Elena Hubbell: Taylor Swift's discography: A journey through white girlhood

Sunday, December 3, 2017 - 5:06pm

Taylor Swift’s latest album, “Reputation,” came out last month and was immediately met with passionate reactions. In recent years, Swift has become one of the most polarizing figures in American pop culture, on par with our current president in terms of having a notoriety that can start fights at family gatherings. (If you’re going to tell Swift that I compared her to Donald Trump, please tell the American Civil Liberties Union first.) Love her or hate her, she has enough star power to infiltrate the lives of even the most culturally isolated hermit. 

As a white woman who grew up in the rural Midwest, the musical stylings of Swift had been ever-present in my girlhood and my journey to womanhood. Her thoughts have reflected the greater opinions of many white women who view themselves as victims of a patriarchal culture, who are all about female solidarity, but refuse to acknowledge any type of oppression outside of what they face. This type of white feminism cannot imagine that the experience of women is not always universal or that feminism must be intersectional.

So in honor of her latest creation, I took a journey through Swift's discography and, thus, a journey through my white womanhood. Let’s begin.

The musical stylings of Swift from the 2000s era seeped in preteen romance and casual internalized misogyny. In spite of the fact that I was certainly too young to have a boyfriend and that there was absolutely no type of romance going on in my life, I related to Swift. I identified with her songs of heartbreak, especially when she blamed another girl for said heartbreak.

I identified with the spirit of “I’m not like other girls!” often exemplified in Swift’s music, and my friends and I would often vilify the girls we deemed “popular” at our school. (I’m looking at you, Megan from the popular crowd, who wears Abercrombie and Fitch and straightens her hair every day. I leave my hair frizzy and read fantasy novels in the library alone during lunch because I’m better than you!)

My personal brand of womanhood was so fragile at this time that the only way I could respect another girl was if she were exactly like me — i.e., nerdy, socially awkward and religiously conservative. I’m not proud of it, and neither was T-Swift, as we both felt the need to rebrand ourselves.

We, Taylor Swift and I, matured a bit. We embraced our female friends and became feminists. Swift released the immensely popular “Red” in 2012, and then “1989” in 2014, and I got a slightly more flattering haircut, learned how to get rid of my upper-lip hair and started my freshman year of college right after “Shake it Off” was released. Though I didn’t notice it at the time, Swift and my brand of feminism lacked inclusivity.

My brand of feminism and womanhood morphed from judging other women for being sexually liberated and “allowing themselves to be used by men” to judging other women for not being sexually liberated and “allowing themselves to be used by men.” There was no room in this dialogue for LBGTQ voices, for Muslim voices, for the voices of people of color.

Then 2016 happened, Kylie Jenner’s year of realizing things™. Swift famously overplayed her hand at white woman victimhood by throwing Kanye West under the bus in order to promote her own specific and exclusive brand of white feminism. And after it became known that 53 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump, arguably all American white feminists also overplayed their hand.

It was a time of reckoning for cis white women who, up until this point, had probably always seen themselves as victims of a patriarchal culture of oppression. Communities of color had always criticized the particular brand of mainstream feminism for putting their problems on the back burner in order to focus on the issues plaguing the more privileged or for oppressing people of color in order to achieve their own goals (Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony and other prominent feminists). But when Kim Kardashian published the video on Snapchat, these criticisms had, in my view, finally reached a realm where white women could easily see them and be affected by them.

I have always believed adults are people who can own up to their mistakes, apologize and then change their actions. For white women, this means acknowledging our part — and white feminism’s part — in the creation of a white supremacist system, refusing to talk over voices of color and supporting those who don’t have the type of privilege we do. When we were younger, we absolutely held problematic opinions toward feminism and race. And this, in essence, is part of growing up — realizing the error of your ways and seeking to correct that error in adulthood.

So skip to 2017, when I am currently being disappointed by “Reputation.” Instead of owning up to her actions, Swift refuses to apologize or take any type of responsibility for her public downfall. Instead of allowing her brand of feminism to grow and become more inclusive, she’s been slammed by the ACLU for threatening to sue a blogger who suggested she was respected in neo-Nazi circles. If Swift is to be the collective voice of white women, she is not giving us a very good reputation.

Swift's brand of white femininity and white feminine victimhood has, most likely, followed us through our childhood, but it's time for us to branch off. It’s 2017, Donald Trump is our president, a known white nationalist wants to speak on our campus and other racist incidents just continue to keep happening. It’s time we, cis white women, acknowledge the role we play in the creation of this racist system, because only then can we begin to deconstruct it.

Elena Hubbell can be reached at elepearl@umich.edu.