Swiftly Redefining Notion of Sex Symbol

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Illustration by MaryAnne Bowen

 

Taylor Swift has taken the sex out of a public love life by turning her relationships into albums, but there is a problematic icon that is much more problematic than her “girl next door” image suggests. While it is refreshing to have a young woman in pop culture that isn’t famous because of how she flaunts her body, being famous for not flaunting her body opens a whole other can of feminist worms. 

While Miley Cyrus has been dancing around naked, licking sledgehammers and generally stirring up controversy, Swift has maintained her image as America’s sweetheart. She is a sex symbol without the sex and a refreshing foil to the handful of other young women who made the transition from teen star to icon in a much less reserved fashion. She dresses fashionably but much more conservatively than her peers in the music industry, yet Swift has won over and held onto the affection of America by desexualizing celebrity culture. However, while she tugs at the world’s heartstrings by crooning about being on the receiving end of heartbreak, Swift is creating a problematized feminist message.

Swift is careful to paint herself as the girl next door: quirky, wholesome and yet very vulnerable. She isn’t simply desexualized; she goes as far as to shame other girls who are less reserved sexually with lyrics like “She’s better known from the things that she does on the mattress” from “Better Than Revenge.” With the exception of a few of her more direct songs like “Dear John,” which explicitly addresses a past love connection, most of her songs show a helpless passivity towards men. Her songs about heartbreak can be empowering and promote confidence in independence, but they simultaneously reflect a very strong dependence on men and a lack of self-critique. Swift’s breakup songs give conflicting messages about independence and dependence because she finds herself back in another relationship as soon as the last one ended. One moment it is “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and the next she is “Back to December,” going back and blaming herself for the break up. 

Swift’s music appeals to the shared emotions of heartache and jealousy, but in such a way that teaches young girls that their womanhood is defined by the men who drag them along in love.

Nothing about Swift’s music is inherently bad. Her songs are relatable by appealing to emotions and have upbeat tunes that are catchy and singable. Her songs assume that her audience has felt things similar to what she has felt, and she is quite often right. Where this becomes problematic is that in her popularity, she has made these shared experiences an ideal. If Swift were the only singer in the world, you would think that everyone breaks up from his or her heterosexual partner every other week. Taylor’s relative purity in the pop spotlight offers just one voice and cannot be made into an ideal. Swift is successful by using the sentiments of relationships and suppressing sex, but sex does not need to be suppressed. By elevating herself as a figure of purity in the music industry, she is implicitly slut-shaming her peers. Perhaps coupled with more blatantly sexualized pop stars, Swift provides good messages of more innocent subject matter, but by herself she creates a desexualized ideal for girls. Without a sexually liberated Miley or a strong-and-stable Beyoncé to counterbalance Swift’s influence, Swift’s audience would be led to believe that the Taylor Swift prototype is the ideal woman.




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