Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Growing up with Taylor: Unapologetic Femininity and Authentic Selves

Illustration by Uma Bratt

Taylor Swift is done being the nice girl.

In her 2020 documentary, “Miss Americana”, Swift revisits the early stages of her career. 

“Throughout my whole career,” Swift said, “label executives would just say, “A nice girl doesn’t force her opinions on people. A nice girl smiles and waves and says, ‘Thank you.’””

As is the case for many girls and women, Swift felt compelled to fit the social expectations of an idealized version of femininity. Long, wavy blonde locks, red lips, sparkly day dresses, demure and girlish, Swift gained global renown. 

“I became the person that everyone wanted me to be,” Swift said.

It’s a story as old as time. A big shot film or music mogul discovers a talented young female and swoops in to snatch up the rights and royalties to the burgeoning artist. As the star finds herself prisoner to ownership and royalty stipulations strategically buried in the depths of fine print contracts, the pressures of the industry and highly public position set in. Her career and fame reach a brilliant pinnacle, before the subsequent and inevitable crash and burn. Just look at the lives and careers of film stars Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.

However, Swift’s story differs from former female stars who were victims of the film and music industry. In 2016, Swift released “Reputation“, embracing her own narrative and rejecting the victimization she experienced during the establishment of her career. For fans, many of whom grew up idolizing Swift, this was an unexpected and exciting change.

Senior Isabella Lorenzetti emphasizes how “Reputation” caught her by surprise. Gone was America’s country pop star darling sitting on a window ledge waiting for Romeo to come and save her. 

“She came out with ‘Reputation’ to show that she’s taking ownership of her reputation, it was like she [was saying] ‘Yeah, I have this reputation, but I’m not letting that stop me,’” Lorenzetti said. 

Jet black eyeliner, dark, glittering bodysuits and thigh high boots, Swift had entered her “good girl gone bad” era. 

“Just thinking about the ways that girls are socialized, I often feel like I need to cater to other people. And she does that a lot in the first half of her career,” Lorenzetti said. “But then she changes that and goes against [it]. And that’s one of the reasons that I really like ‘Reputation’ because she’s tried to play into society’s expectations and there’s so many expectations for a female pop star in American culture.” 

Swift’s battle with powerful men in the industry, especially regarding the ownership of the master license of her music, is one way her career has spoken to her fans.

“I’m really inspired by her because she’s a feminist, and she has overcome all this misogyny and men in the industry treating her badly,” first-year Liza Lebo said. “And it is for that reason that she’s a huge role model for me because she always bounces back and she always turns that hatred that she receives or that criticism into something better and she remakes herself and improves herself all the time.” 

Raymond and Elsie Deburgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning addressed Swift’s move to claim the rights to her music, emphasizing the power that it can have in changing the status quo. Swift fights for her autonomy as a female artist in the music industry when she re-releases her music under her own control, and evokes cultural and symbolic power through her lyrics, costumes and persona.

According to Janning, structural moves have the potential to demonstrate significant change if they are sustained over time. Referencing her research of female athletes, Janning compares Swift’s agenda to re-record her music to the efforts of the U.S. women’s national soccer team to claim equal pay to male athletes.

“She’s also just one person. It’s not like she’s changed the recording industry, but you hear more female artists on the radio. Now, to me, that’s a structural change. That’s a quantitative difference,” Janning said. “Equal pay for similar performances in sports and arts, that’s a structural change. Having a political voice and collectively having that actually create a policy impact like the women’s national soccer team did with equal pay, that’s a structural change.”

While Swift may be well on her way to instigating change, one of her strongest traits as an artist and performer is her connection to her fanbase.

From America’s country music darling in bedazzled cowgirl boots, to a brief stint rocking a platinum blonde bob and sequenced mini skirts, to a dip into sweater weather fall and cottagecore cardigans, Swift’s iconic looks have evolved throughout her eras, much like our own styles as we mature. However, her connection with girls and young women from all over the world has remained constant.

“It’s in the way that we grow up with her,” Lorenzetti said. “And she also grows up [with us]. We have her music to make us feel less alone.” 

Lorenzetti recalls that Swift’s music videos, “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me”, resonated with her as a young girl. 

“I definitely related to a quieter, more introverted girl. That’s what she was portraying in those music videos,” Lorenzetti said. “It made me feel more seen.” 

Swift’s persona as the starstruck, quirky girl next door was relatable to many girls and young women across the world. 

“The fact that she tells stories about life stages and transitions makes her relatable to anybody at any age,” Janning said. “When we go through things in life that are difficult, which many of her songs are about, we often associate them with music. So she’s doing both at the same time – she’s telling the stories and providing the soundtrack.” 

However, not everyone bought into the narrative that Swift was aligning with in her early albums. Senior Jensen Dunn was reluctant to subscribe to Swift’s star-struck damsel in distress persona. 

“My mom was very much like, ‘Oh, she just writes about breakups and she’s not really for the women and she’s just a pop star.’ And so through ‘Red’ [and] ‘1989′, I think I was [not a part of the] Taylor Swift fan bandwagon,” Dunn said. 

Perspectives on Swift’s role as a role model for girls and women vary. Some fans immediately found camaraderie within her works, while others, like Dunn, struggled with aspects of Swift’s music. 

Part of this complexity is rooted in the expectations wrapped up in our social construction of femininity, which demands contradictory and ambiguous standards. 

“It is out of favor to be totally weak. It is out of favor to be silent. It is out of favor to be a victim without a way to undo that. But it is still in favor to be feminine in traditional ways,” Janning said. “So, for example, she wears a lot [of highly feminized pieces] — just look at the wardrobe changes that she goes through on the Eras Tour  – but not all high heels. Her song messages are that women are strong. I would call it kind of a contradictory femininity.”

Dunn picked up on Swift’s struggles to define her femininity and acknowledged Swift’s slide into the pop princess stereotype, specifically her iconic ‘girl squad’ from her “Bad Blood” music video in 2015, of which several members were Victoria’s Secret models.

“I think she did fall into that trap a little bit with ‘1989′,” Dunn said. “I feel like her girl squad back then was very much [composed of only] popular girls. A lot of them [were] Victoria’s Secret models … and I don’t see myself in [that group] at all. Now she’s still the ‘It Girl’, but I think she serves as an older sister figure for a lot of people.”

Both Dunn and Lorenzetti did not become die-hard Swifties until the release of her latest albums, specifically “Folklore”, citing that they found comfort and community during the quarantine of the 2020 pandemic in Swift’s new music and even enjoyed listening to her older albums as well.

“Honestly, I think it was her release of ‘Folklore’ because that [was] the summer right after the pandemic hit [that] she came out with ‘Folklore’,” Lorenzetti said. “It is such a beautiful album to me. And I was like, ‘Oh wow! She’s such an incredible songwriter.’ And then once you get into that, you get into this Taylor bubble.”

Dunn appreciates that her most recent music has not been exclusively about romantic love and has been more focused on platonic love and self-love instead.

“I think she’s really gone that way with her newer stuff,  talking about love that isn’t just romantic,” Dunn said. “And I think I would like to see more of that from her as well. But just the way she prioritizes her female friendships, you know, friendship with Selena Gomez and learning from that example. I think it has been really powerful and impactful for me. And she’s been through a lot and, like an older sister, you can look to [her for support].”

Dunn particularly values Swift’s shift in focus regarding female friendships; with graduation looming ahead, Dunn can appreciate the support and love that she has found in her friendships over the past four years.

“There’s something so magical, and I think especially my senior year as I’m leaning into my female relationships and friendships with people,” Dunn said. “There’s something so powerful about a pop song that you can only scream to at the top of your lungs.”

Lorenzetti also appreciates the friendships and community that she found through Swift’s music.

“I love talking with other people about how different songs connect to other songs,” Lorenzetti said. “A big part of it is the community. I love talking to other people about Taylor Swift and her Eras Tour.”

Lebo found that one of the reasons why Swift’s recent music has resonated with her is that Swift was not afraid to critique her own imperfections.

“I really liked her song ‘Anti-Hero’,” Lebo said. “She is aware of the ways she presents herself [to the public] and the ways that she critiques herself in the ways that she’s really super imperfect, and I really like that coming from her. If she has all this constant criticism in her head, so do we all. That felt like [her] most honest song.” 

As Swift has become more honest and vulnerable with the girls and young women that compose her primary audience, more fans are able to see that even Swift is not perfect. In a way, it liberates Swifties to embrace and celebrate their imperfections, too.

“Even hearing her swear humanized her for me. And seeing her be upset and cry,” Dunn said. “I don’t think people saw that from her before [when] she was ‘the good girl’ [and was never] emotional to where people could see her be vulnerable about her eating disorder and all these topics that girls do struggle with. I think it’s nice to have someone who is so unapologetically [themselves]. [She is] embracing the chaos and leaning into femininity [which is something] that girls shouldn’t be ashamed of.”

Lorenzetti also admires Swift’s vulnerability and willingness to be seen as something other than the “nice girl” through her changing lyrics and social persona. 

“I think that’s cool that she is throwing away that innocent little girl to [say that she’s] growing up,” Lorenzetti said.

In many ways, Swift’s career mirrors the lives of many of her fans. She has struggled with societal expectations and demands, sometimes falling prey to their whims, but also learned to unapologetically embrace her authentic self. No matter your opinion of Swift, there is no doubt that she has made an impact on vast amounts of girls and women.

Taylor Swift isn’t the “nice girl” anymore; she’s growing up, and she’s doing so alongside her fans.

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