The Taylor Swift pop machine is in full effect with the imminent fall release of her fifth album, 1989. She announced the album during last week’s live stream event, which also served as the debut of the single “Shake It Off,” (haters gonna hate, hate, hate, etc.) along with the Mark Romanek-directed video, which involved lots of awkward white girl dancing. She also said that the album was her first “documented pop album,” which in Swift-land, means that the former star of country radio has put together a suite of songs that will only play on Top 40 stations; and by my uneducated guess, will probably not get banjo-laden country station remixes, this time around.
But the more interesting thing about Swift going full pop is that, well, she may also be in the process of becoming more “herself,” insofar as one of the world’s major pop stars can be a real-life person as part of their brand. Part of her new, fun, 1980s-ish move towards pop means that she’s giving interviews, like last Friday’s lengthy interview with The Guardian, where she’s sounding like a confident, powerful 24-year-old woman, in a way that’s certainly a plus for celebrity* feminism.
(*Celebrity feminism being its own brand of feminism, which is having a moment. It’s “bad feminism,” to quote Roxane Gay, in action — it’s fine for what it is, and it’s a source of think pieces and energy, but it’s certainly no substitute from the actual, on-the-ground activist work that we could stand to do in the light of institutional and societal inequalities regarding race, class, and gender that lead to tragedies, such as Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson.)
As befitting a country star who grew up in the spotlight — look, she probably saw The Dixie Chicks get shunned and marginalized in real time — Swift has distanced herself from feminism in the past. When The Daily Beast asked her if she was a feminist in 2012, she said, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” It was a noncommittal reply, and the source of endless think pieces as there was a disconnect: Swift is one of the most famous female musicians in the world, and she’s empathically her own creation, more so than the average pop star by committee. If you’re a ten-year-old seeing Swift in concert, maybe that will make you think that you can do anything, too. In its own way, it’s sort of entry-level empowerment.
But hey, turn the forward clock two years, and Swift-the-brand is selling a new form of evolution, and this time, it involves feminism. She hasn’t publicly had a boyfriend since Harry Styles. Her Instagram feed is filled with public declarations of love for her famous girlfriends, from Lena Dunham to Karlie Kross to Lorde. She’s hanging out in the feminist section of Soho bookstore McNally Jackson. She’d probably really enjoy Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. It seems the seeds of a feminist awakening have been sown during Swift’s constantly photographed New York summer, with the help of Dunham.
“As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men… Becoming friends with Lena – without her preaching to me, but just seeing why she believes what she believes, why she says what she says, why she stands for what she stands for – has made me realize [sic] that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.”
To paraphrase bell hooks: feminism, it’s for everybody! (Even rich musicians who are trying to please the world and corporations while practicing their art.) It’s a quieter coming out than the world’s most public pop culture feminist, Beyoncé, but it’s still, at its heart, a coming out. And it’s hard not to think that both Swift and Beyoncé are doing their part, on a pop culture level, by challenging the system. Rebecca Traister, writing at The New Republic, found Beyoncé’s VMAs medley, where she performed on a dark stage lit only by the words “feminist,” to be absolutely thrilling: “… there it was, the most powerful, and certainly the most highly polished pop-culture message of my lifetime: that attention to gender inequity is alive, revived, and that it is powered today by a broader, more diverse, more youthful and far glossier energy than it has been in the past four decades.”
We’ve been in a world where some young female celebrities seem scared of the word feminism, scared of what it would mean for their brand, while “feminist” has become a dumb gotcha question in these same profiles, a process that’s outlined smartly in this New York Times piece, “Who Is a Feminist Now?” That piece was written in the wake of Shailene Woodley, an actress and outspoken hippie with enough star power to have complex female roles in films that are making lots of money, distancing herself from the word — and again, citing it as a case of girls vs. boys. It’s a view that just feels awfully dumb in a world where women’s access to, say, health care is limited by politicians.
Celebrity feminism isn’t going to fix all the problems in the world. It can’t do that, one bit, and it’s a waste of breath to have supremely high expectations from women who front corporations wrestling with feminism in public. Nobody’s perfect and we’re all bad feminists in a variety of ways.
But there is something that’s exciting and heartening to see women who are growing up in the public eye (between Beyoncé and Swift, that’s ten-plus years of major stardom) evolving with their views of the world and how they can function in it, and also learning how to wield their power. It’s a good thing when celebrities like Beyoncé and Swift embrace feminism. If it can get one small girl reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s “We Should All Be Feminists,” or buying hot summer reads like Roxane Gay’s bestselling (!) Bad Feminist for their friends, then it’s a very good start. From there, we can all move on (starting with pop culture’s mixed messages of how to be a person, finishing with structural inequality and dismantling the patriarchy?), as there’s work to be done.