how to love and hate yourself as an ivy league white woman
By KAITLYN TIFFANY
She’s been bullied into feminism, but doesn’t quite know how to express it; she’s come into money but doesn’t know how to be excited about that without alienating her middle class fans. She wants to be politically liberal, but she knows that conservative parents are the only people left in America who buy copies of CDs for their children. Two years ago, in this magazine, I wrote 3000 words calling Taylor Swift a feminist’s nightmare and “an absolute landmine of horrible when it comes to the status of womanhood in America.” Though I stand by what I said, I can’t stand by how I said it, which was as if I was 100 percent better than her — a feminist’s dream.
Now, four weeks before I graduate from Cornell and wander off into the real world as an Ivy-educated white woman, I’m trying to grasp some perspective on the brand of feminism that I espouse through my words and actions, trying to be more self-aware when it comes to talking about my place in a structure of power and privilege and lack of these. There are things to love and things to hate, much like there are things to love about the brand new “feminist” Taylor Swift and things to hate about how she practices that.
a feminist origin story
First of all, when Taylor Swift told The Guardian this summer that she is now a feminist, her justification for being late to the party was as follows:
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. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means. For so long it’s been made to seem like something where you’d pick against the opposite sex, whereas it’s not just about that at all. 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 that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.
There are a lot of things to notice about this justification. Her reference to Lena Dunham, is I think, something that most women our age can relate to: Feminism is, unfortunately, something that still needs to be taught and it is not something that we learn naturally from the world around us. Some of us stumbled across feminism on Tumblr last year, some were lucky enough to have parents who would teach it to us from the start. And many, many women, perhaps even most women, are asked (explicitly or otherwise) by another woman whom they love or maybe just respect, to think seriously about feminism. It’s like the best kind of missionary work there is. I learned feminism from a terrifying woman whom I hated for a time, but always respected, and who harassed me on Tumblr until I accepted that not all women experience sexism in the same way and that some experience it on top of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and myriad other factors that I can not possibly claim to understand. I also learned feminism from 30 Rock and my high school English teacher, both of which asked me to look at culture and its products with a critical eye. I learned feminism from the former editor in chief of this magazine, who relieved me of my inclination to judge other women. I learned feminism from opening my eyes and feeling frustration boil in my stomach whenever I walked down a street at night and felt nervous, or when I was talked over in class, or when my prom date called me a “cunt” in front of all of my friends, or when I joined another publication on this campus and noticed that my entire staff was white boys and that this was disconcerting to no one.
What’s not okay about what I just said, or about what Taylor Swift said, is that the reason that we didn’t feel the need for feminism until later in life is because of the ample privilege we had, due to no merit of our own, granted to us at birth to alleviate the blow of being a woman in male-dominated society — we are white, we are educated, we grew up in nice suburbs with nice things and nice neighbors and no fear. In Mindy Netiffee’s brilliant poem, “For Young Women Who Do Not Consider Themselves Feminists,” she responds to a hypothetical young girl’s assertion that she has never been discriminated against personally saying, “That’s great … that’s really great. That you feel no solidarity with the women who have no voice, no power, no safety, no light, or freedom to drive a car, or walk down the street by themselves at night, no right to protect their own children.” Not needing feminism personally is not an excuse for failing to recognize how desperately it is needed by billions of others. The price of privilege, and it is so very little, is that you have a responsibility to be excruciatingly and vigilantly self-aware — you have to make a choice to dedicate energy every single day to using what you have to create a more equitable system. You are not allowed to claim that you weren’t paying attention or that you didn’t know what was going on. Taylor Swift and I both learned that later than we should have.
However, we shouldn’t forget that, while there are nearly 11 million hits when I search “Taylor Swift feminist” on Google (and one on Twitter, please check out the glory that is @FeministTaylor Swift), there’s no chance in hell that male artists of a similar age and audience are being asked so insistently about whether or not they are feminists and whether or not they believe their music has a feminist message. There are about 4 million hits for “One Direction feminist,” most of them blog posts written by feminists who are defending their affection for the group, and not one of them (as far as I can tell) links to an interview in which the group is asked directly about their politics.
a capitalist origin story
As far as the way that Taylor Swift practices her feminism, I can’t pretend to know that much about how she lives her day-to-day life. I can say that 1989, her fifth studio release, featured very little of the pettiness of her other work, and certainly didn’t endeavor to blame another woman for her problems (with the exception of “Bad Blood,” which is three-minutes of sing-whining at Katy Perry for stealing some back-up dancers, but that was professional rivalry and therefore, maybe, acceptable?)
There is, however, very real evidence that Swift is still oblivious to the ways in which society enforces rigid class barriers and solidifies inequality. As evidenced by her November 2014 decision to remove her entire catalogue from Spotify’s streaming service.
Swift has, for her last few releases, “windowed” the album, a very common and understandable choice to make the album available for purchase via physical copies, iTunes, Amazon and Google downloads, but not available for streaming on Spotify or similar services until a couple of months later. She has also been notorious for the vigilance with which her media team patrols the Internet and removes illegally posted and downloadable versions of her music, also understandable.
But with the October 2014 release of 1989, Swift launched a campaign against her music appearing on the Internet in any capacity and publicly expresses her distaste for the business model of streaming apps like Spotify saying, “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.” This statement reflects sentiments that she expressed in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal this summer, saying, “Music is art and art is important and rare. Important and rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”
This choice is tragically misguided for a variety of reasons, not least of which being the fact that Spotify does in fact pay close to 70% of their revenue back to the “writers, producers, artists and creators” of the music that they stream. In an effort to sway Swift back onto their offerings, Spotify flattered her with some statistics: Of Spotify’s 40 million users, “Nearly 16 million of them have played her songs in the last 30 days, and she’s on over 19 million playlists.” They also casually reminded her that streaming apps like theirs go a long way in protecting artists from the out-and-out piracy that ran rampant in the first decade of the 2000s and that top artists like her are compensated upwards of six million dollars a year for the use of their music.
As I wrote in the last issue of kitsch, “Haunted,” the right to create, own and experience art is already a right that is reserved primarily for the elite — or at least for the middle class and upper middle class. The price for admission to even such mainstream cultural events as movie theatres and concerts or possession of popular music and films has risen in excess of inflation since the early 1980s, making the cut-off in income which permits access to art higher and higher.
Spotify democratizes access to one art form and makes it possible for anyone to cultivate diverse tastes in music for the low, low price of “listening to an ad once in a while.” But in Taylor Swift’s conception of the music industry, music should be “rare and valuable” and paid for only by those who can afford “rare and valuable” things. Removing the option of listening for free and paying only to download makes for low-income consumers who are forced to choose the artwork that they are permitted to access much more carefully and safely — which of course, benefits artists like Taylor Swift whose appeal is so widespread as to be ubiquitous. If you can afford to buy one album in a year, it’s likely to be Swift’s and not Frankie Cosmos’.
Shamus Khan wrote for the New York Times that today’s elites are significantly different than the cultural elites of the past, who sought to create a culture based in the expensive and academic appreciation of fine art that would exclude the lower classes and the uneducated. Today’s elites are “omnivores,” or, consumers of art who pride themselves on the range of their taste, the broadness of their music library and the sweeping, multi-faceted nature of their cultural knowledge. “By contrast,” he notes, “those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and close-minded.”
Swift has tens of millions of fans in the United States alone, and given her broad appeal and palatable image, it’s safe to say that her fanbase is as close to a representative sample of the younger population as any contemporary artist’s is likely to be. As of November 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that 20% of American children were living in poverty, including 16.7 million children who were living in food insecure households.
The problem with Swift’s opt-out is similar to the problem with Sheryl Sandberg’s popularly derided “lean in” strategy. It’s a stance that only a privileged person can afford to make. In the music industry, most artists can’t afford to sacrifice those millions of listeners indefinitely in an effort to negotiate a paycheck. Though Swift’s album went platinum in just one week, it was the only album to go platinum this year, and one of only three albums that sold over 500,000 copies. Swift is an anomaly, not the future of music.
a white girl love story
Swift inspires both love and hate in most every educated white woman I know, not least because we secretly want to be her. In his experimental essay collection in 2013, for which this issue of kitsch is named, New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als writes extensively on the “white girl” as the most envied identity in America. He portrays drag as the ultimate act of American identity formation, and looks longingly at white women saying, “Wasn’t she — whoever she was — everything the world saw and wanted? … Did I love her or want to be her? Is there a difference?” But in Als’ portrait of America, white women are also the most self-despising of groups. They hate themselves for sharing the skin color of their oppressor. Now whether that argument is broadly applicable is a discussion for another day. But when it comes to Taylor Swift I believe he may have understood the key.
I hate Taylor Swift’s cruddy, last-minute feminism, her refusal to take a real stance on anything important even while knowing how much cultural power she wields, her noxious complicity in the capitalist system, all at the same time as I am obsessed with her entire wardrobe, with her flawless “red lip classic thing” and her opulently fun music video for “Blank Space,” in which she gets to sprint around in ball gowns and then take a Beyonce stroll down a spiral staircase, all black lace and confidence. When Anisse Gross of The Rumpus reviewed Als’ essay collection she attempted to consolidate what he meant by “white girls,” saying “The white girls he writes about are sometimes white and sometimes girls, but always ‘white girls.’ Catch the drift? Being a white girl isn’t about being born white in a woman’s body. It’s a state of mind, a way of acting, the pose of privilege.” And I love and hate Taylor Swift because she is, so very privileged. But like all other white girls, her privilege, is, in ways, merely a “pose” — it ignores so much about the complicated place of white women in society. It pretends that it has been given the exact piece of the pie it wanted even when women are still marginalized, and marginalized further by race and marginalized still again by class and by sexuality and by so many other things.
So if you’re going to listen to Swift in Shithaca, it should be with an awareness of what exactly you’re using her for — ”Blank Space” is a hilarious video and Swift makes a brilliant deranged Barbie doll; 1989 and Red are both so fun to mine for Gyllenhaal and Styles mythology; a heartbreak empathized with is a heartbreak cured. All I’m asking for is self-awareness.