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.
For a 23-year-old, Swift seems very media savvy, although you could argue that anyone who’s already won seven Grammys has to be. Yet, the apparently “boy-crazy,” ditzy Swift, who likes to write about past guys in her songs (“Dear John” about creepy John Mayer; “We Are Never Getting Back Together” about—maybe—Harry Styles of One Direction), is well aware that the paparazzi have to trump up hot buttons.
“[M]y actual personal life doesn’t have a shocking angle to it,” she says. When Sales asks her flat out if she’s boy-crazy, Swift notes the unfairness of writing about what she feels and then being “portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend”:
“I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.”
Damn straight. To my mind, dismissing “confessional writing” is more than a little sexist. See poets Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser for starters.
Taylor Swift is nobody’s idea of a feminist warrior, but that’s probably the point in this issue of VF. Of course there are glossy photos of her dolled up in Dior and Atelier Versace striking a sulky model pose in front of a mirror. It’s Vanity Fair, after all.
(Another cover headline blares “America’s Newest Dream Girl!” about Katherine Webb, “A Face in the Crowd” slobbered over by ESPN sportscasters during a college football championship. Webb gets a two-page spread in provocative black underwear.)
But this issue also includes a feature about Malala Yousafzai, the “Pakistani schoolgirl” who became a Taliban target—and a piece by Maureen Dowd about Bette Midler returning to Broadway in a show about the late Hollywood agent, Sue Mengers.
Vanity Fair is usually a guilty pleasure for me, purchased to pass the time on a plane trip—or, as in this case, an impulse buy in the grocery-store checkout line. But despite my own judgmental tendencies, I’m liking this issue and Taylor Swift. Maybe she’s the one who’ll get feminism across—the deep-in-the-bones, I-deserve-to-be-here-and-to-express-my-own-view-of-the-world kind of feminism—to girls growing up right now.
Regardless, I’ll never ever ever ever (you knew I had to go there) dis her again.