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What Taylor Swift’s career demonstrates about finding success under the patriarchy

Taylor Swift’s new album “Red (Taylor’s Version)” topped charts hours after its midnight release on Friday, Nov. 12, with fans even crashing popular streaming apps to listen. Without a doubt, the album is set to ring in massive profits for the music superstar. Swift is releasing re-recordings of her original catalog to obtain ownership of her creative works after her original record company sold the rights to her songs’ master recordings. Swift faced sexist criticism in 2012 during the original release of “Red.” Swift’s journey throughout her music career demonstrates the ways in which celebrity and wealth can make women targets of sexism from the patriarchy, while also surrounding them in a bubble that provides a certain level of protection from some of the more tangibly violent types of sex and gender-based oppression.

In the 2010’s, a large portion of the internet’s meme culture was dedicated to mocking Swift on all fronts. She became a target of shaming by those who judged her for the number of her ex-boyfriends and the number of songs written about them. At the same time, others would voice their annoyance at what they believed was Swift’s “good girl” act. She was ridiculed for her voice, which, as is a frequent complaint against feminine individuals, was accused of being too shrill and took attention away from the message of her songs. While these criticisms fuel much of the oppression that many women face, Swift’s status as a celebrity amplified the misogynistic scrutiny towards her. 

In the face of this sexist criticism, Swift quickly adapted to the unspoken expectation for female-identifying music artists to rebrand their image in order to stay relevant. Part of the way Swift crafted her image was by distinguishing herself from other women, or other archetypes of women. In her song You Belong With Me, she makes comparisons between her self-expression and interests and those of a love rival, who is depicted as less deserving of the affection offered by Swift’s love interest due to those contrasting aspects in personality. In Better Than Revenge, she describes another love rival as being “an actress […] better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” leaning into the very sexism which she would later become subjected to on a grand scale herself.

Though this level of catering to the music industry’s sexism may have resulted out of a pressure to do so, it succeeded in making Swift’s international fame and recognition skyrocket. That rise in status and wealth became a resource that granted Swift the privilege to largely escape many of the struggles faced by lower class women––worries over healthcare, food and shelter––while as a critically-acclaimed music artist, she and other female-identifying celebrities focused on more abstract concerns about sexism like double standards and unequal compensation for women’s labor.

As Swift has accumulated social and material resources through her rise in celebrity, she has been able to assert her creative ownership of her work and public image. While this enables Swift to focus on female empowerment and support her personal causes, it is important not to take her success as a win for feminism as a whole, as her achievements set a positive precedent for the few other celebrities and artists-on-the-rise, not the general populace. What may be even more critical to note is that this success was built, in part, in cooperation with existing misogynistic attitudes and at the expense of other women both inside the exclusive club of ultra-successful artists and outside.


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