Forget Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her much-hyped advice to “lean in.” In the April 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, Taylor Swift quotes Katie Couric quoting Madeleine Albright—There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women—crystallizing the uneasy thoughts I’ve been having lately about mean girls and feminism.
The Couric-Albright line is a response to this year’s Golden Globes, when MCs Tina Fey and Amy Poehler joked about Swift’s (supposedly) constant stream of boyfriends. At the time, the blue-eyed pop singer was in the bathroom and didn’t witness the comics skewering her. In “Taylor Swift’s Telltale Heart,” VF’s Nancy Jo Sales writes,
“It was the kind of thing that happens in a Taylor Swift song; nice girl gets made fun of by mean girl while powdering her nose, then goes home and writes a song about it—which becomes a No. 1 hit.”
I hope Swift does just that. How did we arrive in 2013, half a century after The Feminine Mystique, at a place in which women make fun of each other in front of millions? The current mean-spiritedness displayed by popular culture, especially woman-on-woman meanness, is very much a feminist issue. It’s not “all in our heads” or a challenge to overcome that involves a new form of self-talk or bootstrapping.
I won’t claim I understand why feminism has reached this particular crossroads, but I do see it as a crossroads. I’m grateful for Sales and Swift—and even VF, usually a standard-bearer for All Things Snarky—for naming the way meanness has been trivialized.
It’s of a piece with the current literary crusade against memoirs and “solipsistic” confessional writing, although on the surface connecting a pop singer’s travails to the pontifications of serious authors may seem odd. But I observed this firsthand at the recent AWP conference in Boston. The annual convention held by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs always buzzes with the latest trends in literary publishing—and this year, many earnest male authors and editors seemed truly worried about narrative nonfiction being ruined by overly personal writing.
Whether it’s a pop song or a memoir (a female-dominated literary form), there’s nothing minor about love, sex, marriage, childbirth, and caregiving in every variation. But while male singers and writers and artists get applause for revealing details of their personal lives, their female equivalents are viewed as afflicted with TMI Syndrome.