On Taylor Swift, Mean Girls, Feminism And The Bittersweet Year Of #SquadGoals

#SquadGoals: fun feminist empowerment or the "you can't sit with us" of 2015?

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#SquadGoals‘ has to be one of the most overused terms of 2015 and, for better or worse, that has a lot to do with Taylor Swift.

On her 85-date 1989 world tour which wrapped this month, Swift employed the full might of her girl squad of supermodels, actresses and fellow musicians dragging everyone from Lena Dunham to Gigi Hadid to motherfreaking Lisa Kudrow on stage with her — the latter of whom warbled a duet of her Friends anthem, ‘Smelly Cat’. Weirdly, Swift didn’t continue this tradition in Australia despite a particularly persuasive plea from Lee Lin Chin, but by that time her point was fairly well made.

Known to post big group shots on Instagram referencing her “team” or “crew”, Swift’s consistent focus on female friendship and the ensuing power of the #squadgoals ethos reached what could perhaps be considered its zenith in her video for the single ‘Bad Blood’. Here, Dunham and Hadid as well as a bevy of other hot young things joined her in a futuristic and militaristic musical takedown of the song’s subject, widely believed to be Katy Perry (though Swift claims it’s about an ex-boyfriend).

But Swift’s not the only one to embrace the squad this year. Pitch Perfect 2 brought college a cappella group the Barden Bellas back together for an affirming performance of female musicians’ work. WWE divided their female wrestlers or “Divas” into squads of three. Just last weekend, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler parodied the squad with Amy Schumer on Saturday Night Live and, earlier in the year Entourage and Magic Mike XXL brought us the bro version of the phenomenon.

The importance this can have for women however is especially important. Gigi Hadid explained the idea when speaking to Elle Canada earlier this year. “We [the members of Taylor’s squad] talk about it a lot,” she said. “#SquadGoals is a big social media thing right now, and that’s what we want to inspire in other groups of friends — to be proud of the power you all have when you’re together, which can be amplified so much by each person.

“We don’t want to be like other generations [of women] who are infamous for their cattiness … We just want to be the new generation.”

But as much as the idea is commendable in its celebration of friendship, it does have its dark side. What comes of those who are left out of the #squad?

#SquadGoals Goes Bad: The Origins And Harm Of The “Squad”

Once upon a time, Swift was known for calling out people she didn’t like in songs such as ‘Better Than Revenge’ and ‘You Belong With Me’ and this year she brought that anger full circle with ‘Bad Blood’.

While Swift is now trading in female friendship, as Anne Helen Petersen examines in her piece on Swift’s “girlfriend collection”, there’s an undercurrent of elitism in the increasingly powerful women included in her squad. Besides Zendaya, Selena Gomez and Serayah, they all share a similar skin tone; the film clip sees them ganging up on Gomez (another woman and an apparent stand in for Perry); and, apart from Dunham, they’re all 5’10” glamazons — a fact that Dunham is very much aware of.

Swift may be a grown woman but the intensity of female friendship in her squad harkens back to the heightened emotions of adolescence, a life stage many of her fans are currently in. And, as we all have likely learned — either in real life or Mean Girls — this is a fervour that can often turn toxic.

This year, in season three of Orange Is The New Black, Litchfield’s resident mute Norma crafted her own cult-like squad to mixed successes. Stuck within the confines of a penitentiary with strict rules and not much to entertain them, Norma’s followers seek some kind of spiritual relief in their congregation together and soon resort to cruel high school behaviour in an effort to maintain uniformity and peace. Leanne in particular bullies new inmate Soso out of the group and leaves her so isolated and distraught she attempts suicide.

Speaking about this, Annie Golden (the actress who plays Norma) told Vulture on their TV podcast that “it’s only when the conflict with Soso happens that [Norma’s newfound spiritual power] becomes a mean girls, schoolgirl, cool chick clique.”

Rihanna then made ‘Bad Blood’ look like child’s play in her video for ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’. The clip transcends Swift’s stylised violence and OITNB’s mean girls aesthetic, featuring RiRi and her squad kidnapping her accountant’s wife, torturing her with sexualised violence and subsequently murdering said accountant. Though this caused considerable outrage, many argued the response should better be contextualised as an inversion of conventional narratives — one that’s not only dictated by her role as a female aggressor but also as a woman of colour whose victim is white. This re-appropriation is an issue not far from the heart of #squadgoals itself.

Like so much of popular parlance, “squad” was originally a word from African American Vernacular English (or ebonics). Arguably brought to the mainstream by artists under the 1017 Brick Squad record label, such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame, the term has been used in rap since at least 2009. As Judnick Mayard comprehensively argued in The Guardian, its appropriation into this new culture is indicative of a larger trend — one in which white people pick and choose the ‘cool’ parts of black culture like fashion and music but scarcely lend support to black civil rights such as #BlackLivesMatter.

As Miley Cyrus did with her twerking, Swift has grabbed aspects of black culture like this before, most notably in her ‘Shake It Off’ video in which she arguably used black women as props and made their moves palatable to a mainstream (read: white) audience, thereby stripping them of their meaning. Now inspired by Swift and her crew, more and more white people are hashtagging hang sessions with “squad goals” on Instagram, and other AAVE terminology — like “fleek”, “bae” and “thirst trap” before – looks to be heading the same way.

Real-Life #SquadGoals

Many of the squads listed above are fictional or somewhat manufactured. Sure, Swift’s friendship group seems legit, but there are plenty more which attempt to foster direct feminist discussion and empowerment with their fans in the real world. Most notably, there’s BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast with Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton (who didn’t know each other before but were brought together by their show) and Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, also produced by BuzzFeed’s “pod squad”, which features famous Dunham squad members Emma Stone, June Squibb and Janet Mock (who has her own squad that discusses pop culture on her MSNBC web show, So Popular!). Like Swift’s squad, it’s hard to know how genuine Dunham’s is, but it makes for an interesting listen whatever the case.

Closer to home, Melbourne’s Karen Pickering hosts a monthly feminist meet-up called Cherchez la Femme where diverse groups of women get together on the first Tuesday of the month to chat about feminism and how it intersects with things such as work, television and even footy. She also does this alongside her role as director of the Girls On Film Festival (a much-loved celebration of women in cinema now in its second year) as well as various other local events.

“It’s a really important goal of CLF to facilitate a lot of feminists meeting up and connecting meaningfully, in a relaxed atmosphere that encourages conversation,” Pickering tells me. “I think our origins in the pub have kept that energy of just kicking back with other femmos over a drink. I know lots of women who’ve made awesome friendships through CLF and that makes me really proud. I always try to introduce people who I think will get along and it’s magic when it kicks off.”

Pickering prefers to call the groups of predominantly women that congregate at her events “girl gangs” (other faves include “cabal”, “dream team”, and “coven”) — the latter of which is favoured by Dunham as well. Importantly, Pickering’s girl gang has a focus on inclusivity; there’s even an option to buy a ticket to the event for someone who might not be able to afford it. This is a crucial difference.

Speaking about the notion of exclusivity, Rowan Blanchard (the 14-year-old star of Girl Meets World and one of the only members of young Hollywood to not be a part of Swift’s squad) issued an incisive critique of #SquadGoals in an interview earlier this month.

“Sisterhood is something so valid and important when you are growing up that I literally think the essence of it should be taught in schools,” she said. “But, the ‘squads’ we see in the media are very polarising. Feminism and friendship are supposed to be inclusive, and most of these ‘squads’ are strictly exclusive … It can be frustrating when the media and the celebrities involved in it make feminism and ‘squads’ feel like this very happy, exclusive, perfect thing. There’s so much more than that. ‘Squad goals’ can polarise anyone who is not white, thin, tall and always happy.”

As Blanchard points out, the main difference between Swift’s squad and others is that she seems to be holding up her group of girl friends as aspirational. They’re there to be idolised. They are the “goal”. In 2016, maybe we should be striving to emulate something else — perhaps the genuine girl gangs that occur organically IRL rather than those assembled for music videos and social media plugs.

Scarlett Harris is a freelance writer and blogger at The Scarlett Woman. You can follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.