The Taylor Swift Is a Feminist Icon argument goes something like this: From the start of her career a decade ago, Taylor Swift has shown millions of girls that her personal truths — and thus their personal truths — were worth writing about, singing about, and hearing on the radio. She has inspired girls to pick up guitars and notebooks. Her success has made her one of the most powerful people in the music industry, which has long been controlled by men — and she earned that position mostly thanks to her own savvy.
The Taylor Swift Is a Bane to Feminism argument goes something like this: Her songs pine too much over boys. She only started calling herself a feminist when it got cool to do so. She seems to think feminism is mainly about her own personal empowerment, not the greater good of all women — basically, it’s #problematic.
Both of them are right, and that’s exactly what’s made Taylor Swift’s relationship with feminism such an important flashpoint. No, she’s not a philosopher or academic, but her public relationship with what it means to be a woman gets people talking about that still-taboo subject.
In the ten years since Swift’s breakthrough single “Tim McGraw” — which, not incidentally, featured shots of her playing guitar and frolicking with a boy — launched a superstar career, her public maturation has included a charged feminist evolution. This is no small thing: in the time since Swift launched her singer-songwriter career, the word feminist has gone from epithet to “trend.” Female pop stars have gone from empty vessels of eye and ear candy to being all-but-required to drop at least one empowerment anthem per album.
Swift has helped lead the way, even though it may not appear so at first glance. From that first plaintive gem of a love song, “Tim McGraw,” she was identifying herself clearly — as a romantic. She was pining for a boy, hoping to rekindle their relationship by reminding him of their shared favorite music. She continued telling fairytales, most clearly in her 2008 song “Love Story,” in which she addresses her love object as “Romeo” and sings, “You be the prince and I’ll be the princess.” As Amanda Hess wrote in Washington City Paper (even while kinda defending Swift’s feminist virtue): “Taylor Swift sings songs about waiting around, being a princess, and crying for her ‘Romeo’ to rescue her from her dad, who is so mean. Then, she makes videos for these songs where she is literally waiting in an ivory tower for her prince to come.”
Swift then bluntly separated herself from the term in a 2012 interview with The Daily Beast, totally flubbing its definition in the process: “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
But, after all, she didn’t create the fairytale (or the patriarchy), and all the while she was creating her own: megahit songs, world tours, and music industry dominance. While it’s great when famous women “come out” as feminists, it shouldn’t be a requirement: For a while, around the time of that Daily Beast interview, it became a headline-grabbing tactic to ask young female stars about feminism, then trumpet their answers around the Internet as troll bait. Unfortunately, declaring one believes men and women should be equal is still a political act, and one that comes with consequences — you’re opening yourself up to a new world of criticism, where everything you do will be labeled “feminist,” “too feminist,” or “not feminist enough” as though simply existing as a woman in the world isn’t a feminist act in itself.
When she made it official, publicly declaring herself a feminist two years ago — attributing her conversion to friend Lena Dunham — that’s when the education really began. She was among many young, female stars embracing the label, from Beyoncé and Lorde to Emma Watson and Chloe Grace Moretz. But since then her mistakes, magnified by her stardom simultaneously reaching a zenith, have been more instructive to the public than her feminist stance itself.
Last year, she brought the word “intersectionality” into pop culture’s mainstream when she and Nicki Minaj debated the MTV Video Music Award nominations — specifically, Swift’s nomination and Minaj’s lack thereof. Minaj complained on Twitter that her video for “Anaconda” was snubbed, while Swift’s “Bad Blood” was recognized: “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” Swift replied: “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.”
Naturally, this was perfect thinkpiece fodder: in just a few tweets, we have body issues and, more importantly, race running interference with Swift’s conception of feminism. Several reaction pieces took the teachable moment, explaining “intersectionality” — the concept that types of oppression overlap and cannot be untangled for, say, black women like Minaj who deal with both sexism and racism — to readers new to the idea. Swift soon indicated that she got it, or at least understood that it wasn’t about her, tweeting: “I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I’m sorry, Nicki.” Minaj accepted her apology, adding, “I’ve always loved her. Everyone makes mistakes. She gained so much more respect from me. Let’s move on.” So we did — and we’d learned something in the process.
Swift, a white woman with the enormous extra helping of privilege that millions of dollars and fame buy, is still learning. She’s crossed lines of cultural appropriation in her videos, and given a Grammy speech that was a strange amalgamation of empowerment, self-congratulation, and subliminal message to Kanye West for claiming he was the reason she was famous: “I want to say to all the young women out there — there are going to be people along the way who are going to 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 will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there. And that will be greatest feeling in the world.”
The speech left some feeling like Swift was distastefully declaring herself a victory for all of feminism — a fair criticism. But that doesn’t negate the fact that she’s transformed herself from a young, guitar-strumming teenager full of feelings into a musical powerhouse with the clout to bring Apple Music to its knees. She made teenage girls — heretofore hardly taken seriously — a market force to be reckoned with. She showed that young women are not meant to simply be placated with boy bands, but catered to with perspectives that mirror their own.
Taylor Swift is not a perfect feminist — that said, none of us are. What she’s grappling with now is how to make being a feminist less of a title, and more of an ethos. But her imperfect feminist evolution — a lifelong process for any proclaimed feminist, in or out of the public eye — has taught us a lot. Feminism — or any activism — requires talking publicly about uncomfortable and complicated issues like gender and how it interacts with race, class, and sexual orientation. Getting it wrong is part of the process. Getting it wrong as a public figure is messy, but it also pushes the discussion forward in important ways.
After working at Entertainment Weekly for over a decade, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is currently TV columnist for BBC Culture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2013. Her next book, Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing that Changed Everything, will be out in July 2016. She now lives in Manhattan and teaches for Gotham Writers Workshop.