Last week I watched one of my first Taylor Swift videos, and a few days ago I watched the last one I ever want to see. But I learned a few things, and I want to share them with you.
I found “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (2012) by accident; I love a Weird Al riff on one of her songs (“TMZ”) and ran across this one on YouTube while looking for it. I have an affection for single-shot videos and this one’s really clever (here’s another that I adore). And the message of the song is positive, upbeat, and ultimately empowering:
I used to think that we were forever ever
And I used to say, “Never say never…”
Ugh… so he calls me up and he’s like, “I still love you,”
And I’m like… “I just… I mean this is exhausting, you know, like,
We are never getting back together. Like, ever”
We are never ever ever getting back together
We are never ever ever getting back together
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we are never ever ever ever getting back together
Sure, the lyrics might not win the hearts of any English teachers, but it’s actually a pretty good statement.
I didn’t know much about Taylor Swift going in. She’s recorded a lot of breakup songs, apparently, that were based on her own real-life breakups. I knew she’s had a lot more relationships than Miley Cyrus has, though Miley Cyrus is the one who gets accused of sexual impropriety. And, of course, I knew about this time a few years ago that she was getting some award and Kanye West leaped onto the stage and drunkenly lambasted her for being the recipient of the award, which is about when both of them came to my attention as a cultural thing in the first place I think. I thought her reaction at the time was pretty gracious, considering.
I knew she had a reputation for being Ivory pure and that she was marketing herself as a sweet, innocent, pure goodie-two-shoes. She was supposed to be like the Yin to the Yang of Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears, and teens who liked her didn’t seem like they liked the others much and vice versa. Being a fan of Taylor Swift was like wearing a purity ring, with alliance to her brand a mark of belonging to a tribe of sweet, innocent, pure goodie-two-shoes young women and those folks who approve of those sorts of women.
“You Belong With Me” is actually, apparently, the song that won Taylor Swift the award in 2009 that Kanye West interrupted. That surprised me. I hadn’t been that impressed with either the song or the video. Another thing that Wiki page had on it that shocked me was that Taylor Swift herself plays both the protagonist (the nerdy girl) and the antagonist (the hot cheerleader) as competitors for the affections of a floppy-haired youth (FHY). That shocked me–it’s really a good transformation. I hadn’t even noticed. So good job there, video people.
Without further ado, let’s look at the video itself.
Welcome to the timeless story of a young man and woman who have grown up literally across the street from each other, in those sort of McMansions built cheek-to-jowl in a subdivision with next to no space around each house. For some reason, the young woman’s parents let her have a bedroom that not only faces the street (isn’t that normally the spot for the master bedroom?) but also facing directly across from the young man’s own bedroom.
The protagonist is a nerdy young woman in that Hollywood-ugly sort of way where a conventionally-pretty white girl is put into ugly glasses, her hair is frazzled up, and she’s made to wear terribly unflattering clothes–none of which will make a conventionally-pretty white girl look like anything but a conventionally-pretty white girl in costume. She has a ton of friends, as evinced by her T-shirt written all over with those friends’ names, but she spends almost all of her screen-time alone in her room, pining after the FHY, singing to herself about how much she loves this young man and performing dance routines with her drapes drawn back (so he can see her), and trying to do her hair and makeup and clothes in a way that might appeal more to him. Amazingly, she never once hits upon the signature T-Swift look.
The heroine. We are not meant to think it’s a tad weird that she studies with her curtains open and positioned to be staring straight into the FHY’s bedroom.
The FHY is a sweet young man who nonetheless has a very bad habit of hooking up with girlfriends who drive him absolutely spare while not noticing the lovestruck girl living right across the street. We are expected, I think, not to think that her constant surveillance of the FHY is creepy at all (imagine if their genders were reversed!). Meanwhile, I’m trying to remember if there was any time in my teenaged years when my curtains were ever drawn back.
The object of the heroine’s affection. We can’t really call him the hero; he doesn’t ever really do anything except play football and react to things. All you will ever know about the FHY is that he has his own bedroom and plays football.
The antagonist is the incredibly hypersexualized brunette girlfriend of the FHY. She drives a convertible and is really nasty to the heroine–and to the FHY too, who she treats more as a possession and trophy than anything else. She controls him with her super-power–hot, potent kisses–which she delivers with stunning, whiplike accuracy while shooting venomous glares at our hapless heroine. As with the FHY, that’s about all you will ever know about her, besides that she’s the head cheerleader.
Evil villain girlfriend (EVG) is evil.
You can tell because she glares at other girls during smoochytime kissyface.
While the heroine pines and mopes around for the FHY, he keeps going out with his EVG, stubbornly choosing her over the heroine because he just doesn’t know how powerful the love is that is right under his nose. The heroine understands him, you see. She knows him and loves him for who he is as a person, while the hot girl doesn’t care about him at all and is just using him for her own devious ends. We are not meant to wonder if maybe the FHY did something offensive at the start of this video that got the girlfriend angry. He is innocent, always; his worst sin is that he is utterly clueless. We are also never meant to wonder if maybe the heroine herself isn’t so much in love with the FHY as with her conceptualization of the FHY. We are especially never meant to question that the heroine is the girl he should pick. She has decided that he belongs with her, you see, and there ain’t a lot of leaping-space between that and the idea that he belongs to her as well.
Again, imagine if the genders here were reversed. I’ve had men say this kind of thing to me, sometimes even using “God” to justify their entitled claim to my affections, and it creeped me out beyond all recognition. But we are supposed to be totes fine with Taylor Swift asserting it about this young man. What does he want? Why isn’t he attracted to the girl across the street? It’s not a bad question, but it’s one the video neither asks nor cares about seeing answered.
The heroine sings about how compatible the two of them are and about how “easy” it is to be around each other. When he gives her some affectionate gesture, she swoons–but then the evil villain girlfriend zooms up in her sportscar, furious at the FHY’s display, and asserts her dominance by giving him a savage, passionless kiss while glaring at the heroine, who rolls her eyes as if to say “yes, yes, we know, he’s yours.”
Speaking as someone who’s had other women hit on my partners right in front of me, let me say here: I’d be pissed off too, if I came up to my partner and saw him brushing hair out of some other woman’s eyes all affectionately like that. If I were a high-school student, I don’t know if I’d have had the maturity to demand that my partner show me some fucking respect and not make cute romantic gestures to girls who are obviously head over teacup in love with him. I might well have gotten mad instead at the girl herself. I was just as locked in the Purity Myth as she is here; it might not have occurred to me to hold my partner responsible for his behavior.
The docile FHY submits to the girlfriend’s kiss without comment or protest and the pair zoom off. We learn soon afterward that the evil villain girlfriend is actually pretty good at cheerleading. We also learn that the heroine is in the marching band, that happy refuge of total nerds everywhere, but doesn’t seem to really like it (did she only get involved with it to be closer to the FHY?); she gets jostled and pushed and doesn’t seem engaged with anything happening with her band peers because she’s busy staring at and singing her heart out to the FHY, who is, it turns out, the high school football team’s quarterback.
Unfortunately, it turns out the evil villain girlfriend is actually also a cheating bastard; she flirts openly with another boy at the game, prompting a big fight with the FHY, who storms off even though that’s more or less what he was doing earlier with the heroine. It’s okay if you’re a boy, right? Even more unfortunately, apparently they’re still going to Prom together, because he goes home, showers, and gets dressed up. He writes a message to the heroine, asking if she’ll be going; she says she can’t because she needs to study (note to foreigners: we’ve established that she’s not a senior student herself–the shirt makes her seem like a junior, while Prom is typically a last hurrah for seniors around the last week or two of their last year of high school).
But then she notices how sad he is about her looming absence and changes her mind. Guess studying wasn’t that important! All that matters is showing him how much she cares about him! On the spur of the moment she decides to go to Prom herself, alone–and she just happens to have a dress and all the stuff she needs. Her parents don’t even let her have a cell phone, so I don’t think she has a car; it’s hard to believe they just happen to have bought her a nice dress for Prom-like occasions as well, but we’ve established that they’re not normal parents. I’m also not sure how she got a ticket, because back when I was in high school, juniors couldn’t go to Prom without a senior date. Logistics aren’t a real concern for fairy tales. (ETA: Some commenters have pointed out that this might be a Homecoming dance, not Prom itself, which means she might not have had as much trouble getting into it, and that some schools allow juniors to attend Prom. Mine sure didn’t, but then, my high school had something like 3500 students in it… I gratefully accept these insights.)
This is apparently what she just happened to have in the closet to throw on.
Somehow she’s figured out the signature Taylor Swift look here–and found a gorgeous white gown to wear that perfectly fits her, along with fashion-forward accessories. Strange how she couldn’t come up with something like this look before now, isn’t it? Like Sandy in Grease years ago (that sound the world heard in 1978 was what I’m now sure was millions of boys becoming men in response to this scene), she’s had her makeover moment, lost the nerdy trappings holding her true gorgeousness back, and completely transformed herself to impress her man. Her classmates are in awe, many staring appreciatively.
When the FHY sees this
blushing bride onetime nerd, of course, he is magically awakened to his love for her, which displeases the evil villain girlfriend:
How dare the FHY not obey the evil villain girlfriend’s every whim?
The FHY escapes the clutches of the sexy, red-cut-out-dress-wearing
demon succubus evil villain girlfriend at last! Hooray! And it turned out he loved the heroine all along! Hooray! And they kiss and everything is perfect forever! Hooray!
So congratulations to Taylor Swift’s heroine: she’s gotten herself a new boyfriend who doesn’t know how to stick up for himself, who is so oblivious he doesn’t notice when women are drooling over him, who thinks nothing of making tender romantic gestures toward women who aren’t his partner, and who
almost certainly probably won’t be her lifetime woobie. And she did it by climbing over the trampled body of her hated rival, the hypersexualized, skanky, sleazy, super-crazy-hot girlfriend, and all with the power of her incredible niceness and purity.
I don’t know how people can claim that this video is anything but an example of the Purity Myth. The heroine is as virginal as anybody can be short of wearing a Snuggie printed with papal miters; her idea of a Prom dress is a long, flowing white gown for chrissakes. She is girlish, pure, innocent, and childish as well as childlike. She is compliant, docile, submissive, and agreeable. She is everything the Purity Myth says a young woman should be: a hugely desirable virgin working within the confines of female “modesty” and “purity.” No wonder the FHY doesn’t dig her; she comes off in the video like a child, not a young woman approaching adulthood.
The villain, by contrast, is an openly-sexual, catty schemer who wears a tacky red cutout dress to Prom. The two young women cannot possibly be more different–and that’s the whole point. The heroine is supposed to be completely sympathetic; the villain is supposed to be totally hateworthy. She is superficial, shallow, and uses her body and sexuality as a weapon and a lasso. She obviously knows what all the levers and buttons do, so to speak. And she loses, big, just like the Purity Myth says she should. She is punished for all of her sins.
We are meant to cheer at the comeuppance the villain receives at the end as she is publicly rejected by her onetime boyfriend and humiliated by her rival, and to cheer the sweet, innocent virginal underdog who won the grand prize–the most eligible bachelor in the school–in the end. There’s never any question about which girl he “belongs” with or to, never any wondering–much like how Nice Guys™ divide the world into “nice” men and “douchebags” and wonder why women “only like jerks.” The FHY had his fun sowing wild oats with a girl version of a “douchebag” and now he’s ready to appreciate the “nice” girl next door.
You don’t have to dress like one of “those” girls to win the super-hot boys, this video says. You should dress like this girl instead–look at what she got for obeying the formula! It’s a message I would have absorbed, with crystal clarity, when I was in high school, and indeed did. It was okay to get a makeover to impress a boy, but even after Sandy’s makeover in Grease, nobody would have mistaken her for Cha-Cha DiGregorio. Purity was what sold; purity was what “got” boys. Purity was what would land us lifetime relationships with decent men, who got upset if we were too experienced or knowledgeable about sexual matters. In the same way that audiences long ago loved seeing white comedians in blackface but rejected actual black comedians, audiences love seeing a pure and virginal young woman dressed outside of bounds if it’s for this specific purpose–but reject a young woman who dresses this way all the time because she just likes doing so. Girls who are too sexualized, too aggressive, are distrusted and considered inferior to modest, sweet girls. And always, always, always, young women are trained to view each other as competition for the prize that all of us have sought and hungered to have.
Men don’t fare a lot better in this thing. The FHY is presented as a very passive presence. He is the prize, the goal; he is passed from one girl to the other as the catfight progresses. He is too stupid to realize how much the heroine loves him, and too stupid to know that he is being callously manipulated by the evil villain girlfriend. Men think with their gonads, this video says. They don’t know what’s good for them. But the heroine knows. Oh, why won’t he come around to her way of thinking? He’d be so much happier! She knows what’d make him happy (hint: it’s her). And because she is the heroine in her own life movie, there’s no way this could turn out any other way than with her winning what she wants. She still conformed to society’s rules, just in a different way than the evil villain girlfriend character did. She still treated men like objects to be won; she still blamed other women for her own problems and men’s choices. She just used a different yardstick, is all.
This is the most tedious sort of entitlement mentality, as Riese has pointed out so beautifully in an excellent takedown. This is the fairy tale that the Purity Myth instills in young women, and how it trains them to think of young men–and other young women–in turn.
And not only is it wrong, but it’s stupidly wrong. Folks, I actually lived in a similar situation as this video’s setup. I lived right next door to two incredibly cute young schoolmates. My bedroom window looked out at their house. The older boy was a football player; the younger would almost certainly be one the next year when he got old enough to be on the team; both were like a pair of young Greek gods, with tanned skin and curly blonde hair and laughing blue eyes. We’d hang out sometimes. Other girls at our school hated me for the opportunity I had and was squandering; other boys asked how I’d like it if they beat up those two to make them less pretty to me. And it was all just wasted effort. These neighbor boys definitely carbonated me, in that easy, effortless way that very popular young people have on shy peers, but I didn’t waste time pining after either of them and definitely did not perform dances for them or ever open my curtains so they could see into my room. I was a dumpy, nerdy girl who liked comic books, Atari games, and D&D. My family was broke enough that it was probably for the best that I had no fashion sense whatsoever.
Taylor Swift might play a nerd for a video, but she can take off the glasses and be stunning again. Me? If I took off my glasses I’d be blind and groping to find my way through the house. It’s just a role to her; it was my entire life for me. And it definitely didn’t look a thing like this video. Watching it felt like she was appropriating my experience to tell a fairy-tale to serve herself.
Indeed, later on I learned that Taylor Swift was actually enrolled in Christian schools and given essentially a homeschooled education. She never even went to any kind of real public school, much less got into marching band. She probably never had a lot of experience with the stuff I had experience with in high school. That fact was the Rosetta Stone to understanding just what it is that Taylor Swift represents in society and why she’s so screamingly successful with so many young people and parents alike. She had a wonderful, idyllic-sounding childhood, and I don’t begrudge her that good fortune at all. I just think it’s made her songs and videos a little surreal in how detached they seem from reality. When I learned about the education she got, a lot of things slid into place for me about why she seems to have the outlook she does. She’s marketed as being in the middle of a bubble just as serious as anything we’ve ever seen with fundagelical Christians. I understand that bubble very well, and how it shields those inside it from the real world and real people outside its confines.
I keep wanting to totally rewrite this video to make the evil villain girlfriend the heroine, but it’s a bit late, I suppose.
About all I can say here to conclude is that this video–and song–are several years old now. Taylor Swift’s written plenty of songs since that haven’t been nearly this misogynistic, as I mentioned at the start of this post; this song is probably best thought of as a stop on her journey, a teachable moment to show us how one-sided and unrealistic the Purity Myth can be.