"Taylor Swift Speak Now - Pittsburgh" by rwoan is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Friday the 9th of April, 2021 was a momentous day. You may have noticed something, be it the uncontrollable sobs of women forcing themselves through a breakup album or even the sound of wine bottles being simultaneously uncorked across the globe. Because on Friday the 9th of April, Taylor Swift released her first rerecorded album, and Swifties got to live through the delight of ‘Fearless’ all over again. It didn’t matter that we’re in our twenties or thirties now, singing about high school crushes and loss. It simply allows us to experience the album drunk as can be or blasting on the speakers as we drive - except for me, I’ve been barred from listening to Taylor Swift whilst I drive with friends, but that’s a story for another article.
As an out and proud Swiftie, I was overjoyed to be listening to an album recorded and owned by Taylor Swift. I had worked past the internalised misogyny that made me pretend that I didn’t like Taylor Swift, the self-hating thread that made me laugh at the jokes they made about her and label her ‘mainstream’. Basically, I was done pretending that her work wasn’t good because she’s a woman and that her writing about her love life is any different from the dozens of male artists who do the same.
But as I sat down with my generous glass of Merlot and listened to Fearless (Taylor’s Version), one song, in particular, stood out, and for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t one of her vault songs that we were receiving for the first time, but rather a song that I could easily say I’ve heard one hundred times. When I was in High School, this song was played on a loop. I could probably act out the entire music video, and I definitely did as a tween. At the time, I lusted over Luca Till and eagerly waited for him to realise how much better the girl-next-door was to his hot cheerleader girlfriend. I resented the girlfriend, just like I was taught to, mainly for being…. A girl. A girl who acted in the ways we had taught girls to act.
Because ‘You Belong With Me’ might be a bop of a song, but the lyrics and music video are brimming with internalised misogyny.
“But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts”
“She wears high heels, I wear sneakers”
If a girl wears a short skirt, then she’s promiscuous. If a girl wears a long skirt, then she’s a prude. That’s what we were taught, right? In every teenage film where the mean, popular girl wears short shorts whilst the chaste protagonist ‘doesn’t really care how she looks’ in skinny jeans and a t-shirt. But what if she just wanted to wear a skirt today? What if she wants to feel good in what she wears? And most importantly: why do we care?
We are making efforts to move past the sexualisation of women based on what they wear. To comprehend that no woman is ever ‘asking for it’ based on what she wears or does, as you cannot ask for sexual assault. To realise that a woman doesn’t deserve to be catcalled or objectified for wearing a crop top. No one ever does. Our clothing should be our choice, to reflect how we feel comfortable, how we wish to present ourselves and whatever makes us feel good. Whether that’s a bulky t-shirt or a bodycon dress, that decision is ours.
To label the other girl through her decision to wear short skirts and high heels is misogyny. It suggests that Taylor is better than her because she doesn’t wear revealing clothing, as if that translates to self-worth and compatibility with him. Making these direct comparisons is honestly painful to listen to, as she is step-by-step showing us why she is better because she is less ‘promiscuous’.
“I'm listening to the kind of music she doesn't like”
“Hey, what you doing with a girl like that?”
To my former point, you might claim that she isn’t degrading her based on these outfit choices, but instead highlighting that she is different from them. But this is actually one of the most toxic strains of internalised misogyny, to claim that you’re not like other girls. Because by doing so, you render anyone who acts in traditionally female ways to be less than you. You side with the patriarchy on the matter, betraying your own gender. It correlates directly to the obsession with guy friends as if having a man be your friend means more than having a woman.
In this statement, and the majority of the song, Taylor is presenting herself as the ‘chill girl’ and coming across as a ‘pick me’ girl. The one who ‘isn’t like other girls’, because who would want to be that? She doesn’t want to be friends with girls ‘because of all the drama’. As that’s what female friendships are, right? Drama and backstabbing, or at least that’s what the media would want us to believe.
Well, I’ve had male friends who create far more drama than women do and engage in more gossiping. This tired trope needs to be demolished so that we can realise that friendships and self-worth are not linked to your gender. We need to stop separating ourselves from other women, as we’re stronger all together.
“She's Cheer Captain, and I'm on the bleachers”
When I used to listen to this line, I thought that Taylor considered the girl to be better than her for being the ‘Cheer Captain’ whilst she sat lamely on the bleachers. Now I realise that it’s another example of Taylor viewing herself to be better, as the girlfriend engages in typically feminine sports. Anyone who’s watched competitive cheerleading recognises that this is not a sport to be diminished, as it looks tough and gruelling.
My British schools never featured cheerleading, but even so, I can’t see why it should be considered such a derogatory trait for the girlfriend. Aside from the fact that the majority of teen movies present the mean girls to be cheerleaders, and the most horrible one is awful the head cheerleader. But do you know how much commitment being on a sports team like that requires? They’re probably scrutinised as well, standing in front of the whole school like that. Honestly, I don’t see why her being a Cheer Captain is a negative thing, as she probably worked really hard to get there.
Aside from cheerleading, it often seems that we negatively view anything that is considered traditionally feminine. Girls should wear makeup to look good, but if you are interested in makeup and spend money or time on it, you’re superficial. Artists who aim their works towards women are diminished and viewed as less talented than those who have male fanbases. The same goes for romantic comedies or women’s fiction. We’re taught what to like and then mocked for actually enjoying it. A woman liking something taints it and makes us all assume it’s inferior.
I think the main reason I can’t appreciate this song for its naive intentions is that I’ve been that girlfriend. I’ve been the girlfriend who was cheated on, and throughout my life I’ve been the person who is ‘too girly’. I couldn’t even admit that I liked Taylor Swift until I was twenty-one, as I was ashamed of the fact.
I struggle a lot with my mental illness, and so it made me that clingy girlfriend who calls her boyfriend too often or who makes a fuss out of something small. I had the screaming matches and dramatic breakups. I was the crazy girlfriend, and it pains me to know that everyone saw me as precisely that. It gives me sympathy for the girlfriend in this music video and the ones I hear of elsewhere. When someone talks about a clingy girlfriend, I take a moment to consider how their partner’s actions may impact her, whether they help her to feel secure. Too often, we hear the boyfriend’s side of things, and maybe that’s the case in ‘You Belong With Me’ as well. Perhaps the girlfriend has every right to be upset on the phone because he did something horrible; perhaps it isn’t a case of not getting his humour, but rather that it just wasn’t funny. Did the girlfriend really bring him down, or did she call him out for his shitty actions?
My point is that we too quickly side with the man in these cases and take his story to be the truth. We revel in painting a woman to be the ‘crazy girlfriend’ and laying all blame on her. We remain trapped in the Madonna or Whore complex. The saddest part is to see women continuing this trend and doing the patriarchy’s work for them. But if we stop and refuse to be complicit, then we stand a chance of laying the blame where it truly belongs and allowing women to be themselves without fear of judgement.
This was a song written by a young girl with a crush, and so my intention is not to criticise Taylor Swift, but rather show the effect of time. We can’t blame Taylor for writing a song that oozes internalised misogyny at the age when we all do. Taylor was caught between being shoved onto a pedestal and being criticised for the tiniest thing, and she grew up in the same media-strewn mess that we did. This song reflects how we feel at that age, what we’re taught to believe to the extent that we truly consider it to be our own thoughts. If you look at Taylor’s more recent music, you won’t find the same misogynistic traces, because she’s grown up and learned to own her own narrative whilst also respecting others.
The rest of this song is about knowing someone so well, talking about your favourite songs and dissecting your dreams together. It’s the hope of falling in love, and it’s the excitement of finding someone that you want to stay up all night talking to. And if we’re really looking for the villain in this song, it could be the guy who’s clearly using her for an emotional relationship whilst he stays in his relationship. It’s called emotional cheating, buddy, and I think you’ve got some explaining to do.
Right now, I can’t listen to ‘You Belong With Me’ without being consumed by all these thoughts, but maybe one day I’ll manage again, and until then I have 25 other songs on ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ to enjoy.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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