Taylor Swift’s ‘Miss Americana’ Is A Frustrating And Complicated Look At Misogyny
With all the privilege in the world, Taylor Swift can't escape the misogyny directed towards her - even by herself.
Towards the end of Taylor Swift’s new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, the singer-songwriter sits on a lounge in her house and talks to director Lana Wilson about her struggle to change her way of thinking.
“I’m [trying to] deprogram the misogyny in my own brain, toss it out, reject it and resist it,” she says firmly, sitting up straight. “There is no such thing as a slut, there is no such thing as a bitch… Sorry, that was a real soapbox.” Swift slumps. “WHY did I say sorry?!”
It’s a telling moment in the 85-minute film, which follows her life through a tumultuous period of personal transition. While the film covers her whole career from ages 11 to 29, the original footage by director Lana Wilson and her (mostly women) film crew seems to have mainly been shot at the end of Swift’s reputation album cycle and while she was writing her 2019 album Lover. Wilson builds a narrative, seeking to explain Swift’s long political reticence, and the systemic sexism that influenced her to stay silent.
Miss Americana shows Taylor Swift grappling with self-worth and identity in an industry that expects a lot (and at the same time, very little) from the women who rise to its top. Swift has reached levels of fame and success in music only previously established by The Beatles.
In terms of records held, arguably her only living peer is Paul McCartney, a 77-year-old man whose fame peaked in the 1960s during a very different musical landscape. She’s only just turned 30, and knows that there’s a timer on artists like her: “We do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35,” she says at one point in the film. This misogyny has clearly pervaded Swift’s consciousness for years, and we watch as she attempts to deconstruct it over the timeline of the documentary.
“We do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35,” she says at one point in the film.
Swift discusses her desperate childhood need to be a “good girl”, which would be reinforced at every turn by the music industry she subsequently entered. Label executives and publishers would remind her not to be like the Dixie Chicks, an all-women band who were the biggest selling female act in the United States until they made a comment condemning George W. Bush.
The backlash they experienced was quick, brutal, and deeply gendered — news commentators called them “bimbos” and “foolish women who deserve to be slapped around”. Their career never recovered. Swift, a Dixie Chicks fan and also a teenage girl trying to make it in Nashville, paid close attention.
An older Swift delineates her training in the documentary’s narration: “A nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people. A nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you.” And it seemed to be working for her — we see archival footage of her on The Late Show, telling David Letterman that she doesn’t express her political opinions because she doesn’t think it’s her right, to wild applause and cheers from the audience and a (woeful) fist-bump from Letterman himself. The implicit reinforcement is clear: we like you shutting up.
Lean In And Lose Yourself
Misogyny can be reinforced with “pats on the head”, as Swift called the praise, as well as with punishment. Sometimes the more the system seems to be working in your favour (you got that job by “leaning in” like a man, you get more compliments when you dress a certain way), the harder it is for you to see that it’s hurting you.
Swift reveals to Wilson in the documentary that she developed an eating disorder so gradually that she didn’t notice for a long time. Designers would exclaim over her being a “size 00”, and any photo of her where her stomach didn’t look completely flat triggered the press to speculate about weight gain or pregnancy. So she would stop eating for a while.
She still has to avoid looking at pictures of herself, and she still needs to talk herself out of self-hate spirals. This is a woman known for her model-like beauty — and that’s kind of the point: When you’re told that’s your value, you could fear losing it to the point of starving yourself.
The Right Side Of History
In a musing narration, Swift reflects that she needed to “learn a lot before I spoke to 200 million people.” But despite her long dedication to public apoliticism, she actually had spoken to those millions of people before, for quite a long time — and so it’s odd that the film doesn’t address Swift’s many public prangs with feminism.
When asked in a 2012 interview whether she was a feminist (a question male singer-songwriters are not asked, by the way), Swift responded, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
It doesn’t take a feminist scholar to notice the implied belief that guys succeed on merit and girls just have to work harder to achieve equity. Two years after that, in a 2014 interview, Swift walked back her earlier comments: “I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities.”
It’s still a rather facile understanding of feminist theory, which is perhaps not surprising given Swift credited her feminist awakening to Lena Dunham.
Dunham is nowhere to be seen in Miss Americana, as are women in general. Other than Swift’s mother and a brief interlude with childhood friend Abigail (who tells Swift she’d make a good mother), publicist Tree Paine is the only woman we see advising Swift. Instead it’s men with her in the recording studio, men directing her music videos, men lecturing her on keeping her voice out of politics.
In her acceptance speech of Billboard’s Woman Of The Decade award, a moment that was perhaps too late to be included in the documentary, Swift reminds industry leaders that women are “still struggling to even have a chance to be in the room” when it comes to being “in the recording studios, behind the mixing board, in A&R meetings.”
While Swift made some strides with her Lover album production — having a woman as her sound engineer, hiring an all-women team for the album photoshoot — Wilson’s film shows a very male collaborative force in Swift’s career. It’s a glaring imbalance that the documentary would have perhaps been stronger for exploring.
All The Privilege In The World
Miss Americana shows how internalised misogyny can creep up on you, wasting your body and shrinking your self-worth, reinforced by nearly everything and everyone around you. Swift notes that she always felt she didn’t belong as a star of the music industry, that she was only there because she worked hard and was “nice to people”. Women are still constantly discouraged out of public spaces, even the most powerful ones.
“I had all the privilege in the world, and, you know, financial support and the ability to pay for a brilliant lawyer, and…I won that trial, but without all that? I don’t know what would have happened.”
At the Q&A after Miss Americana‘s premiere at Sundance in January, Swift spoke about her sexual assault trial against the Colorado DJ who groped her at a meet-and-greet — a trial she was dragged into against her will when the DJ sued her for telling his boss what he’d done to her: “I had all the privilege in the world, and, you know, financial support and the ability to pay for a brilliant lawyer, and…I won that trial, but without all that? I don’t know what would have happened.”
In the film, a choked-up Swift tells a stadium crowd, “I don’t know what turn my life would have taken if people didn’t believe me when I said that something had happened to me.”
The story of what happens when you aren’t believed has been told in recent documentaries and features, and will hopefully keep being told to shed light on the violence that women face. There is also worth in a film like Miss Americana, showing what happens to women who are immediately believed by their loved ones and coworkers, who do have the resources to hire personal security and private planes, who can afford all the healthy food and fitness advice they could want, who manage their own careers. They still suffer gendered discrimination. That’s how overwhelming it is.
Even though it looked like the music industry’s status quo was working for Taylor Swift for over a decade, we now know that she had an eating disorder, she was being controlled by men behind the scenes, and she felt deeply isolated. All the privilege in the world can’t stop women from being affected by the hate our culture throws at us. It’s still misogyny. It still hurts people.
Kaitlyn Plyley is a Melbourne-based writer and performer. You can find out more about her work here.