A few years ago, a favorite subject of conversation in pop culture writing was about Taylor Swift’s perceived “slut shaming” in her songs. Need I remind you of the song “Better Than Revenge,” allegedly directed at the actress Camilla Belle for stealing away Joe Jonas, which includes lyrics like “she’s not what you think, she’s an actress / she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress”?
Today, the favorite subject of conversation in pop culture writing about Taylor Swift is her long list of boyfriends. Can you name them with me? Joe Jonas, Jake Gyllenhaal, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Conor Kennedy, and most recently Harry Styles from One Direction. (Pardon me if I forgot anyone.)
My, how the fickle winds have changed.
Following the most Harry Styles breakup, Taylor tweeted “Back in the studio. Uh oh …” This and the joke by Tina Fey at the Golden Globes that Taylor should stay away from Michael J. Fox’s young son prompted the New York Post to write a long “thinkpiece” about the traffic going in and out of Taylor’s vagina. The paper frets about “pop music’s most famous black widow” and her “ever-growing wreckage heap of famous exes,” faux concern-trolling:
As Swift’s public romances begin to overshadow her music, the question remains: Is the singer just a normal woman in her 20s playing the field or is something else going on?
Let me ask you if that question would ever in one million years be asked about a young man like Justin Bieber or Nick Jonas or Taylor Lautner? Of course not. Because they are men. They and their man-testosterone are supposed to play the field.
Taylor Swift is 23 years old and has had at least six high-profile romances that we know about; we can probably safely assume she’s had other paramours out of the public eye. Most of these relationships seem to last less than nine months or so, which I agree seems short; however, celebrity couples have crazy schedules that often keep them apart from each other and strain relationships. Considering that Taylor’s been famous since she was around age 16, is having six-plus boyfriends really that big of a deal? No, it is not — of course she’s a normal woman in her 20s playing the field. I’m quite certain that I had about as many boyfriends as Taylor Swift did by 23, plus a list of hookups a mile long. It’s called being young, experimenting, exploring, and having fun.
The problem is that Taylor Swift — being a celebrity who is open about her person life — does this in public. Only I don’t see that as a “problem.”
The patriarchy divides women into the “good” ones who keep their legs crossed, waiting for a man to scoop them up, and the “bad” ones who open their legs to as many men as they want. Female pop stars are this virgin/whore dichotomy writ large. Katy Perry and Rihanna are “sluts.” Miley Cyrus was a “virgin” until she started acting like a “slut.” Taylor Swift, with her pretty blonde hair, A-line dresses and cute matching purses, is supposed to be a “virgin” and now everyone is freaking out that she’s not playing by the script. She’s supposed to be a good role model for little girls. Being a good role model for girls means following the rules by keeping the real parts of your messy life hidden: not having a lot of sexual experience; keeping your pain to yourself when you’re hurt following a breakup; never talking back; never getting “revenge.”
I know these rules about staying quiet and not talking back well: In 2010, the boyfriend whom I had been living with and intended on marrying suddenly dumped me. The way he broke up with me was cruel, by any measure: he sent me a long email with a list of 10 things that he didn’t like about me, including that he wished I wore cuter outfits and earned more money. He dumped me while I was at my parents’ house, snowed in during a blizzard, and threatened to throw all my belongings in the trash if I didn’t vacate them out of our shared apartment soon. After breaking into his email account, I finally figured out what was going on: right after Christmas with both of our families, he had gone behind my back with some girl and they had been sending pictures to each other. It would be fair to say that I completely lost my marbles. Here is a person that I loved with every fiber of my being. No exaggeration, in a matter of 10 days he had gone from professing his love to me to getting weird emails from some chick and basically tossing me out of our home on my ass.
So I did what I always do. I wrote about it. I wrote about the breakup, moving out of our place, fighting over who owned what, coming to terms with the breakup, repairing my badly damaged self-esteem. In some aspects, I spared no details in writing about this hellfire. But I definitely kept some things private from the Internet, only sharing those things with my close friends.
The reaction to these writings was completely mixed. Writing candidly about my breakup has helped a lot of people going through the same pain. To this day, I receive an email every two weeks or so from some brokenhearted girl who tells me she just read through every single “Ex Mr.-Jessica” essay and wants me to know I helped.
These emails are why I am a writer.
But there have also been the naysayers, the people who paint me as some kind of castrating harpy because I dared talk back to the man who callously broke my heart through cruelty and deception. Also still to this day, there are people — a few emails, but mostly commenters — butthurt because it has made Ex-Mr. Jessica look bad on the Internet foreeeever. How could I do that to him?!? I must have done something to deserve that treatment! Why else would a man have treated me that way?
The lesson I learned from those unkind comments (whom, I might note, were from people who didn’t know every single detail of the whole story, because no one knows that but my friends and family) was that I was supposed to have suffered quietly, blaming myself instead of him. I should have been a “good” girl. I should have remembered if a man does something horrible to a woman, she must have done something to deserve it. I should have remembered if a man tosses a woman out on her ass, she must not be good enough for him. I should remember she should not be professing her pain, defending herself, or demanding that she should have been treated better. I should have felt guilty for embarrassing him. I should have been ashamed of my behavior.
First of all, I would like to quote my friend John Devore: “You go to bed with writers, you wake up with shit written about you.” To this extent, the men who date Taylor Swift know what they are getting into. She’s a songwriter who writes about her romances. Are you really that surprised when she writes a song about you? The entire time that my ex and I dated, I wrote about our relationship (with his permission, I might add): moving in together, taking care of each other when we were sick, looking at engagement rings. It was not a state secret being kept from Ex-Mr. J that I write candidly about my personal life. He knew.
But second of all, and most importantly, I wanted to know why not? All of the artwork in the entire world is based on some person’s emotions inspired by someone or something else. That’s what art is. Should Carly Simon not have written “You’re So Vain”? Should Woody Allen not have made “Annie Hall”? Should Kanye West not have written “Blame Game”? Should Nora Ephron not have written Heartburn? Why, again, am I not supposed to write about my breakup? And why is Taylor Swift not supposed to write about hers? I don’t think her song about John Mayer, “Dear John,” is the same artistic caliber as “You’re So Vain,” but I relate to exactly the feelings she sings about. And I thank her for it.
Yet being a woman who candidly expresses her emotions in art — publicly talking back to those who have harmed her — are not without risks. The same guilt and shame that slut-shames women for being open about their sexuality tries to control us for breaking those rules about keeping silent about our pain. I got called all kinds of names, unsurprisingly. And the Post had the audacity to quote a sex therapist, Dr. Dennis Lin, who suggests Taylor is at best immature and at worst a sociopath:
There’s two ways to look at it,” says Dr. Dennis Lin, director of the psychosexual medicine program at Beth Israel Medical Center. “The less cynical way is that [she] may become infatuated very easily, but doesn’t have the tools or maturity to maintain the relationship.
“The more cynical point of view, as a sex therapist, is that maybe she’s doing this for publicity,” says Lin, adding that he’s never met or treated Swift. “I do believe she’s acting in good faith, but if she’s doing this for publicity, that’s someone with anti-social traits, sociopathic traits.”
For God’s sake, Taylor Swift is not a sociopath just because as a songwriter, she writes songs about her relationships. She might be immature in the way she relishes in the attention, but who amongst us can say we are completely mature in the manner we handle problems in our life? A lot of us would probably look like “immature” “sociopaths” if every aspect of our personal lives was lived publicly.
I’m not surprised at the Post‘s slut-shamey article about Taylor Swift. (Go do a Twitter search of the words “Taylor Swift” and “slut” if you want confirmation for some opinion on the matter.) Mostly, I feel frustrated that she’s managed to be slammed as both a “slut shamer” and a “slut” when it seems the bigger problem might be the system that holds women to a standard of “goodness” and “pureness” that no one can attain. The patriarchy affects all of us in different ways. Even the rich and famous are not immume.
Taylor has said publicly that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist. I don’t think she understand what the term means. But I do hope that given how harshly Taylor is slutshamed for daring to be a “virginal”-seeming, pretty, young white girl who has made no secret about her love life, she comes over to the light.
Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.