Friday, April 9, 2010

Taylor Swift as feminist success

It seems various assorted feminists don't like Taylor Swift. At all.

I've been wondering about this ever since I read this article (which is entertaining and enlightening, the Riese's Lady Gaga obsession aside).

But I'm not so sure Swift is as anti-feminist as she seems. In fact, I think she can almost be seen as a sort of subtle triumph for feminism.

To begin with, I don't think it's fair to compare Swift to Lady Gaga et al. Swift's target audience seems to be younger teenage and preteen girls. Lady Gaga is not at all suitable for young teenagers. She thrives on being outrageous; Swift on being innocent. There's simply no comparison to be made.

I'm don't think we can compare her with more truly feminist artists either. Take someone like Ani Difranco - her music is has at least an order of magnitude more depth and complexity than Taylor Swift's. The target audience is just not the same. Swift's music is meant for easy listening on the radio, not for inspiring contemplation on the nature of women in society.

So I'd like to compare Swift to another artist who has that 'innocent' vibe: 78violet, better known as Aly and Aj. Aly and Aj started out as a relatively Disneyfied pop act, minus most of the songwriting stereotypes that plague the likes of Swift. They matured with their second album, which which certainly not overtly feminist does have a few gems:
Were you right? Was I wrong?
Were you weak? Was I strong?
--Chemicals React, Aly & Aj (Insomniatic)

Which (unintentionally, perhaps) turns an old stereotype of stupid men and weak women nicely on its head. This is 'post-feminist' music, if you will - Aly and Aj feel free to say whatever they feel, without worrying about stereotypes, or trying to break them. This is not to say we're in a post-feminist world - far from it. But the casual presence of such ideas proves that feminism has truly accomplished something.

And that's what Swift could be like. She could be innocent, non-subversive, and simplistic, while assuming the existence of an egalitarian world. She doesn't. Her music still relies on princes on white horses sweeping princesses away.

But even in her stereotypical world there are flashes of something else. Take 'Love Story', the huge hit. The motif throughout is, "baby just say, 'yes'" - the standard pre-engagement plea. If you listen carefully, though, the line is actually sung by the girl in every case but the very last time it occurs! And I, at least, didn't even notice the point-of-view swap until I read the lyrics online. The song is still cheesy and stereotypical, but the girl is essentially proposing to the guy - hardly the standard Western tradition.

So Taylor Swift really does owe a great deal to feminism in her music; even more so in her real-life career. And that's probably more important than anything else: the young girls who listen are more likely to want to be like Taylor Swift herself than like the characters in her songs.

The point to all this is simple: An important aspect of feminism is defending the right of women to be non-feminist (not anti-feminist perhaps, but certainly non-feminist). If Taylor Swift isn't a paragon of feminist thought, she does unintentionally embody certain aspects of it; we could do much, much worse in choice of entertainment (the Pussycat Dolls, anybody?).

So what do you think - is unintentional feminism a sign of success?


Britni TheVadgeWig said...

I just find Taylor Swift to be a bad role model for young girls, as she perpetuates all these steretypes and myths that are unrealistic. And the thing is, I think Swift is too young and naive to even know that these cliche, romcom ideals that she's preaching and singing about are highly unlikely to happen. It's just one more teen girl pining away for a boy, and if one or two of her songs were about that, it'd be one thing. But EVERY one of her songs is about that.

alice bee toklas said...

Taylor Swift is not unintentionally feminist. I don't know how someone could be unintentionally feminist when feminism involves a conscious political identification. Also she propagates fairy tale gender relationships for money. Perhaps she's unintentionally anti-feminist. And you seem to privilege innocence which has historically been one of feminism's biggest nightmares.

Brianna J said...

You're right - 'unintentionally feminist' was a poor choice of words. I'm sorry if I was confusing; let me clarify:

Taylor Swift is not feminist, not a good role model, and her continued insistence on 'innocence' is disturbing given her age (she is 20 years old). In short, I agree with the autostraddle article.

What I was trying to point out, is that both her songs (see: A Place In This World, Fifteen, Should've Said No) and media persona occasionally contradict all this, if subtly. From a feminist point of view I find this to be very encouraging.