Taylor Swift and the ‘Rules of Feminism’

Kitty Ruskin | 9th January 2017.

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Gretchen and Taylor

Many will remember Gretchen Weiner’s often quoted phrase from Mean Girls that dating friends’ ex-boyfriends is ‘off limits’, as per ‘the rules of feminism’. A few months ago, in the midst of the backlash against Taylor Swift, this line came back to me. I took a moment to consider exactly why Gretchen’s line stands out to me in this context, particularly as a feminist in 2016.

The line consistently prompts laughter from friends watching the film, and I asked myself exactly what people were laughing at. Gretchen had boiled down a movement originated to empower and enfranchise a group in society who have been marginalized for centuries to something that can have ‘rules’: and rules principally concerning the illegitimacy of dating your friend’s ex-boyfriend.

When I think of Taylor Swift and the so-called feminism she represents, I think of Gretchen’s line. I think of the young woman who holds herself to be a feminist without, apparently,  knowing what it entails. Swift’s ‘brand’ of feminism has much in common with Gretchen Weiners’ understanding (or lack thereof) of the movement and belief. To be a feminist in these women’s eyes, you must obey certain rules. These rules are summarized by Swift’s frequent demand of women to not ‘tear down’ other women. An example of this is the singer’s reaction to being made fun of by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globe Awards: she told Vanity Fair that it reminded her of a quote that she ‘loved’, that ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’. [1]

On a basic level, this ‘demand of feminism’ undoes the very system of belief that it claims to be a part of. Claiming that women deserve special treatment from other women defeats the core concept of feminism, that people of all genders should be treated equally. On a surface level, making the decision to abstain from criticizing women in favour of constantly ‘supporting’ them might appear to advocate a superior position for women in society. However, such treatment actually dehumanizes women: in wiping out the flaws and removing any room for fallacy, there is no room on the pedestal for complexity or individuality. Swift’s ‘brand’ of feminism subversively works to promote the very things it apparently seeks to challenge.

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Katy Perry

The consequence of setting yourself up as the proponent of an intrinsically contradictory idea is a backfire. For Swift, it began with the hypocrisy of the ‘Bad Blood’ music video. Her response to the ‘feud’ between herself and Katy Perry reflects what Swift vehemently opposes: the act of ‘pitting women against each other’. Filling the video with a slew of female celebrities who are shown to stake their place in the ‘Team Taylor’ camp, Swift allegedly used these women to further the cause of feminism. Leather-clad and gun-toting, the figures were supposedly ‘empowering to women’. Perry’s response encapsulates the hypocrisy of this position, highlighting the irony of the fact that the video ‘capitalizes on the takedown of a woman’. [2]

Another instance of the fallout was seen in 2015 in Swift’s response to Nicki Minaj’s criticism of what she considered to be the racism and sizeism of the MTV Video Music Awards. Skimming over the issues raised, Swift only recognized that Minaj was apparently breaking the ‘rules of feminism’ in that her own success was seemingly being criticized. As Tshepo Mokoena writes in The Guardian, it again struck a ‘faux feminist’ tone. [3]

The question is raised by these high-profile feuds as to whether Swift’s self-defeating interpretation of feminism was an instance of confusion or of calculated career management. Her ‘brand’ of feminism certainly had the potential to make a powerful player in the pop music industry: ‘Bad Blood’ suggested that Swift’s critics would be attacked as ‘un-feminist’, and that her bombastic retaliations would not only be ‘empowering to women’ but also vehicles to make a great deal of money.

However, whether or not Swift’s interpretation of feminism began as a career gimmick, it is certainly not unique to Taylor Swift. I can’t count the amount of times that friends of mine have also expressed the view that the core principle of feminism is that women should avoid criticizing other women. What united Gretchen Weiners and Taylor Swift in my mind was that a comedic instance of misconstrued feminism had become a cultural icon’s understanding of feminism, which in turn represented the view of feminism that many people hold. Perhaps the beginning of 2017 is a good time to reflect upon the meaning of the word, and the difference between combating sexism and treating women in a way that is counterintuitive to the ambitions of the movement.


About Kitty

Kitty Ruskin is working towards an MSc in Literature and Society at Edinburgh after finishing a BA at the University of Reading. She has a particular interest in the links and differences between Romantic and Victorian poetry and the precedent this relationship set for twentieth and twenty-first century literature.

Article edited by Charlotte Kessler and Josh Simpson.

Works Cited

[1] ‘“There’s a special place in hell for them”: Taylor Swift slams Tina Fey and Amy Poehler for mocking her love life at Golden Globes’. Mail Online, http://tinyurl.com/a7pyhay.

[2] Smith, Thomas. ‘“Bad Blood” – A Blow by Blow Account of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s Long-Running Beef.’ NME, http://tinyurl.com/z6luz463.

[3]  Tshepo Mokoena. ‘Taylor Swift’s response to Nicki Minaj was faux-feminist and tone deaf.’ The Guardian , http://tinyurl.com/haprjs9.

Image Credit

  1. The Australianhttp://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/how-taylor-swift-pop-queen-keeps-her-critics-in-line/news-story/d89c1fdeec64c2cbe538825da9110db3 

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