By Koki Kobayashi (’21)
On November 10, 2014, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift released the music video for “Blank Space,” the second single off of her fifth studio album, 1989. Since its debut, the music video has racked up over 2.7 billion views on YouTube and has been met with great critical acclaim (1). Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times praised Swift’s delivery of an “Oscar-worthy” performance as she played the role of a clingy, obsessive, and crazy girlfriend whose relationships always seem to go down in flames (2). Billboard magazine lauded Swift’s self-referential portrayal, as well as the music video’s gorgeous mise-en-scène and high-quality production (3). But “Blank Space” is not just an award-winning music video with an ear-worm of a chorus. The music video also offers a critique of the media who labeled Swift as a “crazy, desperate, serial dater” who cycles through countless boyfriends (4). Swift accomplishes this critique by solely relying on humor to convey her message, constituting a form of feminist satire. Following her success with “Blank Space,” Swift went on to employ feminist satire in other music videos, including “The Man” in 2020, to deride her critics’ sexist remarks regarding her persona and to mock the double standards women face in contemporary society. By now, Taylor Swift has mastered the skill of utilizing satire in her music videos, but how exactly does her use of humor function as a promoter of feminism? Further analysis of Swift’s music videos will illuminate the significance of humor and the very serious role it plays in advocating for gender equality.
Much of feminist scholarship on music videos centers around the issue of whether or not the representation of female performers’ bodies and sexuality in feminist music videos are empowering. However, little research has been done on the effects humor has on the promotion of feminism in music videos. This paper sets out to demonstrate how satirical music videos make an impact on the feminist movement and should not be overlooked by the scholarly community or musicians seeking to call attention to gender inequality. In this paper, I examine Taylor Swift’s music videos for “Blank Space” and “The Man,” through the lens of feminist humor studies. My analysis is especially influenced by Nancy A. Walker’s A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture. Walker offers a history and analysis of feminist humor and its purpose, which will provide context for how Swift’s music videos fit into the feminist humor discourse. In my analyses of Swift’s satirical music videos, I will argue that the use of humor in music videos is an effective means of promoting feminism, as it subverts gender inequality and calls out the double standards of society in a format that is easily consumed and reaches wide audiences.
Building on a Long-Standing Tradition of Feminist Humor
The use of humor to critique gender stereotypes and inequality is by no means new. In fact, there is a rich tradition of American female humorists that dates back nearly two centuries. From the 1840s through the late twentieth century, female humorists used newspaper or magazine columns as their primary outlets for airing grievances or making humorous observations of the gender hierarchy (5). Humorous sketches and works by writers such as Dorothy Parker, Erma Bombeck, and Nora Ephron were featured on columns for Vanity Fair, Esquire, and the New York Times, with much of their humor reflecting the cultural climate of gender relations at the time in American society (5). Although these humorists found success in publishing their work, women’s humor is still widely overlooked because the use of humor contradicts the conventional definitions of how women are “supposed” to act in American society. The “ideal” image of a woman in American society is one who is passive, motherly, and protective of the morality of the family and the nation. Humor is at odds with this idea of womanhood, as it is often crude, crass, and aggressive. In addition, humorists occupy positions of superiority to their subject matter, or what is being “laughed at.” However, the dominant narrative of women’s lives in America is one of inferiority. Women have been subjugated to a subordinate status by the patriarchy, but the use of humor provides an opportunity for women to break out of the mold of passivity. Women’s humor, then, can be an act of resistance to existing social norms, and a threat to the patriarchal structure of American society.
Among the forms of humor that most overtly challenge the gender hierarchy is feminist humor. In her book, Pulling Our Own Strings: Feminist Humor and Satire, Gloria Kaufman makes the distinction between female humor and feminist humor. Kaufman interprets female humor as ridiculing “a person or a system from an accepting point of view (‘that’s life’),” while feminist humor does the same, except from a nonaccepting position (6). To reiterate, female humor accepts the status quo of women as ultimately subordinate to men, while feminist humor rejects this oppressive social system entirely. Due to its revolutionary nature, feminist humor often takes the form of satire or parody. Nancy Walker characterizes feminist humor as “mak[ing] plain the very absurdity of the culture’s views and expectations of women, and by so…mak[ing] clear that it is not women who are ridiculous…but the culture that has subjugated them” (5). This aspect of feminist humor that highlights cultural absurdities pairs perfectly with the subversive nature of satiric comedy, which attacks and ridicules the wrongs and disorders of society.
Despite its inspiring message, feminist humor has struggled to enter mainstream culture. Walker mentions that feminist humor is not readily available to the public apart from works published by small presses or as a collection of works published as an anthology, such as Kaufman’s Pulling Our Own Strings (5). A few exceptions of works that find greater success include cartoons and stand-up comedy routines, yet these comic forms are still relatively ephemeral and at the periphery when it comes to reaching a wider national audience. However, the emergence of the digital age gave feminist humor more exposure to broader audiences. With the rise of the Internet and social media, humor, especially humorous videos on platforms such as YouTube and Twitter, is now ubiquitous in contemporary American society. This is where Taylor Swift enters the feminist humor narrative. Swift capitalized on the wide-reaching effects of YouTube to broadcast her satirical music videos. By publishing her music videos on a mainstream platform, Swift takes feminist humor to new heights unfathomable by American female humorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Drawing upon and building on the tradition of female humorists, Swift set out to break out of passivity and critique the gender hierarchy, starting with “Blank Space” in 2014.
Taylor vs. the Media: Calling Out Double Standards in “Blank Space”
In August of 2014, a few months before her November 10th release of the “Blank Space” music video, Taylor Swift publicly identified herself as a feminist for the first time. Prior to her self-proclamation as a feminist, she had struggled to grasp the concept of feminism and what the feminist movement entailed. In an interview with The Guardian, Swift exclaimed, “as a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men” (7). So, what spurred Swift on to becoming vocal as a feminist? A major catalyst to Swift’s feminist awakening was her increasing awareness of the double standards in the music industry. The perception of female songwriters who write about relationships and romance is much more negative than male songwriters who write about the same subject. Swift voiced her frustrations with the industry’s double standards in an interview with Maxim, stating, “a man writing about his feelings from a vulnerable place is brave; a woman writing about her feelings from a vulnerable place is oversharing or whining” (8).While her male counterparts like singers Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars receive praise for their breakup songs, Swift receives unnecessary flak for writing songs about her exes (9). Swift’s confessional music of past relationships and heartbreaks also built the perception that she fell in and out of love quickly and vented her feelings through stinging song lyrics. This led Swift to face media scrutiny for her high-profile relationships, of which her “long list of ex-lovers” include names such as Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Harry Styles, and Jake Gyllenhaal. While a male celebrity in a similar position would not receive any criticism and in some cases may be applauded as a “player,” Swift instead was labeled as a “serial dater” by the media. Fed up with the sexist coverage of her dating life, Swift in a Vogue interview said, “I went out on a normal amount of dates in my early 20s, and I got absolutely slaughtered for it” (10). But rather than succumbing to her critics’ senseless claims, Swift shook off their criticism with a sense of humor by writing and releasing “Blank Space.”
In the “Blank Space” music video, Taylor Swift ridicules the media’s sexist claims that she is a “serial dater” by employing feminist satire. Satire, as defined by humor scholar M. H. Abrams, is a form of humor that “diminish[es] or derogate[es] a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation” (11). In “Blank Space,” Swift’s satire ridicules the claims made about her persona by taking the false narrative written about her by the media and playing it out on screen. The video opens with a boyfriend figure driving up to a mansion in a luxury convertible and meeting with Swift’s character in what looks like a start to a promising relationship. The viewer is immediately cued into the fantastic and unrealistic nature of the video by the first shot of Swift’s character, sitting in a bedroom and flanked by two white horses, the scene accompanied by the sarcastic lyrics, “Oh my God/look at that face/you look like my next mistake” (1). The director of the video, Joseph Kahn, drew inspiration from Stanley Kubrick in his shot and framing styles and relied on fairytale tropes such as ballroom dancing, kisses in courtyards, and poison apples to create this dystopian fantasy (12). The fairytale takes a turn for the worst when Swift’s character catches her boyfriend texting someone else during a picnic, causing her to spiral into a state of fury and jealousy. Playing on gender stereotypes of crazy girlfriends, Swift’s character sets fire to her boyfriend’s wardrobe, slashes and tears painted portraits of her lover, and smashes his car with a golf club, all while having tear-stained mascara streaming down her face. Desperate to escape his crazy, obsessive lover, the boyfriend speeds away from the mansion in his car, just in time for a new boyfriend to drive into the driveway in a near-identical sequence as the opening scene, repeating the process from square one. Swift reenacting the media’s comments of her persona shows the absurdity of both the claims made against her and the gender stereotypes maliciously used to justify those claims.
Analyzing the video further through the context of humor studies reveals the subversive power of the music video. Taylor Swift’s satire works in accordance with the incongruity theory of humor to critique the sexist portrayal of her persona by the media. According to the incongruity theory of humor, laughter is caused by “the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations” (13). In other words, we perceive something to be funny when there is a disjunction between expectation and actuality. In “Blank Space,” there is an incongruous relationship between the image portrayed of Swift as a crazy girlfriend who goes through a boyfriend carousel, and the reality Swift lives as a woman in her twenties who dates just as any other human being would. This incongruity is enhanced by the fantastic imagery and the over-the-top portrayal of the girlfriend character by Swift to underscore how unrealistic and laughable the media’s claims were. Though Swift’s performance may seem exaggerated, it is also exactly what the media made her out to be: a “serial dater” who goes berserk and attacks her ex-lovers by writing songs about them. This fictitious image that the media presents of Swift as a clingy girlfriend is so distorted from reality, that it becomes laughable. Thus, when the audience sees Swift as a jealous, golf club-wielding girlfriend, there is a strain in the expectation of Swift as a person with a relatively normal dating life and causes the audience to laugh at the incongruous image of Swift.
In addition to incongruity, there are also elements of the superiority theory of humor in Taylor Swift’s satire. The superiority theory of humor states that laughter comes from feelings of superiority over other people’s follies and failures (13). In “Blank Space,” the audience feels a sense of superiority over the creators of the humorous content. Because Swift adopted the material for the video from the media’s portrayal of her, the content creator of the “joke” is not her, but the media itself. Therefore, when the audience laughs at the way Swift’s character flings burning dress shirts from the balcony or drops a cellphone in a fountain, they are not laughing at Swift, but at the people who think of her in that manner and believe the gender stereotypes she presents in the video to be true. Laughter then, subverts the power structure that enforces these ridiculous images of Swift and women in general, as the audience assumes a position of power over the media and the patriarchal society that contributes to the absurdity that is gender inequality.
Although Taylor Swift’s character is the butt of the joke in “Blank Space,” the humor in the video is still feminist in nature because the ridicule is targeted not towards herself, but towards the media. This distinction between female and feminist humor is important to consider when judging “Blank Space,” as the former can be less effective in empowering women. In her book, All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents, humor scholar Rebecca Krefting details the conditions female comedians have to meet in order to find success in the comedy industry. According to Krefting, one of the ways women find success in comedy is by caricaturing women and “using themselves and other women as the butt of the joke” (14). Successful female comedians rely on stereotypes of women to play into the dominant narrative of female ineptitude, making their humor easier to consume by the male-dominated entertainment industry. Because the comedy industry is dominated and controlled by men, they get to determine what is and is not funny. Thus, humor that centers on the ridicule of women finds success, as the denigration of women is not seen as a threat to the dominance of the patriarchy. This form of humor is in line with Kaufman’s definition of female humor, as it accepts the status quo of female inferiority in order to garner laughter and success. In contrast to this type of humor, Swift’s humor in “Blank Space” is feminist, as it rejects the status quo and calls it into question. The caricature in the music video is not of herself, but of the false and sexist image of her that the media conjured up using gendered stereotypes. Swift does not submit to the dominant notion of female ineptitude and inferiority, but rather ridicules and rejects gender inequality through her caricature. Therefore, Swift’s nonacceptance of oppression in “Blank Space” is characteristic of feminist humor, rather than the more submissive female humor.
Taylor Swift also avoids the danger of the audience taking her portrayal literally or at face value, by giving full disclosure that the music video and lyrics of “Blank Space” are purely satirical. During her promotion of the single as well as before many of her performances, Swift provides the backstory of how she came up with the concept for writing “Blank Space.” Prior to her performance of the piece at the GRAMMY Museum in 2016, Swift told her audience how many media tabloids and articles “had these descriptions of my personality that were very different from the actual personality” (15). Swift drew laughter and applause from the crowd as she went on to describe the claims made about her, sarcastically stating,
“She jet-sets around the world, collecting men…but she’s so clingy that they leave, and she cries and then she gets another one in her web and she traps them and then locks them in her mansion and she’s crying in her marble bathtub surrounded by pearls” (15).
By providing the background and context of “Blank Space,” Swift clarifies the music video’s satirical intentions and channels the audience’s laughter toward her critics instead of towards herself. As the audience laughs at the ridiculous descriptions of Swift as a “serial dater,” they begin to see the flaws of the media’s sexist claims, leading them to deride and challenge the dominant group (read: Patriarchy) that perpetuates these unjust double standards.
Though her video is humorous, Taylor Swift’s satire in “Blank Space” also plays a very serious role in promoting feminism by revealing a harsh truth about gender inequality in American society. According to Walker, feminist humor operates by “laugh[ing] at the very idea of gender inequality in an attempt to render such inequality absurd and powerless” (5). In her video, Swift accomplishes this critique by taking the false narrative written about her by the media and acting it out to show the absurdity of their claims as well as the absurdity of the gender stereotypes associated with their claims. By subverting these stereotypes and exposing the media’s follies through humor, Swift also sheds light on the sexist treatment that she and other women are given by the media and broader society regarding gender norms in relationships, and points to the ridiculousness of allowing these double standards to continue to exist. The satire in “Blank Space” forces the audience to question the patriarchal society that enforces these stereotypes and to question the validity of the double standards that harm the reputations and perceptions of women. By showing the incongruity of the media’s sexist claims and laughing at the absurdity of the claims as well as the culture that permits these double standards, Taylor Swift’s humor in “Blank Space” acts as a critique of the gender inequality that exists in contemporary society.
Taylor Swift’s Maturation into “The Man”
Taylor Swift took a stand against gender inequality once more in her music video for “The Man,” her fourth single off of her seventh studio album, Lover. Though the music video again uses satire to call out double standards, Swift takes a different approach than her other satirical music videos. Previously, Swift used satire to respond to the criticism she received about her persona and dating life. However, the changing gender climate brought about by the #MeToo movement forced Swift to widen her scope on the issue of sexism in the United States and address the broader, societal injustices that women face in contemporary society.
The #MeToo movement has its origins in 2006, when sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke coined the term on social media to draw attention to violence against women, but the movement did not take off significantly until 2016, when many high-profile actresses accused media moguls like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Kevin Spacey of sexual assault and misconduct (16). Taylor Swift had a personal connection to this movement, as two months prior to the start of the #MeToo movement, she herself fought for her rights in a sexual assault case. In 2016, Swift underwent a sexual assault trial against former radio DJ David Mueller, who groped Swift during a meet-and-greet event in 2013 (17). Mueller sued Swift for $3 million for defamation; Swift responded by countersuing Mueller for sexual assault for a symbolic $1. Despite winning her case, Swift was cruelly belittled by the media and faced criticism from the public, further exacerbating the trauma she had originally gone to court to resolve . The entire narrative of the court case became twisted by the media, as the case itself came to be referred to as the “butt-grab case,” and Swift was criticized for suing Mueller just for the sake of suing him and stirring up trouble (17). The injustice Swift felt during the sexual assault case not only helped her sympathize with the #MeToo movement but caused her to take a larger stance against gender inequality.
Taylor Swift’s stance on politics was another factor that led her to approach gender inequality from a wider perspective. During the 2018 Senate race in Tennessee, Swift came out publicly regarding her political stance by posting an Instagram photo in support of Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen over Republican Marsha Blackburn, a woman Swift later called, “Trump in a wig” (18). Swift’s coming out was motivated by gender inequality, as Blackburn voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which protected women from sexual and domestic violence (18). After failing to endorse Hilary Clinton during the 2016 Presidential Election, Swift felt a personal responsibility to use her voice and platform to fight for gender equality, and became more active in publicly promoting LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights in the years following the election. Motivated by the new wave of feminism brought about by the #MeToo movement and her newfound voice to speak out against injustices, Swift wrote “The Man” to tackle gender inequality.
More than a catchy song on the radio, “The Man” serves as a thought experiment for Swift to see how different her life would be perceived if she were a man. In her Lover Enhanced Spotify campaign, Swift described,
“I’ve wondered several times, “If I had been a man instead of a woman and had lived my life exactly the same way, what would people have said about me?” It’s about perception. It’s not, “what would I do if I were a man?” It’s about how I would be seen if I’d done exactly the same stuff” (19).
In her music video for this track, Swift brings this experiment to life by satirizing the double standards men get away with in everyday life. Swift released the music video for “The Man” on February 27th, 2020, to coincide with a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court case on the same date, which unanimously declared the 19th amendment to be constitutional (20). But her feminist references do not stop there. Swift’s satirical music video consists of several nods to the double standards women face in contemporary society.
“The Man” overtly confronts discrimination by satirizing the absurd practices that society deems as “acceptable” for men to partake in. The video follows a white businessman (played by Taylor Swift for added comedic effect) named “Tyler Swift” who engages in activities that have been normalized by the patriarchal society (21). The video opens with the man walking through an office, bossing his employees around, and receiving applause from his workers. This scene is in direct reference to a scene from Martin Scorsese’s film, The Wolf of Wall Street, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character lifts his arms and gets showered with applause from his office employees (22). Accompanying this scene are the lyrics, “I’d be a fearless leader/I’d be an alpha type,” showing the contradictions between how women are perceived versus their male counterparts While men like Tyler Swift and DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort are praised for holding positions of power, women like Taylor Swift deal with the burden of constant scrutiny and criticism from the media and public. Swift continues to question men like DiCaprio in the following scene where Tyler Swift is on a yacht, partying with several young women in bikinis. The lyrics in this scene are, “And they would toast to me, oh, let the players play/I’d be just like Leo in Saint-Tropez,” in reference to the extravagant galas DiCaprio hosts at his summer getaway, as well as the fact that the actor refuses to date women over the age of 25 (21, 23). Men like DiCaprio get away with dating or marrying women half their age, yet women who do the same thing are labelled as “cougars” by the public. Swift herself was grilled by the media for dating eighteen-year-old Conor Kennedy in an “age-inappropriate” relationship when she was 22 (24). This scene shows the absurdity of the relationship practices men can get away with and not get scrutinized for. The music video continues with other scenes depicting unjust double standards, including Tyler Swift manspreading on a train while smoking a cigar, being cheered on by bystanders at a park for doing the bare minimum as a parent, and receiving high-fives rather than going through a “walk of shame” after sleeping with a woman. The video concludes with Taylor Swift acting as the director of the music video, calling over Tyler Swift and asking if he can “try to be sexier, maybe more likable” in the next take (21). Additionally, after berating the man’s performance, Swift compliments a ball girl on the set, whose only role was to roll her eyes. This interaction alludes to the way male directors and critics in the entertainment industry constantly reprimand their female actresses to “be sexier” or “be more likeable,” while they praise male actors for doing the bare minimum. By reversing the gender roles of the interaction, this scene reveals the absurdity of the double standards women face in society.
These satirical scenes in “The Man” constitute a form of feminist humor by making fun of the double standards that disadvantage women to render them fundamentally absurd. It is outrageous that Tyler Swift can manspread on trains, date women half his age, and throw tantrums on the tennis court, and receive absolutely no criticism for his actions. However, if Taylor Swift were to go about her day in the same manner, her every move would be scrutinized, and she would be torn apart by the media and public. As the viewer laughs (or rather scoffs) at these ridiculous actions by Tyler Swift, they are at the same time questioning the society that tolerates these double standards. Thus, Swift’s feminist satire urges viewers to reject the status quo that normalizes sexist behaviors and instead challenge the culture that enforces and even encourages these ridiculous gender norms. By satirizing and caricaturing a buffoonish man who personifies the absurdities of toxic masculinity and double standards, Swift calls out the sexism that exists in American society.
The type of humor Taylor Swift employs in “The Man” is also akin to what Rebecca Krefting calls, “charged humor.” Krefting defines charged humor as a type of humor that builds cultural citizenship by illuminating social justice issues and attacking the institutions that stand in the way of social justice (14). Additionally, charged humor cultivates a sense of community and validates the identities among the culturally and legally disenfranchised (14). Charged humor has its similarities to satire, as they both overtly critique individuals and institutions, but Krefting differentiates the two by stating only charged humor invokes cultural citizenship (14). Given this definition, “The Man” can also be seen as an example of charged humor, as Swift uses humor to comment on the second-class citizenship of women and identifies the issues of gender inequality by portraying unjust double standards in her music video. Swift’s music video, then, “charges” its audience (namely male viewers) of complicity in enforcing gender inequality, and her ridiculous portrayals of double standards urges her viewers to abolish these unjust practices. Through her use of charged humor in “The Man,” Swift challenges the dominant patriarchy that marginalizes women and pushes for the acceptance of women as equal citizens to men.
One criticism that can be made against the music video is that it perpetuates a false narrative about how men act. Though it is true that not all men act like Tyler Swift, it is also important to recognize that many of the scenes in “The Man” parallel real-life instances of male toxicity. For example, there is a scene on a tennis court that shows Tyler Swift smashing his racket, insulting the chair umpire, and crying in the fetal position. Though these actions are exaggerated, they are not too far from the truth, as seen by the outbursts of American tennis player John McEnroe in many of his matches. For instance, in the Stockholm Open in 1984, McEnroe smashed his racket in frustration and went ballistic on a chair umpire, calling him a “jerk” after a call did not go his way (25). Outbursts by tennis players in the men’s circuit are quite commonplace, and while male players do receive fines for misconduct and occasionally draw jeers from the crowd, the public and media rarely chastise them for their unsportsmanlike behavior, but instead chide them for their “gamesmanship” (26). Meanwhile, when Serena Williams argued with a chair umpire in the 2018 U.S. Open Finals, she received a total of $17,000 in fines and the media picked her apart for her “inappropriate” behavior on the hard court (27). Women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King responded to this double standard by tweeting, “When a woman is emotional, she is ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s outspoken  and there are no repercussions” (28). Frustrated by this difference in the way individuals are perceived based on their sex and gender, Taylor Swift included the tennis tantrum scene in “The Man” to defend her friend, Serena Williams, and to call out the double standards that disadvantage women both on and off the court. This scene demonstrates how Swift’s representation of male toxicity on the screen is a very real issue and it would be harmful to dismiss the video as mere stereotyping of typical male behavior. Critics of “The Man” have to realize that the scenes in the music video are actual realities women have to fight against and everyone must question the society that permits these absurd double standards.
“The Man” is the culmination of years of gender inequality that Swift faced throughout her career. From the initial criticism of her dating life in her early 20s, to her frustrating experience of her sexual assault trial in 2016, Swift is no stranger to oppression and discrimination on the basis of her sex and gender. Her personal struggles galvanized her into advocating for all women by attacking the present order of society in the music video for “The Man.” The music video also demonstrates Swift’s continuing growth and maturation as a feminist, as she progressed from only addressing personal issues and criticism in “Blank Space,” to selflessly committing herself to critique more structural and societal inequalities in “The Man.” The hope for the future is for Swift to continue using her platform to promote feminism, as she did with her satirical music videos for “Blank Space” and “The Man.”
Looking Ahead: The Role of Humorous Videos in Creating Social Change
The humorous techniques Taylor Swift uses in her music videos are not revolutionary; feminist humorists have been using the same subversive techniques for over a century. However, by using music videos as her medium for conveying humor, Swift improves upon past feminist humorists’ attempts and transcends their failures in making their humor mainstream. The format of the music video combined with Swift’s celebrity status allows her humor to reach wide audiences and promote social change more effectively than other feminist humorists. Humor scholars Caty Chattoo and Lauren Feldman discuss the benefits of humor in promoting social justice initiatives in their book, A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: the Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice. They argue that comedy works as an agent of change due to its niche and mass appeal. Niche comedy, sought by like-minded audiences, can allow for mobilization of groups for collective action (29). Mass-appeal comedy reaches beyond the niche audience and influences a wider range of people (29). This aspect of comedy pairs perfectly with Swift’s music videos, as her videos already have a dual niche and mass appeal as it is consumed by both her fans (known as “Swifties”) and casual viewers on YouTube. Due to the wide-reaching effects of music videos and their easy accessibility online, Swift’s humorous yet serious message about gender inequality gains national and even global attention, as her videos are consumed by millions of people worldwide.
Humor is also key to creating social change as it disarms audiences and lowers their defense on potentially divisive issues. While Taylor Swift’s music videos reach a large audience, there is no guarantee that her viewers will take her social critiques lightly. However, the use of humor defuses tense situations, allowing contentious issues like gender inequality to be discussed and critiqued in a non-threatening manner (29). When Swift mocks her critics in her music videos, the context of satire allows her to speak her mind and expose the absurdity of gender inequality without a direct confrontation with the media or any other proponents of sexism. The power of humor is evident when comparing Swift’s humorous music videos to her other forms of activism. One of Swift’s defining moments in her role as an activist was when she backed Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen in the 2018 Tennessee Senate race by making a post on Instagram. While many supporters applauded Swift for speaking out against social injustice and for causing an unprecedented spike in voter registration numbers after the Instagram post was shared, the singer also faced criticism for coming out politically (30). Some Americans condemned Swift for bringing contentious issues into her previously apolitical career and questioned the “convenient” timing of her announcement, calling it a “calculated” move to gain publicity during a time when she had not released any new music (31). Despite her advocacy for social justice and women’s equality, Swift’s political activism on social media was divisive. In contrast to her social media activism, Swift’s activism through her satirical videos has been generally positively received. Critics have called Swift’s satirical videos a “feminist daydream” and “empowering,” for calling out the double standards of society (32, 33). The positive perceptions of Swift’s satirical music videos show how the use of humor can defuse situations regarding topics such as politics and gender equality. Humor creates a space where one can promote ideas that would be considered taboo in other social contexts, making the issues in question less divisive and easier to accept. By using humor in her music videos to call out double standards, Swift disarms her audience and sends her feminist message in a package that is easier to consume than other forms of activism.
Taylor Swift’s close relationship to her fans also gives her an advantage over other feminist humorists. Rebecca Krefting states that for female comedians, “successful comedy relies heavily on affirmation of and identification with the comic” (14). In comedy, a positive audience reaction and reception is needed for the humor to work, otherwise the humorist’s message can potentially be rejected. Although many female stand-up comedians struggle to find mainstream success and attain connections with their audience, Swift has no problem relating to her audience and fanbase. There are several factors that allowed Swift to build up and connect with her “army of Swifties” including her initial start as a country singer and her active status on social media (35). Swift began her career in country music, a genre which prides itself on confessional lyrics and humility (34). By singing her lyrics, fans were essentially reading the diary of Swift and connecting with their idol on an emotional level. Another staple of country music is the meet-and-greet of performers after concerts, which allowed Swift to get to know her fans on a personal level (34). On top of this connection, Swift was one of the first musicians to use social media to connect with her fans, as she began making vlogs of her tours and using Myspace in 2006 and eventually accumulated tens of millions of followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr (36). Swift’s fan-service bridges the gap between her and her fans. By coming down from her celebrity platform and interacting with her fans, Swift becomes someone her fans can relate to, creating a sense of camaraderie between performer and audience. Active engagement with her fans gave Swift a loyal fanbase unparalleled by other musicians and in this case, other female humorists. This closeness to her audience helped audiences identify with Swift’s personal experiences and share in the laughter against the patriarchy in her satiric music videos.
Taylor Swift further develops her connection to her audience in her music videos by using easter eggs. By peppering her video with allusions to pop culture, Swift forms a bond and a sense of community with her audience. For example, in the “Blank Space” music video, Swift’s character cuts holes on the chests of her boyfriend’s dress shirt in an act of revenge. This is in reference to a scene from the film Mean Girls, in which Lindsay Lohan’s character, Cady, cuts holes in her rival’s shirt in an attempt to embarrass her (37). There is also a shot in the music video of Swift’s character cupping an apple in her hands. This is a self-referential allusion to the cover art of the film, Twilight, in which Swift’s ex-boyfriend, Taylor Lautner, starred in. These pop culture references in “Blank Space” act as an inside joke of sorts to create a sense of understanding and cohesion between Swift and her audience, making her humor more accessible and relatable.
As promising as these benefits of humorous music videos may be, it is still necessary to recognize that not every viewer will “get” the joke. While music videos are accessible to mass audiences, most viewers watch music videos for entertainment, not so much for critical examination. This means for humorous music videos, there is the danger of the viewer giving only a superficial read of the video’s content. To avoid this danger of taking the humor at face value, it is crucial for musicians to prompt the viewer into understanding the humorous and subversive context of humorous music videos, just as Swift did during her promotion and performances of “Blank Space.” Moving forward, musicians and music video producers should provide this disclosure to place viewers in a critical mindset. For humorous music videos to work, the audience must think critically of the humorous content and question the individuals and institutions that the humor attacks.
All combined, these factors help Taylor Swift convey her feminist message, showing the effectiveness of humorous music videos in creating social change. Swift acts as a successful comedian by catering to her audience’s interests and disarming them through humor. She then uses the wide-reaching capabilities of the music video to broadcast her critiques of the gender hierarchy to vast audiences. Looking ahead at the future, humorous music videos can be a powerful means in the promotion of other social justice initiatives. Celebrity musicians already have an established fanbase that many female humorists do not have access to, and the use of humor can subvert systems of injustice in a non-threatening manner. Altogether, Taylor Swift’s music videos for “Blank Space” and “The Man” demonstrate the power of humor in subverting gender inequality and open up the possibilities for humorous music videos to be used as a tool in the promotion of social justice.
Koki Kobayashi is an American Studies major with minors in Poverty Studies and Russian at the University of Notre Dame. His extended essay was originally written for Professor Perin Gürel’s American Studies course, ‘Humor and Power.’ After graduation, he will be working at L’Arche Wavecrest in Orange, California as an assistant and advocate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
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