The XX Factor

A Blog Post About Taylor Swift and Women That Does Not Ask if Taylor Swift Is a Feminist

Taylor Swift

Photo by Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

On the eve of her fifth album, Taylor Swift invited Rolling Stone into her home to discuss her “reinvention.”* 1989, set for release next month, has finally stomped out the last traces of Swift’s country twang in favor of a “blatant pop” sound. Rolling Stone’s Josh Eells reports that Swift “won’t be going to country-awards shows or promoting the album on country radio.” When her record label implored her to add three country songs to 1989, she refused. And the album represents a shift in Swift’s lyrical focus as well. It’s “not as boy-centric of an album,” Swift told Eells, “because my life hasn’t been boycentric.”

During an extended single period, Swift has found a network of new female friends, embraced feminism through new pal Lena Dunham, and stopped rating herself based on an “imaginary guy’s perspective,” she says. When she sings about another female singer on the not-yet-released 1989 track “Bad Blood,” she insists that the rivalry she describes is purely professional. “I know people will make it this big girl-fight thing,” she says in Rolling Stone. (Page Six already has.) “But I just want people to know it’s not about a guy.”

When Swift debuted as a country music ingénue in 2006, there weren’t any girls without guys in her world. On her self-titled debut album, Swift doesn’t interact with other women at all, save for a light sprinkling of “she’s” and “hers” representing her boyfriends’ other women. The track “Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)” takes the ostensible form of another girl’s story, but Mary is just a Swift archetype by another name—Mary rides in a boy’s car, slams house doors, and finds him waiting outside her window late at night, just as Swift herself does in her country hit “Our Song,” also on that album. When her love interest disappears, in “A Place in This World,” Swift is “alone, on my own, and that’s all I know.” Swift was just 16 when the album was released, and her application of mature songwriting to her own adolescent experience provided a rare window into the mindset of a teenage girl. And as is the case with many young women, the cultural expectation that she define herself in relationship to men was embedded in her texts, but never really identified or held up for inspection. Over the course of her next few albums, though, the idea would bubble slowly to the surface of her work.

Two years later, Swift’s mainstream breakout album, 2008’s Fearless, was the first to introduce listeners to a friend of Swift’s—Abigail, her real-life hometown bestie—but the boy-centricity remained. “Fifteen” finds Swift and Abigail navigating high school heartbreak side-by-side, but by the song’s end, their stories have diverged. “Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday, but I realized some bigger dreams of mine,” Swift says of her freshman crush. As for Abigail, she “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.” The song expresses sympathy for Abigail while subtly positioning Swift above her—she alone is capable of transcending the price of femininity, while her friend goes broke. When Swift compares herself with her romantic rivals, that calculation turns overt. In “You Belong With Me,” Swift separates women into leagues (“She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts … She wears high heels, I wear sneakers”), then announces her categorical superiority: “Hey, whatcha doing with a girl like that?” she asks her crush. Her victory—at video’s end, she gets the guy—is framed as a minor transgressive coup: Swift, in sneakers and glasses, bests the prissy cheerleader in heels. But the “imaginary guy’s perspective” remains the unspoken winner.

The trope carries over to Swift’s next album, 2010’s Speak Now. In the title track, Swift’s female rival graduates from girlfriend to fiancée, and Swift crashes the wedding to compel her crush to call it off. “I am not the kind of girl who should be rudely barging in on a white veil occasion,” she sings. “But you are not the kind of boy who should be marrying the wrong girl.” Again, Swift evades categorization, while other women are kept in a box labeled just “wrong.” And in “Better Than Revenge,” Swift steps into the role of the scorned girl fighting to save her boyfriend from being stolen by an interloping woman. “She’s not a saint, and she’s not what you think,” Swift sings. “She’s an actress” who’s “better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”

Notably, the aesthetic and biographical cues Swift applies to her female rivals are all ones that have been foisted on Swift herself. She is an occasional actress who is well-known for her romantic liaisons; she typically dresses in skirts and heels. When Swift sings about extracting boys from their current relationships, she’s a hero; when another woman does the same, she’s a villain. Whenever Swift criticizes another woman, she implicitly criticizes herself. The result is either blind or brilliant, depending on how you view Taylor Swift. Either way, the theme of pushing down other women as a necessary way to lift herself up both romantically and professionally runs strong. The idea of female solidarity that Swift embraces now was nowhere to be found in her first three albums. Swift acknowledges having been mired in this trap in her Rolling Stone interview: “When your number-one priority is getting a boyfriend,” she says, “you’re more inclined to see a beautiful girl and ‘Oh, she’s gonna get that hot guy I wish I was dating.’ ”

In these earlier songs, Swift doesn’t seem to know that she’s exhibiting this impulse. But on her 2012 album Red, the songs grow a little more self-aware, and Swift sings explicitly about trying on different personae to fit her needs. In “22,” Swift discovers that it’s “a perfect night to dress up like hipsters” until she enters a party that’s “too crowded” with “too many cool kids.” This time, Swift’s not alone: This is her first hit where she sings about a collective “we,” not an “I.” In the song, she travels with an assumed group of female friends who “forget about the heartbreaks” at the same time as they shake off their labels—after their hipster adventure goes south, they end up ditching “the whole scene.”

The merits of female friendship revealed themselves to Swift after an extended single period, she told Rolling Stone: “when you’re not boyfriend-shopping, you’re able to step back and see other girls who are killing it and think, ‘God, I want to be around her.’ ” Now, her roster of close famous friends—they include supermodel model Karlie Kloss, mainstream pop star Selena Gomez, alterna-pop star Lorde, and feminist provocateur Dunham—don’t fit easily into one mode of female expression. Swift credits Dunham with making her “realize that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.”

It’s too early to say whether Swift’s evolving awareness of how women are encouraged to tear each other down in an attempt to impress boys will make its way into 1989’s music, but “Shake It Off,” the album’s first single (currently the only track on the album that’s been released), provides an early clue. In it, Swift defines herself in opposition to a host of categorical humans, including players, haters, heart-breakers, and fakers. In the video, Swift mimes her escape route from feminine stereotypes: She pokes her head out above a row of stretching ballerinas, crawls under a line of women shaking their asses, and finally emerges as the sole pop star capable of being her dorky self. The song is not centered on guys—Swift truncates her typical relationship narrative into a brief spoken-word interlude (“My ex-man brought his new girlfriend, she’s like ‘Oh my God,’ but I’m just gonna shake”)—but the posturing in relationship to other women hasn’t exactly disappeared. Even after the “imaginary guy’s perspective” is ostensibly banished, his fingerprints remain.

Swift’s relationship with men in her music has steadily advanced with age. Over the past eight years, she’s narrated her teenage Juliet fantasy (“Love Story”) and her twentysomething reality check (“Dear John”), then her freewheeling relationship survivor story (“We Are Never Getting Back Together”) and even her own admission of romantic missteps (“Back to December”). Her musical interpretation of her relationship with women is still in its infancy, and I’d like to hope that it will evolve similarly. I wouldn’t bet that Swift’s sixth album will feature a hit break-up song with the patriarchy, but a girl can dream.

* Correction, Sept. 12, 2014: This article originally stated that 1989 is Taylor Swift’s fourth album; it’s her fifth.