving their worth and awesomeness in the face of the patriarchy. And it’s moments like that when I have no qualms about being called out or calling someone else out for not bringing their best.
But providing women carte blanche support in the name of feminism is not empowering; it’s handling women with kid gloves, protecting and denying them from the self-growth that comes with feedback— even the harsh kind. This kind of attitude demeans women – it treats us as china dolls, and makes us inaccessible. When we make public, egregious mistakes, but no one is allowed to point that out, it doesn’t improve our image – it makes it worse. It isolates us within an echo chamber, and shuts down dialogue and education, two tenants of feminism.
Taylor Swift is merely one example of this phenomena playing out in the pop culture world with relatively contained reverberations. But this toxic mindset exists outside of the VMA’s, and one of the best examples was widely seen during the 2016 elections through the treatment of Hillary Clinton. Clinton was the most experienced candidate, and yet she also had flaws, just like everyone else she ran against. But unlike Bernie Sanders or any of her GOP male counterparts, Clinton’s base demanded she be untouchable.
Anyone, even those identifying as liberal, were treated as pariahs and subject to withering disapproval if they voiced any concerns against Clinton. This point of view effectively robbed her of the ability to be a rounded individual and candidate: someone who is intelligent and tough, but also makes mistakes. Clinton had made several major missteps in her previous political career that didn’t mesh with the new image she was selling in 2016. But because the loudest criticism was in regard to Benghazi or her emails, anyone who wanted her to clarify her previous stance on gun control, or marriage equality, or the prison-industrial complex was lumped in with those screaming “lock her up.”
As a result, Clinton was not forced to be accountable to her base. As she faced more and more adversity and flak from Republicans, she became more deified on the left and in white feminist circles, and was able to sidestep many thorny issues. For a woman who struggled with appearing accessible, this brand of untouchable feminism gave Clinton more detractors than supporters.
Clinton is only one example, an accomplished and hardworking woman who was adopted by the White Feminist movement. Clinton’s vaulted status as an untouchable saint of femininity who must be protected from criticism is different than Taylor Swift’s curated armour of #feminism. But both have escaped answering some of the hard questions, because we’ve been told we’re not allowed to ask them.
There’s a danger in blanket acceptance. Even when encouraging and uplifting, there’s always room for improvement, especially for women, who have to work harder and be better in order to combat the systemic injustices of the patriarchy. The world has a lot of room for mediocre white boys, but doesn’t always save a seat for females or minorities. So ask the hard questions. Challenge our fellow women to be their best selves. Ask our role models for accountability. Scrutinize the actions of our celebrities and weigh them against their words.
So while Taylor returns to her throne atop the music charts, consider this: Where was Taylor when Katy Perry and Halsey joined in the Women’s March? When’s the last time Taylor gave a momentous speech like P!nk’s at the 2017 VMAs? How much has she given to those in need (like Nicki Minaj has given to India) besides the symbolic $1 she won in her sexual assault case? Can Taylor stop playing victim and use the incredible stage and privilege she’s been to pave the way for all women?
It’s 2017, and I’m more than ready to lay the old Taylor to rest. But this new Taylor will never be at her best until she stops focusing on the petty drama of her privileged life and recognizes there are so many more important things to tweet and sing about. And as fellow feminists, it is our duty to hold not only Taylor, but all women, to these standards so we can all rise together as better, stronger people.