Taylor Swift has been having her moment for quite some time, ever since Beyoncé invited her back on stage to do so, after Swift experienced an epic case of Yeezus Interruptus in 2009 (“Imma let you finish, but…”). By 2016, though, the goodwill Swift earned from that incident had almost entirely run out, and we were actually talking about the hollowness of her new album, her appropriation of feminism for her own ends and enjoying seeing her squirm and apologize in the face of a critique from Nicki Minaj.
And then Kanye decided to take the beef off the ice and stew it up again, with his not-so-nice lyric in The Life of Pablo track “Famous.”
This set Taylor up for a big feminist moment at the end of last night’s Grammys, when she won the coveted album of the year award against critical favorite Kendrick Lamar, leading to some less-than-thrilled reaction shots both IRL and on the internet:
Thanks to West’s misogynist dig, Swift was able to grab a trophy she really didn’t deserve (again), hoist it high, and cast the whole thing as a victory for all women against the forces of sexist haterade. As the hot takes quickly declared last night, her words were a “subtweet” and “shade-throwing” victory against West:
“As the first woman to win album of the year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there: there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.. But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going. You’ll look around and you’ll know it was you and the people who love you who put you there and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
There was nothing on the surface about Taylor’s speech that should have been dismissed as phony, but it reeked of an ambitious person seizing an advantageous moment and running with it — particularly since we know how many in the media will predictably spin the conflict.
Indeed, you know it’s not a pure feminist triumph when conservative websites are spinning the moment as “Watch Taylor Swift Diss Kanye West Like A Lady” and family-values right winters like Laura Ingraham are cheering Swift heartily. For conservatives and racists, Taylor’s victory and words aren’t about lifting up all the ladies, but about the same old dynamic that surfaced in 2009: a “pure” white girl putting an unruly black male artist who insulted her virtue in his place.
It’s an uncomfortable situation, to be sure, a complicated moment to unpack. My immediate thoughts were many: Swift didn’t deserve the win, but she was absolutely right to call out Kanye’s jerk-ish line — and yet again, she’s still not exactly a model of feminist thought. Instead, she’s talented at songwriting and at crafting herself into a nearly unassailable pop star, scarily so. Thus, her gambit to turn a predictable personal win into a moment about “women” writ large felt deeply disingenuous to more than me.
As the debates about how much women voters should identify with the first serious female presidential candidate occupy the larger discourse, there’s an interesting parallel between Hillary Clinton and Taylor Swift. Both are hard-working, trailblazing white women with huge and meaningful fanbases among other women, mostly their age. Both have been victims of real misogyny and undermining. Both have been embroiled in various racial fracas that they’ve subsequently tried to exit gracefully. And in her disputes with Minaj, with West, Swift espoused the “all women should stick together” brand of feminism that some (not all, to be sure) Clinton supporters like Gloria Steinem have touted. Whenever this brand of feminism rears its head, it is dismissed by critics (fairly, often) as “white feminism” or “corporate feminism” because it fails to take into account how class, race, sexuality, gender identity and expression and ability might affect women’s sense of universal solidarity.
Obviously, we shouldn’t take the parallel too far. Clinton has actually championed women’s rights — she has some real feminist bona fides — while Swift champions being an entertainer, which is certainly her prerogative. Still, it’s interesting to see the way women look at both of these powerful figures and feel frustrated by the misogyny they regularly face — but at the same reject their subsequent call-outs for a kind of universal sisterhood. That sisterhood simply doesn’t exist in a world that is fragmented by far many more divisive forces than misogyny.