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The other shaming of Taylor Swift

At the time of writing, it is impossible to search for images of Taylor Swift on X. This is due to a proliferation of AI-created pornographic pictures featuring the singer, created and distributed with the intent to humiliate. For years, deepfake porn has been used to harm women, but Swift may be its most famous target yet. 

“When high-profile figures like Swift are targeted with deepfake porn,” writes the Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi, “it sends a message to young girls: put your head above the parapet and you will be punished for it. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, how many billions you have in the bank, the world will still find a way to objectify and humiliate you.” I absolutely agree. This attack is about, amongst other things, control. See what happens to her? See what we do to that kind of woman? This could happen to you, too. 

It is good to see so many rallying behind Swift following the attack. Yet at the same time, I can’t help thinking that putting one’s head “above the parapet” is not something for which Swift has always been celebrated, particularly on the left. If we are concerned — and we should be — about the way in which Swift’s image is now being used to teach young girls to know their place, then it strikes me that she has, for years, been the left’s go-to privileged, problematic woman, the one whom it is totally acceptable to consider in need of bringing down. 

For years, there have been pious attempts to shame Swift and wreck her reputation. For years, she has been deemed “too much” and undeserving of her success. If for the right she symbolises the dominant woman who needs to be brought to heel, she has done so for much of the left as well. 

Of course, there is a difference in degree. However, if it is a question of mindset, I am not convinced the gulf is all that wide. It may be claimed that one cannot compare a right-wing porn-soaked basement culture that wants to bring powerful, confident women down, and a left-wing, sex-positive one which merely wishes to teach women such as Swift to #DoBetter. I would argue that the psychological impact of constant, spurious moral shaming can be very similar to sexual shaming. The left does not treat successful men in the way it treats Swift; there is a particular taint that only successful, independent women must bear.   

While I would hardly call myself a Swiftie — I am in the “quite like” camp when it comes to her music — for several years now I have been appalled by the way in which Swift has become an emblem for the type of woman upon whom the left likes to perform regular moral inventories. Naturally, she is always found wanting. Article after article is produced to enumerate her supposed failings. For any young woman witnessing it, it is a vivid reminder to avoid doing anything which might lead to accusations of entitlement, privilege or ignorance (which might as well be anything at all). Nobody wants to be a spoilt bitch, a mini-Karen, a white feminist. Watching Swift struggle to win the approval of a “progressive” side that delights in humiliating her reminds any girl who is trying to be good enough: you can’t be. You’ll never be. Women such as her are bad women by default. 

It doesn’t matter what Swift does. Indeed, the more she attempts to show she is one of the good guys, the more the good guys reject her. “In 2017,” complains one Salon piece, “she showed support for the Women’s March but did not actually attend. In 2019, she became an LGBTQ+ ally, releasing the anti-homophobe single ‘You Need To Calm Down,’ donating to queer-led organizations and inviting drag artists on stage but has since remained quiet on the issue.” God, what a terrible person!

Another commentator describes her as “a privileged, white, capitalist machine”:

But, she has established herself as pro-democrat, pro-feminist and a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community — so it is easy to support her blindly.

Having been given a list of some of the virtuous things Swift has (sneakily) done — “Swift has spoken against the Trump administration. She also vocally supports the Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender. Swift is also a philanthropist, donating largely to public education as well as to organizations that provide support for victims of sexual assault” — we are reminded of her “not-so-pretty” acts”:

For starters, Swift’s recent music video for lead single “Anti-Hero” sparked fatphobic accusations. In the video, she steps on a scale that reads “FAT.” While I understand that Swift has been open about struggling with disordered eating and its effects, like body dysmorphia, she should have also considered who she is and how it would be received.

I am not claiming that Swift is perfect, but honestly. Do male artists get this treatment? Is every single good thing Swift does a cover for the next time she centres her own eating disorder a bit too much in a pop video? The constant privilege-shaming of Swift looks a lot like anger at a woman for having too much control of her own narrative.  

In 2017’s The Perils of ‘Privilege’, Phoebe Maltz Bovy notes that “the privilege framework” so beloved of the left “asks all the many privilege-loosely-defined women to apologize for taking up space, for speaking their mind, which women already do, copiously.” Women — not men — are asked “to hold back from engaging in unapologetic self-promotion, and to consider — aloud — every aspect of their accomplishments that could be attributed to some sort of systemic injustice.” Few women in the public eye have been asked to do this quite so much as Swift. Moreover, whenever she or others draw attention to her femaleness, and what this means for her relationship with power, this is immediately dismissed by reminders that no one has ever been quite so privileged as she. 

If you are a young white woman reading this, what are you supposed to think?

As a 2015 Salon article put it, “Taylor Swift is not an ‘underdog’”: “Swift is the privileged daughter of wealthy plutocrats. She can write a good pop song, but also had a huge leg up.” Or how about this from the Tennesean in 2019: “no one ever talks about the true privilege Taylor Swift has had because this is a case where privilege exists in its boldest form”. 

 Or as the Berkeley Beacon declared in 2021, “it’s about it’s about time to investigate exactly why we love this white woman and her mediocre singing voice so much”:

The fact is, Taylor Swift is a white feminist who exists in a bubble where race, class, and everything else that’s different from the white, straight, privileged status quo is swept under the rug. She favors a narrative where the only thing that matters is cardigans and ‘champagne problems.’ Fortunately, this is the reality of many of Swift’s fans: young white women.

If you are a young white woman reading this, what are you supposed to think? Having been one myself, I can imagine what my own reaction would have been: irritation at such a crass misrepresentation of my “reality” (cardigans??), quickly followed by shame at such evidence of my own fragility, and a commitment to police myself better in future. It is nonsense to think that the “right side of history” isn’t also using Swift to warn certain women not to get above themselves, or to think that they have complex interior lives, too.   

“Misogynist hostility,” writes Kate Manne in Down Girl, “can be anything that is suitable to serve a punitive, deterrent , or warning function […] And since one woman can often serve as a stand-in or representative for a whole host of others in the misogynist imagination, almost any woman will be vulnerable to some form of misogynist hostility from some source or other.” To Manne, and to many other feminists, I suspect the exemplary hostility Swift receives will be understood to come from one side only: the right, with its fully paid-up misogynists. I don’t think it is that straightforward. If your side — the “good” side —  constantly chips away at the achievements of “entitled” women such as Swift, while legitimising violent, sexualised threats against women you hate even more, then you should not be surprised if others offer a variation on the same theme. It all amounts to the same thing: there’s a level beyond which some women (and only women) shouldn’t rise, and certain punishments which they (and only they) should learn to fear should they do so. 

In her recent book Toxic, Sarah Ditum argues that if in the noughties “a female celebrity’s reputation was predicated on viciously policed sexual purity, in the 2020s, the purity test has become a moral one”. The moral testing to which Swift is routinely subjected looks just as bad as anything I recall from sex tapes and sidebars of shame. This form of humiliation works its way deep inside. Young women — who may want to be good even more than they want to be successful — are watching and learning, quietly resolving not to be as “problematic” as Swift. 

“Why,” writes Mahdawi in relation to the deepfake porn, “would [young women] want to be leaders, why would they want to be in the public eye, when they see what sort of abuse those women receive?” It doesn’t have to be porn, though. It can just be the prospect of being told, year after year, you are spoilt, entitled, undeserving, a “capitalist machine”. Who would look at that and want it? Far better to stay on the safe side, remain unproblematic and not be noticed at all.

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