Swiftian Femininity: Taylor Swift’s Gender Identity and Branding

By Dessi Gomez (’21)

The public constructs Taylor Swift as if she were an idea, not a person, according to her gender and her gender expression.  These constructions are intertwined with her breakout into fame as “America’s sweetheart” and “ultimate good girl.” As she grew up in front of the public, she began to be attached to or associated with her most current boyfriend, and as she dated more boys and men, the construction of her as a “serial dater” developed and became almost constantly employed in gossip magazines as well as radio talk. As Swift’s career progressed, her musical storytelling became more and more detailed, which added a layer to the serial dater persona that turned her into someone who dated guys just to write songs about them. An evolution can be seen in Swift’s career when she goes from eloquently describing her relationships to responding to commentary made about her personality, her gender, and other ways in which she expresses herself. Many of her songs allow for revealing analysis of  themes involving gender, specifically how she responds to portrayals of herself based on her gender and her love life. A common theme Swift employs in her songs hinges on extreme caricatures that are created around her girlhood and womanhood, mainly those of the good girl and those of the serial dater. It is important to note that Swift exhibits what scholar Jack Halberstam describes as “the idealization of white femininity,” or what is upheld as the highest racially ranked form of femininity or girlhood: that of a white woman (1). Swift demonstrates an understanding of gender as “an interlocking system of performances and forms of self-knowing.” She deftly complicates her own gender as she entertains her audience, receives commentary and scrutiny from the media and processes these perceptions in interviews (1). In this way, her self-knowing connects to her presentation of identity (further addressed in the third chapter, on politics).

On the one hand, Swift comes off in interviews as the “girly girl” who gets excited about every little thing. Early in her career in an interview for Rolling Stone Swift was described as “primarily interested in the emotional life of 15-year-olds: the time of dances and dates with guys you don’t like, humiliating crying jags about guys who don’t like you, and those few transcendent experiences when a girl’s and a boy’s feelings finally line up” (2). In part, her musical career is founded on love and expressing the complications of emotions and feelings in a way that is so personal, which seems to come from the influence of country music’s intimate storytelling. When her audience invests their curiosity into about whom her songs are written, Swift can play into these clues and the gossip around them, and exert some agency in the  construction around her and her gender.

Looks Aren’t Everything

An initial aspect of Swift’s gendered construction can be found in the scrutiny of her physical appearance, which is also emphasized in the “Miss Americana” documentary. In a Rolling Stone profile, journalist Vannessa Grigoriadis makes the comment, “She may be a five-foot-11-inch blonde, but she does not have the carefree soul that usually goes along with that physiognomy, and her back is starting to hunch a little from stress” (2). Thus Swift’s gendered construction is based on assumptions of how she should act based on how she looks. Grigoriadis even describes Swift’s performing persona as “a faintly sex-kitten stage presence — punctuated by many pumps of her very long arms in the air” (2). While Swift might be judged now for her seemingly hypersexualized and hyperfeminine performances, she previously leaned more towards professor Anita Harris’s idea of the containment of femininity and female innocence (3).

The Role Model

Attached to her specific “brand of femininity,” at least at the beginning of her career, was the responsibility of setting an example of “appropriate girlhood” for her younger adolescent fans. Underlying this role model status, according to fellow Swift scholar, Valerie Pollock, are Swift’s whiteness and her performance of normativity (4). The combination of these two characteristics rendered Swift as less of a standout artist because she didn’t push the boundaries that constrained female performers when she first became famous. It seems that these aspects of Swift’s public persona challenged her authenticity as a person because now that she does speak out in a more pointed and political way, fans and critics still question her motives because she did it later than other celebrities, and she does not have an established history of expressing herself politically. With the help of author John Fiske’s definition of culture, Pollock establishes how these constructions of Swift form and stick when she writes that “the media’s reading of a celebrity, like Swift, does not stand alone in its analysis, but is part of a co-constructive web that not only creates and repeats ideas of what is “known” about Swift, but also becomes a large part of the continued circulation of these knowledges” (4). These repeated observations about Swift become markers for her persona, and the web of her construction gets read into her actions. The reading of past themes surrounding Swift onto her more recent actions either confirm a certain way she is constructed by providing evidence for that construction, or they disprove her authenticity by restricting her to previously established forms of expression from which she deviates as she matures and continues to make choices both musically and artistically as well as personally in the public eye. This adds to her paradoxical nature since she became such an epitome of girlhood and how young girls should act. She can never satisfy a singular construction of herself because of her constant evolution both musically and artistically, as well as politically and personally. Swift plays a role in these constructions as she internalizes and engages with them by making pointed comments in her music. I will return to how she responds to her stereotypes sonically after addressing the opinion that she orchestrates all of her musical moves with a master plan.

The Perfectionist People-Pleaser with a “Calculating Strategy”

As early as 2009, Swift was analyzed as calculating in her musical moves. In the same Rolling Stone article by Vanessa Grigoriadis, phrases appeared to describe Swift like “Swift has gotten far playing Little Miss Perfect,” “the goodiest goody-goody in the nation,” and “She’s a very competitive girl, and those people go far” (2). In the beginning of her career, the overlap of Swift’s gender and race formed the ideal of white femininity, attaching her to innocent comportment and morally suited behavior. Traced in her music, songs like “Love Story,” “You Belong with Me” and “White Horse” from the Fearless album mark the era of innocence through their dreamy, romantic longing and fairytale-like tropes. The opinion that she is strategic and calculated developed as she grew up in the public eye, and added a new layer to her “snake” construction. The snake construction fuses together Taylor’s white femininity and her calculating good girl persona to create a negative connotation of someone who lies and connives to get what they want. When connecting these various constructions to Swift’s later albums, it becomes evident that she outgrew them after internalizing them in specific songs like “I Did Something Bad” and “The Man” among others. “I Did Something Bad” counters this good girl reputation of Swift with its casting of her in a darker light of satisfaction at being a bad girl. 

The songs she wrote before this one hint at Swift’s humanity and lack of complete purity when they mention certain honest vulnerable moments that may or may not be alluding to sex. An earlier career song from Speak Now that hints at Swift’s sexual knowledge, “Better Than Revenge,” calls out another girl for “the things that she does on the mattress” (5). Another more recent song on the reputation album, “Dress,” goes as far as to suggest she has lost her virginity — something that was so important to her early career image — when she sings the chorus, “only bought this dress so you could take it off” (6).  A fun tidbit that Grigoriadis’ Rolling Stone article included was that Swift’s parents “gave her an androgynous name, on the assumption that she would later climb the corporate ladder. ‘My mom thought it was cool that if you got a business card that said ‘Taylor’ you wouldn’t know if it was a guy or a girl. She wanted me to be a business person in a business world’” (2). At the beginning of her documentary, Swift addresses how she internalized work ethic and people-pleasing from a young age, and further explains that these values influence her gender performance.At the beginning of her documentary, Swift addresses how she internalized work ethic and people-pleasing from a young age, and further explains that these values influence her gender performance.

Swift’s own performance of her gender must also be seriously considered in her gendered construction. Her expression has evolved over her career, remaining true to her roots of genuine, emotional responses and serious, thoughtful speech. According to Valerie Pollock who wrote her thesis about Swift in 2014,  “Swift’s traditional girlhood, or sweet, approachable assumed naivete, makes her all the more acceptable to mainstream understandings of appropriate girlhood” (4). I agree that this is how Swift’s image began, but I want to bridge the paradoxical gap between the innocent naive Swift and the later calculating manipulative “snake” image of her that inspired the reputation album. The simultaneous points of view that Swift is a calculated coldhearted businesswoman and a role model for traditional white femininity and girlhood point to various, conflicting constructions of her gender

The “Serial Dater”

The serial dater image of Swift was fueled by each of her spotlighted relationships with other celebrity men. The list includes Joe Jonas, John Mayer, Taylor Lautner, Jake Gyllenhaal, Harry Styles, Calvin Harris, Tom Hiddleston and current (as of this writing) boyfriend Joe Alwyn.  These relationships also gave Swift inspiration for many of her songs. “Forever and Always” is well known among her fans as the song about how Joe Jonas broke up with her over the phone in a very short amount of time. She seemingly confirmed it in an interview with Rolling Stone (2). She also described the phone call on The Ellen Show, including the exact length of it (7). The song “Dear John” is very clearly about John Mayer; from the signature guitar licks that mimic Mayer’s musical style to the title which includes his first name specifically and also references a Nicholas Sparks novel (8). “Back to December” supposedly reminisces about Swift’s relationship with Taylor Lautner (8). Jake Gyllenhaal got not just one but two songs (and maybe even three) on Red: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “All Too Well,” (and potentially “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which could be about him or Harry Styles) according to The Ringer podcast about “Red” (9). Swift told Rolling Stone in a different interview prior to the release of 1989 in 2014, that 1989 was “not as boy-centric of an album, because [her] life ha[d]n’t been boycentric” (10).  Leading up to 1989 Swift hadn’t been on a date with someone since breaking up with One Direction singer Harry Styles a year and a half prior. It is after this album that we see the shift from Swift exclusively writing about her romantic relationships as well as the feud with Kanye to other gossip events surrounding her such as her reputation and feuds with other celebrities. I will go into detail about those songs, specifically “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” later. Guessing who her songs are about can only go so far, as an interview with Rolling Stone reports that “many of her songs are not about her own personal experiences with love — about half are inspired by her friends’ relationships” (2). Yet, fans still like to speculate and read certain parts of Swift’s life into her lyrics. 

From “Blank Space” to “The Man”

“Blank Space”’s lyrics that describe a hyperbolic image of Swift’s serial dater stereotype become even more powerful with the accompaniment of the music video. Swift starts with a superficial hook that ends with “You look like my next mistake / Love’s a game, wanna play?” (11). Swift calls upon the commonly used criticism that she dates men just so that she can write songs about them, and she also plays into the idea that men will not stay with her or that she has poor taste in men. In the chorus, Swift sings, “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane / ‘Cause you know I love the players / And you love the game,” explicitly referring to her series of past relationships, from which stems the idea that she dates to boost her career (11). In the music video itself, Swift performs gender, specifically the conception of “female hysterics.” She struts through her character’s mansion with graceful, yet exaggerated gestures and body movements. When the switch flips from alluring to crazy or psychotic, she starts throwing things at her love interest after screaming at him in intensifying arguments, aligned with the lyric, “But you’ll come back each time you leave / ‘Cuz darlin’ I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” (11). Bringing this idea home: she looks up at the camera with mascara dripping down her face, but rather than see her sobbing, we see Swift with a crazed look in her eyes. The final scene where Swift takes golf clubs to the man’s car reinforces a trope of women becoming out of control and breaking things, that is generally more accepted when men act that way. The image of her crouching over the man’s body and biting his lip while he is unconscious also comes off as suggestive and while extreme, a solid final touch. And, when the next guy pulls up in his red car, the “cycle” constructed by critics and the media of Swift’s serial dating is set up to start all over again.

“Blank Space” paved the way for “The Man” by first addressing the serial dater image. Appearing on 1989the album released after Red, which critics like those from podcasts produced by entertainment site The Ringer deem to be a less cohesive album, but one that deals extensively with heartbreak—“Blank Space” engages the serial dater image that the Red album fueled by containing songs about Swift’s real life relationships (9). The serial dater caricature that Swift takes on appears in a hyper-feminized, hysterical version of herself in the music video. “The Man” adds to this construction of Swift by addressing the effects of her serial dater image specifically on her career as an artist and entertainer. 

One of Swift’s most powerful responses to the constant commentary and criticism of her career as well as certain musical and political choices she has made lies in the music video she made for “The Man.” In the video, Swift undergoes an elaborate transformation into a male alter ego by the name of Tyler Swift, but for first-time watchers, we may not realize it is her until the end of the video. Tyler Swift strongly resembles Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.  According to Katie Shepherd and Allyson Chiu,

“it makes sense that Swift would choose to align her macho, overconfident male persona with a movie whose main character, portrayed by DiCaprio, is a corrupt New York stockbroker with a penchant for cocaine and prostitutes. […] Throughout the music video, Swift takes aim at the cultural norms that allow, and at times even encourage, men to develop overinflated egos” (12).

At the start of the song, Swift sings, “They’d say I played the field before/ I found someone to commit to/ And that would be okay/ For me to do/ Every conquest I had made/ Would make me more of a boss to you,” reminding listeners of the difference in judgment of men who date a lot of women versus women who date a lot of men. For men, sleeping around is a positive thing, boosting their reputation through a number of sexual “conquests” as Swift puts it. While women are supposed to remain committed and faithful to a man early on in life men can take their time to figure life out and settle down. She envisions that if she were a man with the same number of relationships she has had, she would be celebrated. Tyler behaves horribly toward his staff, something that Swift seems to be commenting on in terms of past media scrutiny of her public behavior, and this is compounded by her lyrics: “They wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve/ what I was wearing/ if I was rude/ could all be separated from my good ideas and power moves” (13). Specific references to toxic masculinity or just the domination of masculinity in general include Swift “manspreading” on the subway, which points to the broader idea of male privilege infringing on the spaces of others.  In the final bridge of the song, Swift sings, “What’s it like to brag about raking in dollars/ And getting bitches and models?/ And it’s all good if you’re bad/ And it’s okay if you’re mad/ If I was out flashin’ my dollars/ I’d be a bitch, not a baller/ They’d paint me out to be bad/ So it’s okay that I’m mad” (13). Again Swift writes about how her gender influences the way she is seen by fans and critics. The social construct of the gender binary has produced a feminine construction of Taylor Swift specifically in contrast to masculinity. Her ability to make music out of her gendered criticism and constructions continues today, and her responses to such criticism and construction in interviews adds an interesting layer to how she engages with perceptions of herself and catapults off of them to make more art and catapults off of them to make more art. 

Installments of Her Love Life

It is important to look at the causes of these constructions that come from being a celebrity. Most celebrities are scrutinized by paparazzi and fans alike in terms of who they are currently dating or friends with and who they can be seen with for “pap shots.” Someone without the fame that Swift has achieved could date as many people or more as she does and not be scrutinized over their romantic relationships. In the pre-1989 Rolling Stone article, Swift responds to her publicized love life:

“I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime,” Swift says. “And I’m just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore. I don’t like seeing slide shows of guys I’ve apparently dated. I don’t like giving comedians the opportunity to make jokes about me at awards shows. I don’t like it when headlines read ‘Careful, Bro, She’ll Write a Song About You,’ because it trivializes my work. And most of all, I don’t like how all these factors add up to build the pressure so high in a new relationship that it gets snuffed out before it even has a chance to start. And so,” she says, “I just don’t date” (10). 

As Jason Gay wrote for Vogue, “Swift has reached a level of fame at which unsolicited drama just finds her” (14). In a 73-question interview embedded in the same Vogue article, Swift addresses the serial dater construction with the words, “If I could talk to my 19-year-old self, I’d just say ‘Hey, you know, you’re gonna date just like a normal 20-something should be allowed to, but you are going to be a national lightning rod for slut shaming” (15). Gay wrote in his article, “It’s as if Swift has become so big, so enticing a target, that she is no longer a mere person but a cultural symbol from which anything can be demanded” (14). This was written before the big Aryan goddess debacle in 2016, but that would be another example that qualifies Gay’s quote (16). Swift’s cultural weight and influence play a large role into how she gets constructed, and how those constructions haunt and stick to her.

“The 1” Might be Joe Alwyn

Fast forward to 2020, Swift has been in a relationship with actor Joe Alwyn for four years according to Elle, yet it is very difficult to find words from Swift about her relationship with Alwyn. This correlates with Swift’s choice to keep their romance private. She told The Guardian that she feels if she talks about it openly to media outlets, then people will think that it is up for discussion, which it is not (17). Her boundaries have become more defined, and she does not wish to let just anything out into the world. This newer element of privacy might challenge her authenticity, but ultimately it reduces the possibility of misconstrued construction of Swift. There is only so much she can control, but this is a thoughtful response to her past scrutiny as the serial dater, and while she should not have to go to the ends of the earth to protect her relationship’s privacy, it is a lesson that she has learned in front of the media. There is the classic joke that some bring up regarding what Swift will write her songs about when she finds true love and gets married, but I think she has enough material now. The releases of “folklore” and “evermore” demonstrate her capability to remove the scope of her songwriting from herself and center it around other themes. Her ability to weave together tangentially related topics into a cohesive album, as well as recount stories that reveal wisdom far beyond her years, only strengthens her storytelling mastery.

One of the first songs Swift released about media scrutiny was “The Lucky One,” and it was then followed by “I Know Places”. She has always been careful in concealing names within her lyrics, except for a few notable singles whose titles contained names of men she has dated (“Dear John” and “Style”). Her transformation in maintaining privacy while also showing she cared less about other people’s opinions can be traced back to the reputation album in which she started writing songs about Alwyn. “Gorgeous” and “Dress” reference him with detailed lyrics like “ocean blue eyes” and “flashback when you met me, your buzzcut and my hair bleached” which calls back to the Ex Machina Met Gala where Alwyn was just off a military movie and Swift had indeed bleached her hair. “Call It What You Want” is a direct statement to all those wondering about her relationship with Alwyn and what they have to say about it. The Lover album has a few songs about Joe that can be traced back to detailed lines like “Gorgeous” and “Dress,” but there are not as many songs about their relationship being put in the spotlight. Folklore returned to this theme of scrutinizing couples, although Swift attributed the songs’ stories to “people I’ve met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t,” especially with the songs “invisible string” and “peace” (18). In a conversation with Paul McCartney, Swift reflected on her relationship with Alwyn in a rare moment of openness on the topic, saying:

“in knowing him and being in the relationship I am in now, I have definitely made decisions that have made my life feel more like a real life and less like just a storyline to be commented on in tabloids. Whether that’s deciding where to live, who to hang out with, when to not take a picture — the idea of privacy feels so strange to try to explain, but it’s really just trying to find bits of normalcy” (19).

Swift complicates a crucial aspect of her early career, that of confessional songwriting and authenticity, by sharing less personal content on social media. These characteristics are also largely indicative of how she performs and expresses her gender, and further, her curation of her personal life in response to myths that have developed about her helps her combat these constructions. Swift’s romantic relationships as well as her homosocial friendships play into her gendered appearance.

From Friendships to Feuds

Not only is Swift scrutinized for her romantic relationships with men, but her platonic female friendships are also put under the microscope. In particular, this started as Swift’s famous 4th of July parties grew between the years of 2013 to 2016 and her star-studded group of friends expanded. As Gay wrote in Vogue, “The Men–of–Taylor Swift slideshows have calmed down, but she now takes grief for her ‘squad’ of celebrity female friends, who, depending on the jab, are either too glam or too phony or some combination of the two” (14). Friendships of Swift’s that constantly seem re-evaluated in the media are those with Karlie Kloss, Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid. Again the celebrity aspect must be kept in mind here, as Swift maintains many of her hometown or childhood friendships with (not celebrity, but frequently referenced) women like Abigail Anderson and Britney Mack. There was overlap in the examination of dynamics between the Independence Day bashes and the squad that Swift pulled together to film her “Bad Blood” music video in 2015. 

Swift’s gendered construction becomes negatively influenced by celebrity feuds, and not just the one with Kanye West. While the feud with Kanye lasted the longest, Swift has also been brought into feuds with other female celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. Her feud with Katy Perry resulted from a conflict over backup dancers, with Perry supposedly poaching Swift’s team:  

“The angriest song on 1989 is called “Bad Blood,” and it’s about another female artist Swift declines to name. “For years, I was never sure if we were friends or not,” [Swift] says. “She would come up to me at awards shows and say something and walk away, and I would think, ‘Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?’” Then last year, the other star crossed a line. “She did something so horrible,” Swift says. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’re just straight-up enemies.’ And it wasn’t even about a guy! It had to do with business. She basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour. She tried to hire a bunch of people out from under me” (10).

The “Bad Blood” music video hovers between sending a strong message of female empowerment and the choice to operate within patriarchal structures according to media codes, without significantly changing them. In the beginning, Swift and good friend Selena Gomez break into a building and work together to fight off all the men trying to stop their heist. When all seems to be complete, Gomez turns on Swift and kicks her out of a window, causing Swift to fall many stories and crash land into a car. Swift then regroups and gathers a powerful celebrity cast of all women in a secret training facility to ultimately take on Gomez and her squad at the end amongst flames and wreckage. 

On one hand it is empowering for Swift and her squad of women to dress up in slim-fitting outfits that accentuate their fit bodies and render them ready to kick some butt. But, the sexualization of the outfits simply cannot be ignored, and the high heels that every female figure wears along with the outfits look powerfully fashionable but do not look functional for combat. “Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ Video is the Anti-Avengers” in The Atlantic magazine argues that the video advances women’s status in popular culture by giving all of Taylor’s squad’s characters agency. Kornhaber writes that the roles in the video serve as “a corrective to the Smurfette syndrome that, for example, forces Black Widow into being defined almost entirely by her entire gender while the men of The Avengers enjoy a diverse set of storylines. All the “Bad Blood” women have their own signature powers, gear, and personas—imagine that!” (20). Kornhaber also writes that the video “feeds into old stereotypes about women as inherently catty, and into the limiting idea that females must necessarily compete for the top spot in arenas from music to dating” (20) Kornhaber’s assertion that “Swift’s been countering that narrative lately by playing up her same-sex friendships in social media,” observation is astute, and it shows that Swift absolutely plays a role in how she is constructed, and I think in the release of her following albums, she has realized this and it has influenced her downplaying of social media and public appearances in general (20).

While “Bad Blood” featured most of Swift’s girl squad — to whom she devoted most of her time to rather than “boyfriend shopping” as she called it in the year and a half that she did not go on dates, and it should just be taken as a fictional music video, the pitting teams of women against each other in the video adds a layer to the supposed subject of the song. Perry wrote a song responding to “Bad Blood” called “Swish Swish,” and after this series of musical rebuttals, Swift dressed up as a character very reminiscent of Perry in her “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, bringing up the feud once more. In part, the revivals of the feuds are where the solidification of the dramatic and calculated constructions of Swift happen. In May 2018, Perry sent Swift an actual olive branch, and Swift thanked her for it on Instagram. Since then, Swift has featured Perry in her “You Need to Calm Down” music video where they symbolically made up: Swift wears a french fries costume in the end of the video and looks around, then the camera pans to Perry in a cheeseburger costume. The two approach each other and hug. . While seemingly settled now, this feud portrayed Swift as catty and dramatic, and there was even the thought that she used it for publicity. Feuds like these also contribute to Taylor’s negative reputation as “a snake,” someone who is fake and manipulative. 

The feud with Perry overlapped with one that Swift had with Nicki Minaj, which started on Twitter after “Bad Blood” was nominated for a VMA in 2015. Minaj’s “Anaconda” didn’t make the cut, nor did “Feelin’ Myself,” her collaboration with Beyonce. Minaj then tweeted, “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year,” to which Swift took offense, responding, “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” (21). Minaj then tweeted that Taylor was missing the point, that she was talking about the bigger issues of racism and lack of feminism in the music industry. Perry complicated the exchange by inserting her own comment that it was ironic Swift used the words “pit women against women” when “Bad Blood” was supposedly about Perry, herself. Minaj and Swift embraced at the 2015 VMAs, but then Minaj contributed a verse to Perry’s “Swish Swish.” From the angle of many media sites, had Swift not joined in the Twitter dialogue, this feud may not have escalated to what it became. 

Of Swift’s response to Minaj’s claim that her initial tweet wasn’t directed at Swift, “If I win, please come up with me!! You’re invited to any stage I’m ever on,” Nardine Saad of the Los Angeles Times writes that “Instead of coming off as authentic, though, [Swift] appeared patronizing and self-absorbed” (21). Swift did not help matters by responding in the way that she did, especially on Twitter. While it makes sense that Swift would process such emotional events through songwriting, devoting music to the feuds makes them seem more important than they should be. Swift later acknowledged in an interview with The Guardian that she realized her white privilege kept her ignorant of racial issues in music and entertainment. Now, she plans to continue educating herself, asking “How can I see where people are coming from, and understand the pain that comes with the history of our world?” (17). 

Again, it is important to remember that Swift’s level of fame contributes to her career and other parts of her life being constantly scrutinized. Fan interpretations of her songs and social media also do not help the singer when the fans are not on the right track. Her generic first track on her seventh album, Lover, “I Forgot That You Existed” sounds like a last ditch effort at potentially just the feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, or that feud combined with those of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj as well. “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” on the reputation album also seems to stem from the long history Swift has with West and Kardashian. 

Taylor Swift’s gendered constructions are numerous and diverse. Her relationships with other female celebrities or her closer female friends appear from her eponymous first album all the way through folklore with “mad woman” commenting on how women can be portrayed as emotional and out of control in the media. Gender might be the most complex aspect of Swift’s constant construction not only because it permeates her career choices as well as her physical appearance and private dating life, but also because she chooses to respond vocally to this construction the most, fueling people’s opinions and perspectives even more at times and also learning how to streamline them as she grows older by keeping more of her life private. 

Swift’s evolution as a performer and coming of age in the spotlight attracted much commentary on her fashion choices, whom she dated as well as with whom she spent time platonically. She also intentionally inserts many gendered themes throughout her music.  Of course, her whiteness plays a key role in how her gender has been viewed and interpreted over the course of her career. It is important to address the intersection between race and gender in order to fully realize how Swift was constructed at a young age as a good girl for younger children to look up to. Over the years as she has spoken up about the challenges women face, she has become more empowered in breaking the constraints she used to so closely follow, namely remaining apolitical and letting her music speak for her with what it had to say about being in love. Following her move from country to pop, it seems the switch in musical genre coincided with Swift’s decision to begin attacking the double standards that women face. It does seem more acceptable to rebel against these now, compared to  when she was just starting out and it might have hurt her image of America’s sweetheart who follows all the rules.

“Don’t Blame Me” and “I Did Something Bad” on the reputation album bring Swift’s good girl reputation into question, as do other songs like “So It Goes” and “Dress” that are sexually suggestive. The evolution from her good girl reputation continues with a song that expands upon “Blank Space,”: “The Man,” from Swift’s Lover album. Some songs from folklore even hint at constructions of femininity and stereotypes of women, specifically “mad woman.” The latter two focus on the portrayal of women in the media. “The Man” specifically discusses Swift’s thoughts on how people view her career with her femininity in mind versus how men are viewed when they are successful. “Blank Space” shows Swift’s masterful transformation of her unfortunate reputation into art as she responds to the serial dater image. The sonic and visual responses she crafts in her albums and music videos exhibit the system of interlocking performances and forms of self-knowing that Halberstam uses to define gender, as do her public interviews and celebrity appearances that magnify her self-presentation for all to see. If anything, these criticisms and judgments bring Swift to improve her self-awareness and adjust her overall comportment based on various forms of unsolicited feedback.

Dessi Gomez is an alumna of the University of Notre Dame. She graduated with a major in American Studies and minors in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy (JED) and Gender Studies. Her retrospective is a distillation of her senior thesis, which was advised by Professor Perin Gürel and Professor Jason Ruiz. She won the Genevieve D. Willia Grant ($1000) from the Department of Gender Studies, and won the Elizabeth Christman Award for best thesis written by an American Studies major.

References

  1. Halberstam, Jack. “Gender.” In Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition, edited by Burgett Bruce and Hendler Glenn, 116-18. NYU Press, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1287j69.33
  2. Grigoriadis, Vannessa. “The Very Pink and Perfect Life of Taylor Swift,” Rolling Stone, March 5, 2009, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/the-very-pink-very-perfect-life-of-tay
  3. Harris, Anita. “Everything a Teenage Girl Should Know: Adolescence and the Production of Femininity,” Women’s Studies Journal (Spring 1999) 15.2, 114-121. 
  4. Pollock, Valerie. “Forever Adolescence: Taylor Swift, Eroticized Innocence, and Performing Normativity.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2014. https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/wsi_theses/41
  5. Swift, Taylor. “Better Than Revenge.” Track 10 on Speak Now. Big Machine Records. 2010.
  6. Swift, Taylor. “Dress.” Track 12 on reputation. Big Machine Records. 2017.
  7. “Memorable Moment: Taylor Swift on Joe Jonas,” The Ellen Show on YouTube. July 10, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amh859mNeKI
  8. Princiotti, Nora and Nathan Hubbard. “‘Speak Now’ | Every Single Album: Taylor Swift,” The Ringer, Spotify. March 15, 2021. https://open.spotify.com/episode/2h5y6Jy1XwNXBQt8zWbqp7?si=-6ObW-U0SWiDn9ZaixF-3g.
  9. Princiotti, Nora and Nathan Hubbard. “‘Red’ | Every Single Album: Taylor Swift,” The Ringer, Spotify. March 18, 2021. https://open.spotify.com/episode/21XMfuCBRfc2NH4FV9hHdc?si=q5ara_7DSa23gUYg3CC8Fw.
  10. Eells, Josh. “The Reinvention of Taylor Swift,” Rolling Stone Magazine, September 8, 2014. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-reinvention-of-taylor-swift-116925/
  11. Swift, Taylor. “Blank Space,” YouTube, November 10, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-ORhEE9VVg
  12. Shepherd, Katie and Allyson Chiu. “What Taylor Swift wants you to see in ‘The Man,’ her gender-bending takedown of the patriarchy,” Washington Post, February 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/02/28/the-man-taylor-swift/.  
  13. Swift, Taylor. “The Man,” YouTube, February 27, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqAJLh9wuZ0
  14. Gay, Jason. “Taylor Swift as You’ve Never Seen Her Before,” Vogue Magazine, April 14, 2016. https://www.vogue.com/article/taylor-swift-may-cover-maid-of-honor-dating-personal-stYle.
  15. “Taylor Swift Talks Googling Herself, Which Celebrity’s Closet She’d Raid, and the Bravest Thing She’s Ever Done,” Vogue Magazine, April 19, 2016.
  16. Donnella, Leah, “Taylor Swift, Aryan Goddess?” NPR, May 27, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/05/27/479462825/taylor-swift-aryan-goddess
  17. Snapes, Laura. “Taylor Swift: Trump thinks his presidency is an autocracy,” The Guardian. August 23, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/aug/23/taylor-swift-trump-thinks-his-presidency-autocracy.  
  18. Swift, Taylor. “Midterm Elections on November 6th.” Instagram photo, October 7, 2018. https://www.instagram.com/p/CDAsU8BDzLt/.
  19. Doyle, Patrick. “Musicians on Musicians: Paul McCartney & Taylor Swift,” Rolling Stone, November 13, 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/paul-mccartney-taylor-swift-musicians-on-musicians-1089058/
  20. Kornhaber, Spencer. “Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ Video Is the Anti-Avengers,” The Atlantic, May 18, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/05/taylor-swifts-bad-blood-is-exploding-what-exactly/393527/
  21. Saad, Nardine. “Nicki Minaj calls out music industry, racism — not Taylor Swift — in epic Twitter rant,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2015. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/gossip/la-et-mg-nicki-minaj-taylor-swift-vma-snub-twitter-20150722-story.html.

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