Who’s Afraid of Taylor Swift?

In a system rigged against women, Taylor Swift has risen to the top. But let’s not forget that it’s more than her work ethic that contributed to her success.

Taylor Swift performs during The Eras Tour at the National Stadium on March 2, 2024, in Singapore. (Ashok Kumar / TAS24 / Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)

Taylor Swift commands a lot of attention. In mere days since its release, her 11th album The Tortured Poets Department, which is a lengthy 31 songs and runs over two hours, became the most streamed album in a single week and the first to reach over one billion streams on Spotify.

She achieved this feat amid her worldwide Eras tour of over 150 shows where she sings and dances to 44 songs in performances that last over three hours—even in the pouring rain. Eras was the first concert tour in history to generate over $1 billion—and it produced the highest-ever grossing concert film. 

To some, such success seems … well, excessive. One critic argues that the “over saturated dominance of Taylor Swift” is finally “too much,” while another writer at The Economist asks, “Has Taylor Swift peaked?” One New Yorker writer states that Swift has become “culturally ubiquitous in a way that feels nearly terrifying.” The bounty she has given to her fans might “finally” be “too much for some people” according to a New York Times writer who declares that the “unthinkable” has occurred: “Taylor Swift fatigue.”

It’s hard not to notice such takedowns targeted at Swift amid her breakneck success might have something to do with her gender. There was little angst about artists taking up too much space when all male artists like Bad Bunny, Drake, Ed Sheeran and Post Malone claimed the top artist on Spotify over the 10 years prior. In fact, women have claimed only seven of the 50 spots on the top five streamed artists on Spotify in the last decade. And if Bad Bunny can claim number one for three years in a row, why can’t Swift have it for two?

Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon all won the Album of the Year Grammy three times. Taylor Swift has now won four. What if next year, she won five? What of it?

It all begs the question—what would the reaction to Swift be if she were a man? She herself suspects in her song “The Man,” “They’d say I hustled / Put in the work / They wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve.” Indeed.

There’s little doubt that men musicians seem to be operating under different rules than women. While some folks criticize Swift’s lyrics for not being “poetic” enough, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his purported “poetic expressions.” This is the same artist who wrote “Lay Lady Lay” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” and co-wrote “Ugliest Girl in the World.” Novelist Rabih Alameddine summed it up best, comparing Dylan’s being awarded the Nobel Prize to “Mrs. Fields being awarded three Michelin stars.”  

Sure, many of Swift’s lyrics would have been called “too sentimental” by my graduate school poetry professor. But it’s not poetry; it’s pop music—a genre prone to love songs and pathos. An anonymous Paste magazine reviewer suggests Swift “set the art of poetry back another decade.” I’d say poetry can’t be set back further than it already is—and I write this as someone who has published poetry and never earned a cent for such endeavors. More likely, poets can only benefit from any attention by Swift. Christian Wiman, a former editor of Poetry magazine mused, “As a tortured poet, I approve,” adding, “Or is she making fun of us? I guess I kind of approve of that, too.”

For all the over-simplifications attributed to her, Taylor Swift is a complex figure in our culture—especially for a feminist like myself. On the one hand, I applaud her success—one that defies what seems possible. Not only has Swift become one of the few women billionaires, but she also became the first to do so solely through her music. And her decision to re-record her albums to evade male-dominated industry control and her willingness to testify in court against a DJ who assaulted her certainly could count as feminist acts, especially seeing how sexual abuse and harassment remain “rife” in the music industry.

Still, I can’t help but feel a tad uncomfortable about a female performer who spends much of her show in what seems to be a sparkly bathing suit and shimmery tights. It reminds me of the sardonic line by Mattel CEO (played by Will Ferrell) in Barbie, “We sell dreams, imagination, and sparkle. And when you think of sparkle, what do you think of next? Female agency.” 

Sure, many of Swift’s lyrics would have been called ‘too sentimental’ by my graduate school poetry professor. But it’s not poetry; it’s pop music—a genre prone to love songs and pathos.

Taylor Swift’s Post-feminism

Swift is a poster child for post-feminism, which as Angela McRobbie explains is how feminism is “taken into account” merely to be understood as “no longer necessary.” In a post-feminist world, it’s okay to be objectified if you’re “choosing” it. Of course, I believe Swift should be able to wear whatever she wants. Still, it feels no less a coincidence that her attire is conventionally sexy than that she is also conventionally attractive, young, fit, blonde and white.

While in many ways Swift’s success feels like a cause to celebrate for women, we should be cautious to declare victory just yet. Alongside her success, we see Lizzo’s “body neutrality” and Raye’s stripping down to her bra and underwear in Royal Albert Hall during her performance of her song “Body Dysmorphia.” And yet we’re still waiting for them to even make it to that top artists list, never mind win four Album of the Year Grammys. 

Let’s not forget that we still live in a world where on average women earn less than men for the same work, and women of color even less than white women. It is also the reality that physically “attractive” people are more likely to be hired and promoted, and thinner women achieve more career success and ultimately earn more. For female musicians, some of the data is startling—a study found nearly one third of female musicians had experienced an eating disorder. Even Swift herself opens up about going from a double-zero to a size six in her film Miss Americana and an interview in Variety recalling that public suspicions of her being pregnant if her stomach wasn’t perfectly flat had caused her to “just stop eating.” 

Even at the top, what she wears, whom she dates, and how she behaves are all constrained by a culture with set expectations about women.

If Swift is a “monster” “princess of pop,” then she is one of our making. As Swift sings in “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” “I am what I am ‘cause you trained me.” Aren’t we all complicit in a culture that demands that women work harder and prettier than their male counterparts? It’s a bit like the ending of Little Miss Sunshine, where prepubescent Olive’s striptease-inspired dance routine to “Super Freak” is met by horrified looks by the same parents who just applauded their own daughters in makeup and bikinis on a catwalk. We live in a society where we sexualize women and then blame them for sexualizing themselves; where we demand women work harder than anyone else to reach the top, and then criticize them when they actually pull it off. 

What’s “terrifying” about Taylor Swift is not her ability to win so big in a system rigged against women. To that, I say, bring it on.

But let’s not forget that it’s more than her work ethic that contributed to her success. And even at the top, what she wears, whom she dates, and how she behaves are all constrained by a culture with set expectations about women. If that scares us, then we only have ourselves to blame.

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Michele Meek, Ph.D. is a writer, filmmaker and associate professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University. She published the books Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in US Movies and Independent Female Filmmakers: A Chronicle Through Interviews, Profiles, and Manifestos, and she presented the TEDx talk “Why We’re Confused About Consent—Rewriting Our Stories of Seduction." For more information about her and her work, visit her website at www.michelemeek.com.