But is she a feminist? This is our favorite question to ponder about female celebrities, and particularly female pop stars. Is Lady Gaga a feminist (even though she makes offhand comments about how she doesn’t eat)? Is Beyoncé a feminist (even though she conforms to patriarchal standards of beauty and tells other women to “bow down, bitches”)? Is Lana Del Rey an empty-headed male fantasy or a stealth, radical-feminist performance art project?
Over the past few years, no artist has been the subject of this debate more than Taylor Swift. Does her brutal, confessional honesty about past relationships make her a fearless feminist truth-teller or hopelessly dependent on men’s affection and approval? Is this dependence, in itself, a knowing performance of women’s oppression? And how about all those lyrics that paint other girls as competition, as obstacles standing in the way of Swift getting her man?
The latest excuse for pro-Swift feminists and anti-Swift feminists to tussle is Feminist Taylor Swift, a week-old parody Twitter account that has already attracted nearly 100,000 followers. Its authors, Brown students Clara Beyer and Kevin Carty, rewrite the singer’s lyrics so that they espouse feminist values — and, in doing so, highlight the gender issues inherent in Swift’s original words. “I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter / She is the best thing that’s ever been mine / Hold on, make it last” becomes “‘”I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter / She is the best thing that’s ever been mine’ / Hold on, why am I a man’s property?”; “She wears high heels; I wear sneakers / She’s Cheer Captain and I’m on the bleachers” is transformed into, “She wears high heels / I wear sneakers / We’re each expressing our gender identities in ways that make us feel comfortable / Date me.”
Especially for those of us who have spent any time in a gender studies classroom, Feminist Taylor Swift is often hilarious. What isn’t so entertaining is the latest wave of warmed-over arguments and assertions about Swift’s relationship to feminism. Mainstream newspapers are kicking off their profiles of Beyer — yes, less than a week into Feminist Taylor Swift’s existence, there are profiles — with decisive and provocative pronouncements like, “Taylor Swift is not a feminist,” as extremists on both sides of the debate hash it out on Tumblr. And yesterday, Salon felt compelled to respond to the parody Twitter account with a dead-serious piece contrasting the crossover star with country music’s long history of feminism.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking a serious look at the political values implicit in music; on the contrary, it’s essential to be educated about and critical of the messages we passively absorb through pop culture — and especially through figures like Swift, whose songs are so popular as to be ubiquitous. The problem is that these conversations tend to conflate the work in question with the celebrity herself. When we argue that someone like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé is or isn’t a feminist, we’re mustering evidence from all corners of her life, personal and professional, to render a verdict on a case where there’s miles of gray area between “guilty” and “not guilty.”
What simplistic debates like this, that attempt to reduce a person’s entire identity to a litmus test — feminist or not feminist — ignore are the complexities and contradictions within every human being. As a colleague pointed out in response to the Salon article, the same Loretta Lynn who sang “The Pill” also gave us “Fist City,” just one of her many songs about causing bodily harm to women who mess with her man. I can’t say I’ve never made the kind of snarky, judgmental comments about other women that appear in Swift’s hits. But I still identify as a feminist, and work to keep my life in line with that designation (while also acknowledging that feminism is not a monolithic philosophy), despite sometimes engaging in behavior that doesn’t jibe with those values. “Is Taylor Swift a feminist?” is a question of identity, not an excuse to put the singer’s every lyric and tweet and romantic relationship on trial — although the necessarily unanswerable nature of the query explains why debate over the topic will never die.
There is only one person in the world who can say whether Taylor Swift is a feminist, and that’s Taylor Swift. As Salon notes, she has been asked that question, and responded in neither the affirmative nor the negative: “I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” This sounds like a skillful, well-rehearsed dodge, and maybe it was — but it also, on some level, acknowledges that what she’s really being asked is too loaded to be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” And in that respect, Swift is starting to sound more sophisticated than her critics.