When I was in the 6th grade, I pored over the lyric booklet and sang along to every song in Taylor Swift’s seminal album Fearless. My favorite page accompanied the song “Fifteen” and featured a picture of two girls: Taylor and her hometown best friend Abigail. They were grinning wide in their winter coats, a pair of typical girls. They could’ve been my classmates. Flash forward seven years, and who stands beside Taylor? Karlie Kloss. Cara Delevigne. Selena Gomez. They flash brilliant smiles that burn like a glass-smashed lightbulb. They are not typical.
The trope that clung to Swift in the early years of her career has blossomed into a full blown myth. In seeing her, giggly and carefree, icing cupcakes with supermodels in a New York penthouse, we are meant to think of the girl next door. She has friends just like me, and they have fun just like us. Back when she attended high school and had female friends under 6 foot (and over 100 lbs.), this made more sense. Now, it just seems absurd. And yet the myth has become a centerpiece of her persona. Not only that, it has been elevated and honored as a form of feminism.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy Taylor Swift’s brand of entertainment. I listen to her songs all the time, and I follow her fashion choices with avid and aspirational interest. But I reject the idea that being a female with female friends is a feminist triumph. I realize that is controversial. Many women feel that the powers that be, everywhere from the media to the workplace, pit us against each other in order to profit and make us powerless. Thus, making peace with our fellow females is a victory. I am not selling friendship short. Women undoubtedly need the support and comradeship of other women. But cheapening friendship does nobody any favors. Friendship is not rounding up a stable of equally skinny, beautiful rich girls, giving them an arms-glued hug on stage, and then attacking women who look different on Twitter. What kind of message does this send about feminism to, say, a 6th grade girl? Don’t stretch yourself to understand and empathize with “different” women, stick with girls like you. Cute, camera-worthy moments are the glue that binds us together. Women only succeed when they’re nice.
My appreciation of Swift’s product and my hopes for the feminist movement lead me to two requests. Firstly, let’s break down the sweet, unassuming, average Jane myth and start praising Taylor for things she actually is: shrewd, strategic, talented and extravagantly commercially successful. These are qualities we should reward in women just as much as we reward cupcakes and hugs. Secondly, let’s ask that as a high-profile woman Swift make more of an effort to discuss the intersectional qualities of feminism and draw attention to the struggle behind success. Feminism isn’t just slumber parties; it’s a struggle. By talking about her own fights and those going on in the lives of women of different colors and creeds, Swift could finally fill the enormous feminist shoes we are shoving on her feet. A particularly resonant line in her 2008 song “Fifteen” describes that age as a time when “all you wanted was to be wanted.” Well Taylor, you are very wanted now. Next step: respected.