Last week, pop sensation Taylor Swift’s return to social media and the music industry sparked an internet avalanche and inspired a wave of think pieces both criticizing and celebrating her. All evidence from the artist’s social media, as well as the lyrics and music video of her newly released single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” indicate that the album will tell the story of a woman empowered by her “haters” — who range from celebrities like reality star Kim Kardashian West and her husband Kanye West, to a media that’s been obsessed with her since the 2000s. The new Taylor Swift of reputation is one who reclaims the hateful, misogyny-laced narrative that’s followed her for close to a decade — a Taylor Swift who slashes previous feminine, starry-eyed versions of herself to pieces.
Since the moment the single dropped last Friday, pop culture pundits have been zealous in their hyper-analysis of Swift and her lyrics, and have come to some very different conclusions. Where BuzzFeed is celebrating Swift as a feminist hero, Slate is blasting her new style for being grudge-fueled and melodramatic.
Both of these arguments are ridden with their own sets of flaws: In criticizing Swift for having the audacity to express her emotions, Slate is, however inadvertently, playing into the societal narrative of sexism that Swift is criticizing in her music. But in the same vein, in the age of Ivanka Trump — a time when words and verbal declarations of feminism from wealthy, privileged white women increasingly ring hollow — BuzzFeed’s appraisal of Swift as a rising feminist phoenix is equally frustrating.
At a time when women in the United States are suffering from the highest maternal mortality rates in the industrialized world, when our elected political leaders seem determined to tell Muslim, undocumented and trans women that this is not their America, celebrity feminism can no longer exist merely as a marketing ploy. Affluent white women who identify as feminists and wear the movement as a label to sell everything from clothing lines to, in Swift’s case, music can’t just speak out only when feminism concerns them as individuals and can be used to promote their brands.
Feminism is an intersectional movement for the equality of all groups. It can’t be selectively deployed to advance rich, married white women like Ivanka Trump’s maternal leave plan does, or, like Swift’s social media and music, to shield oneself from criticism and mean comments while turning a blind eye to the racism, misogyny and intolerance that other, less privileged Americans face every day.
To be sure, Swift and her fans are right about one thing — much of the criticism she faces is sexist. For years, Swift has been trolled and attacked for being a young woman and having the nerve to date men. Feminists can both sympathize with Swift for the misogyny she’s faced, and also criticize her for being silent and apathetic at a time when silence and apathy only serve to normalize and embolden bigotry. Where pop artist Katy Perry actively campaigned for former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and R&B artist Rihanna called for young people to vote — and vote for Clinton, at that — Swift maintained an unapologetic radio silence on politics.
Few Americans have platforms as far-reaching as Swift’s. That’s precisely why silence from “feminists” like her doesn’t just speak volumes — it also reverberates throughout social media. She has profited immensely from wearing the “feminist” label, as this particular moment in our nation’s history is one in which millions of millennial women have made the once widely stigmatized feminist movement their home. Interviews with Swift prior to 2014 reveal she certainly wasn’t interested in the movement before recognizing that aligning herself with it was economically advantageous.
At the end of the day, it’s one thing to not care about today’s political dialogue — already a disappointing stance at a time when challenges to health care, if successful, could cost thousands of poor, old and sick Americans their lives. But it’s a darker, more innocuous feat entirely to claim to care about and be part of a movement to empower the marginalized and market your brand through doing so, and then be silent at a political moment when your star and influence are needed most.
Among both liberals and conservatives, many have always agreed that music, sports and entertainment should be politics-free zones to avoid desecrating art with conflict and petty squabbles. Following this argument, celebrities like Swift have no obligation to speak out and be activists, and shouldn’t be criticized for silence.
But this line of thinking emerges from a different era. Today, the line between politics and human decency is becoming increasingly blurred. It’s impossible to recognize politics as just politics when our national political dialogue is discussing whether the state should be allowed to force low-income women to give birth, and whether minorities and LGBTQ people have a right to equal treatment. Silence on “politics” from people with wide-reaching platforms has become just about impossible to justify — least of all from people who profit from claiming to be feminist.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs every Thursday.