Sitting at a continental breakfast table with a group of new friends during a travel course on ancient literature, I connected my phone to a Greek cruise ship Wi-Fi network and received a flood of texts telling me that Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris had broken up.
The women I was sitting with had previously heard my stories and seen the Polaroid picture from when I met Taylor Swift last October and had danced and sang along to her repertoire with me several nights in a row. I told them what the text messages I received said and I read them Calvin Harris’ tweet about the relationship ending with love and respect. Suddenly I was taken aback by the rapid fire of cold comments that spilled out faster than my 7-hour delayed incoming text messages popped up on my phone.
"Yeah, there’s respect until she writes an album about it."
"Well, that's not surprising at all."
"I swear she cannot hold onto a man!"
"I smell new music coming."
These women are my age, go to my university, come from the same area as me, and are growing up in the same incredible, progressive, spectacular, beautiful, artistic era that I am. So I was perplexed by our disconnect. I am one of these girls but they were so willing to dispel demeaning comments about someone who has been in my life for nine years in a way that did not make sense to me.
I couldn't believe that in 2016 they referred to a man as something to “hold onto” like an object and said it was a woman’s responsibility to do so. I couldn't believe they still fell for the untrue, sexist narrative of Taylor clearly crafted by capitalist media outlets a few years ago—an image she's worked incredibly hard to distance herself from and prove untrue. I couldn't believe how easily they were fooled into buying this image. I thought to myself, haven't these girls listened to "Blank Space" before? But I knew that they had because we'd danced to it together the previous night. I couldn't believe they chose not to mention that Calvin and Taylor are both songwriters and have virtually the same job—there were no comments made about Calvin’s faults, romantic life, or writing; even the girl who openly claimed to be a huge fan of his music seemed to forget what she was even a fan of. Calvin wrote or co-wrote every song on his last album, as did Taylor. Both of these musicians are able to write publicly about their relationship if they have the courage to do so—the only difference is their gender. I couldn't believe that these educated, creative liberal arts students (especially the English majors) thought that writing about personal experiences was something to be judged, mocked, and taken for granted (though only when done by a woman, clearly). I couldn't believe that they found it ethical to appropriate another person's pain for their own gain rather than empathize with the person who is hurt.
There were sweeping generalizations and assumptions made about Taylor’s personal life and integrity. This is the same kind of behind the back bad-mouthing that gets us in trouble in middle school, except this time it was about a person they'd never even spoken to. And that's what this boils down to: it's not just harmless celebrity gossip at the lunch table. In fact, it's not really about Taylor’s well-being at all. She will be okay whether she chooses to mourn her breakup privately and gradually grow stronger or write an incredible album about it that sells millions (an album that I’m sure all of these women will love). But this is more so about the girl who is a freshman in high school when she hooks up with a guy in his car after the homecoming game and gets labeled "easy" for the next four years. This is about the millions of sexist, superficial, devaluing comments posted on women's Instagram photos every day. This is about the political discussions in which my words are repeatedly ignored by my older male family members as they go out of their way to thoroughly respond to my brother-in-law. This is about every woman who's ever been called a bitch at a bar after not reciprocating a man’s aggressive and unwanted sexual advances. This is about Emily Doe, the pseudonym for a 23-year-old woman who, after being brutally sexually assaulted on the ground behind a dumpster, spent a year of her life being told that she doesn't deserve to not be raped if she drinks alcohol and has a boyfriend. This is about my 70-year-old male professor who, when the students in this close-knit class all wrote down creative and clever superlatives for each other as a culminating activity after our 2-week trip around Greece, wrote down for my superlative, "sexiest." He wrote nothing about my character, my intellect, my aspirations, my personality, my sense of humor, nothing. Nothing about the things he had learned about me throughout the trip. Nothing about anything that mattered to me. Nothing about the things that I tried so hard to bring into his classroom every day. Nothing about the kinds of things that my classmates wrote about each other. All of the hours I had spent getting to know my professor and peers were diminished to a single physical adjective about the way I look from a man with a doctorate degree who is 50 years my senior and has control over my GPA.
"I thought that'd be a nice thing for you to hear."
The slut shaming I've seen projected on Taylor Swift since I was 12 years old is a reflection of the culture all the young women I interact with regularly are forced to navigate. It is a world in which we are told we deserve an education but men disregard our intellect when we utilize it. We are supposed to act young and carefree and fun, but if we are assaulted after drinking alcohol, we will be forced to somehow prove our inherent human right to safety in front of a judge. We are encouraged to make great art and embrace our creativity, but not rock the boat. We must be progressive but not problematic. We must ignite sexuality in men but not in ourselves. I am supposed to enjoy being considered the "sexiest" when it is a determined by a man but Taylor Swift is constantly reprimanded for (presumably) actually having sex.
But I don’t think we can entirely blame individual men and women for their sexist comments when Teen Vogue just posted an article called “8 Proposed Titles For Taylor Swift's Inevitable Songs About Calvin Harris.” And how can we expect anything better when People Magazine just referred to Taylor as "the newly single singer" in a completely unrelated context; an article about her going out of her way to surprise a fan at his wedding and perform for his guests became tainted by her not being in a relationship. How can individuals be blamed for simply blending into the deep-seated inequity into which we were all born?
Suddenly I remember that when my peers and I were in elementary school, we were the girls anxiously awaiting the release of High School Musical 2. During this time, Vanessa Hudgens, the film's lead actress who was only 18 at the time, publicly apologized for being the victim of a sex crime. She apologized for being exploited. She apologized for her "lapse in judgment." She apologized for being the victim. She apologized for being the victim. She apologized for being the victim.
This is all we've ever known.
Taylor has always been open about and proud of her autobiographical songwriting process, and she acknowledges that it has set her apart from many of her contemporaries. It's one thing to speculate about Taylor's writing and hope that she will produce something wonderful from something painful if she so chooses. But to diminish her creativity as if her songs are pumped out a manipulative money-making machine, paying no mind to the emotion, rhetoric, intellect, and editing that go into them, is disrespectful to the creative process of all female writers. To act like writing is easy is misinformed (I cringe). To wish pain upon her for the sake of your record collection is cruel. To forget the years of work that go into creating an album (especially one of her caliber) and disregard the critical and strategic decisions Taylor has to constantly make in order to avoid a second wave of public slut shaming is ignorant and dismissive. To criticize her for experiencing a breakup then use her breakup as a soundtrack to your own is hypocritical.
"A couple of years ago, every single magazine and newspaper thought it was cool to say things about me that weren’t true and things about me that were mean and things I couldn’t correct them on, but YOU did. And I just want you to know that I’m never going to forget what you did. That you showed up for me when my hands were tied behind my back and I couldn’t say anything to fight back, you fought back and you kept showing up and kept filling stadiums and here we are. And in those years while you were sticking up for me, I was writing a new album called 1989."
The women I went on this trip with, who I respect and admire and feel lucky to have met, are just like me. I am one of them. I don't think of myself as above them or better than them or even any different from them in any relevant way. I just happen to be reading a lot of Betty Friedan in my spare time. Like I said earlier, these young women and older men didn't create the culture you and I and Taylor are trying (perhaps in vain) to navigate. I'm still learning and correcting myself all the time. But it is up to us to work toward change it if we really believe it's necessary. I certainly do, and I hope this is a start.
In case this is the only reason you're here, here's a picture of my Greek continental breakfast. Chocolate croissants will always give me enough of a reason to go back to Europe.