Is Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ Clip A Feminist Superhero Masterpiece, Or More Of The Same?

Bad Blood's been hailed as a feminist superhero short film for the ages. But it might be a little more complex than that.

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Fighting in heels is really impractical. It’s impractical for the same reason Carrie Bradshaw always had to hop in a cab just to travel three blocks for her requisite cosmopolitan, or for the same reason I carry thongs in my purse whenever I hit the club. And yet, growing up as a comic book nerd, I’ve been relentlessly assaulted with worrying depictions of women scaling fences, running marathons and kicking arse in six-inch heels.

It’s a fixture of 21st century feminism that a woman can and should wear whatever she damn well pleases. There’s no reason why a woman clad only in lingerie and smudge-proof mascara can’t snap a guy’s neck. There’s no reason why that very same woman can’t perform three backflips before scissor-kicking a seven-foot henchman square in the face, while wearing a skin-tight leather cat suit. But that doesn’t stop me from questioning the motivations behind the people designing the character’s outfits.

In recent weeks, the comic book world has been in a flurry thanks to costume redesigns of some of the most seminal superheroes in recent history: Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Batgirl and Spider Woman. The overarching theme of these costume updates has been ‘practicality’: removing skirts, cleavage and spandex while adding armour, jackets and appropriate footwear. And oh boy, has giving these heroines more appropriate footwear caused a stir.


While some are applauding the new outfits — praising Batgirl’s loose-fitting purple jump suit, Spider-Woman’s new motorcycle jacket, and Wonder Woman’s power suit-style shoulder pads — others, namely male comic book artists, are not so happy.

In reaction to Wonder Woman’s new star-spangled militaristic look, artist J Scott Campbell took to Facebook to accuse DC of pandering to their critics: “I find the continued knee-jerk reaction to internet message board critics demands to keep female heroines covered from head to toe in fabric an overreaction. She’s an Amazon Warrior, she’s NOT in the Taliban!” (He noted later that his remarks were a “flippant and off the cuff exaggeration,” and that his real issue is with “the bulky clunky shoulder pads”.)

A similar complaint was aired when Image co-founder and creator of Savage Dragon, Erik Larsen, took to his twitter account last week:

Larsen goes on to write that bulky costumes “hinder movement” and are “ugly”. A day later, Stephen Wacker, VP of Current Animation at Marvel Entertainment took to Twitter to defend the changes to one of their flagship heroes, stating that “there were a lot of reasons to change the costume. One big one was that I wanted my daughter to be able to dress up as Captain Marvel.” (Read: not in a skintight black number with thigh-high red boots.)

With the big two defending these costume changes, and pre-production for the new Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel features underway, it’s clear that we might be in for a radical transformation of how Hollywood depicts female superheroes. Gone are the days of cleavage, mini skirts and six-inch heels. Now is the age of breast plates and elbow pads.


Enter Taylor Swift

I harp on about footwear, because all I could think when watching Taylor Swift’s new video clip for ‘Bad Blood’ was how difficult it must be to use a shoulder-fired missile launcher in heels. It’s the same gut reaction I had when Emily Browning’s Babydoll fought three iron clad giant samurai in black suede ankle boots and a midriff top. Or when Halle Berry’s Catwoman wore a black leather bikini and a dominatrix whip to a gun fight.

Of course, there can be power in sexually alluring costumes. Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, for example, used black shiny latex to provoke and distract, enticing her male counterparts only to get them close enough to scratch. But as Lauren Davis writes for io9, there’s a big difference between sexy and sexualised costume pieces, and that distinction relies on what the item of clothing is telling its audience:

Superhero costumes are powerful, emblematic things. Think about how important it is that Batman’s costume look grand and intimidating—and not have ridiculous nipples—or how Superman’s shield evokes a sense of goodness and right. When you see Power Girl’s leotard or Starfire’s barely there whatever-it-is, they don’t say “power.” They don’t say “justice” or “strength” or “competence.”

They say, “Here are my breasts.”


Here they are. Right over here.

As a massive Tim Burton’s Batman fan, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume, with its glossy finish and white stitching, has always said to me, “I’m a scary nut job who sews my own clothes”.

Berry’s costume, on the other hand, makes her look like somebody’s play thing.


Far too often powerful women have gotten lost in absurd costume choices that prioritise sex appeal over functionality, and transform them into vulnerable figures. This makes me wonder what female empowerment wunderkind Taylor Swift and her partner in crime, director Joseph Khan, are trying to tell us with a video that recalls some of the very worst of these superhero costuming choices — alongside some of the very best.

The Best: 


There’s nothing more emblematic of capitalist patriarchy than a person sat behind a desk smoking a cigar, so I am sure casting Girls’ creator and feminist icon Lena Dunham as Lucky Fiori, puffing on that cigar with a pixie cut and a don’t-fuck-with-me stare, is intended to be a direct affront to anyone who worked on Wall Street in the ‘80s.

This one image sums up the kind of striking, unapologetic and playful feminism Taylor Swift has built her brand around since the release of her album 1989. There’s no refuting that she has recently become more vocal than ever about her feminist inclinations, throwing support behind Emma Watson’s #HeForShe campaign, defending herself from sexist scrutiny, and stating to Maxim Magazine in a recent interview that “feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality.” And now a whole heap of critics have been quick to claim ‘Bad Blood’ as just another notch to add to her feminist belt — one writer going as far as calling it the ‘Anti-Avengers’.

And why the hell not? The video features a number of iconic women such as Mariska Hargitay, Ellen Pompeo and Cindy Crawford: well-known trailblazers for women in Hollywood, whose mere presence subverts ageist expectations that heroines in Hollywood must be under 35.


There are also a number of references to iconic cult female superheroes who’ve been featured in film and TV over the past few decades, including Tank Girl, Major Matako Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, and, my personal favourite, Leeloo from The Fifth Element. 


Most significantly though, the video features a very strong, very pissed off Taylor Swift walking through walls and wrecking shit.


The Worst:

It would be great to leave it there and conclude that Swift is just a boss bitch, but as hard as I try, I can’t get over those damn shoes. Honestly, these women become a lot less threatening when you realise they can be defeated with a bag of marbles or some soft grass.


And it only gets worse from there.


A good chunk of footage is dedicated to a locker room scene watching women polish weapons in skimpy outfits. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t spliced with footage of Kendrick Lamar sitting behind a desk, fully dressed with his feet up like he owns the joint, or sitting in a see-through car watching these women perform acts of violence on each other around him.


But it isn’t until the final battle scene, in which the women are lined up in lingerie carrying huge guns, that I feel truly uncomfortable with what’s being presented to me as female empowerment. It’s all too reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s attempt at conveying a similar message by dressing young women up as sexy school girls and putting them in life threatening situations. I’m referring to the 2011 flop Sucker Punch, which earned scathing reviews and was dubbed a ‘steaming pile of sexist crap’ by Feminist Frequency YouTuber Anita Sarkeesian.



Mixed Messages, And Why They Matter

Here’s a statistic that might upset you: in the last ten years, out of the 55 superhero flicks produced in Hollywood, only seven featured female superheroes — and of those seven, only one centred around the female as a lead protagonist, rather than as a background character or as part of an ensemble cast. That film was My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

In the next five years, Marvel and DC have announced they will release 28 superhero films, with only two centred on a sole female protagonist: Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. The only reason given for the unabashed absence of female superheroes in western cinema is the one specified by Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter in an email that was recently made public on WikiLeaks.

Listing off Electra, Catwoman and Superhero as examples, the email states in no uncertain terms that Perlmutter believes female superheroes are financially unviable. And maybe back in 2005 when Elektra was made, before superhero films started raking in billions of dollars, that was true. But now the female audience for these films is rapidly expanding. Recent figures show that women make up almost half the box office takings for superhero movies, and films that feature a complex female lead (Note: Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy) attract an even larger chunk.

There’s a more obvious reason behind why female-led superhero movies don’t get made, one that often gets overlooked perhaps because it is so self-evident: superhero movies are made for men. This means that the majority of superheroes, male and female alike, have been for a long time designed and costumed to appeal to straight male sensibilities. I hate to say it, I hate to even think it, but it appears to me like Taylor Swift might have at least partially walked right into this trap.

In 2013, Caitlin Welsh wrote a fantastic article for Junkee explaining how the gender-flipping phenomena — swapping women for men in a pop cultural product, to show how sexist the portrayal is — catches us in the act of normalising depictions of women that are reductive, and sometimes harmful. Drawing from the work of the Hawkeye Initiative, Welsh looks at the meme through the lens of superheroes — perhaps because the contrast between the ways in which female and male superheroes are depicted is so stark that it is worthy of outrage.

This is certainly true of the 2014 Issue #1 Spider-Woman variant cover by artist Milo Manara, which sparked enough controversy to have instigated her costume change. It is also true of the new Supergirl trailer, which focusses relentlessly on Supergirl as an object of male romantic desire — bearing all too much resemblance to the genius ‘Black Widow: Age of Me’ parody trailer that played on SNL last month.

People have been working hard for years to bring strong, independent and thoroughly engaging female superheroes to our screens. The importance of this venture cannot be underestimated. More and more research is coming out to say that young girls want superheroes too, and yet these characters are so often still being sold directly to young men as masturbatory aides.

Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ sits at the crux of this issue, teetering between railing against this shitty norm, and buying into it. What she has committed to, though, is at least offering up a smorgasbord of representations, demonstrating to Hollywood that there is more than just one way to depict female power on screen.


Kara Eva Schlegl is a freelance writer, known for ‘News in Brief’ on Fbi Radio’s Backchat, Ghost Stories at Giant Dwarf, Stop the Posts podcast and her own blog Kara Nation. She runs diversity driven Sydney comedy room Wolf Comedy and tweets from @kara_nation