Taylor Swift’s unchecked privilege is a kiss of death for white feminists

In Features by Dianca London / February 17, 2016

“Defiant,” “feminist,” “empowering” — these are a few of the words currently being used to glorify Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at Monday’s 58th Annual Grammy Awards. The first woman to win the Best Album of the Year twice, Swift — whose VMA acceptance speech in 2009 was burned into the memories of millions, thanks to Kanye West — used her moment in the limelight to leave her audience with what some have characterized as an encouraging message: “I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who are going to try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”

The plausible jab at West, who claims to be the reason for Swift’s success in his latest track “Famous,” instantaneously sparked support from fans and pushback from skeptics. Equally worthy of fodder for the blogs as well as substantial side eye, the millennial pop icon’s words revealed a larger issue: Something essential is missing from the way in which Swift’s nationally televised clapback to “Famous” is being perceived. We are forgetting to unpack the influence that her privilege — and the historically societal archetypes perpetuated by her image as a white celebrity — translates to forms of agency that are often inaccessible for equally famous, if not more renowned, peers.

Sure, it’s difficult to dismiss the fact that West’s male gesturing in regards to Swift on his new album “Life of Pablo” is more misogynistic than it is artistic. And, yes, Swift has proven time and again that she possesses the ability to consistently deliver when it comes to raking in record-breaking revenue for album sales. As many suggested via Twitter, Swift’s whiteness and the benefits that it warrants makes her acceptance speech the product of white privilege rather than the result of feminist pluck.

The image of Swift, surrounded on stage by the men who collaborated with her on “1989,” is understandably striking, but not because it is inherently a depiction of empowerment. Her powers beckon because we have been conditioned as a culture to celebrate everything that she represents. She is young. She is famous. She is white, and, on Monday night, she was at the center of our universe. Her historically cherished embodiment was further validated by its spatial proximity to masculinity and wealth. Within that space, Swift’s admonishment of West became an alleged assertion of her authority and a testimony of her perseverance as an “artist,” proving for some the validity of her influence as an icon and feminist.

Perhaps this is a befitting moment to revisit some of Swift’s not-so-feminist blunders along with her tumultuous on-again/off-again feud with West – i.e. starring in an all-white colonialist fantasy “Wildest Dreams” video and a brash counter to West’s 2009 diss with her “Innocent” single, respectively. Both instances might seem unrelated, but there is something contextually vital to be gained from examining Swift’s past microaggressive behavior alongside the recent shade that she so calculatingly served during her acceptance speech for Album of the Year. Her remarks and the praise they inspired should be met with more discernment. Instead of applauding her agency, we should examine why we as a culture hold the benefits of white privilege in such high regard.

When whiteness, affluence, and mainstream standards of desirability coexist in a systemically loaded space like the Grammy Awards, it is paramount that we examine the allotment of agency that is given to women like Swift. Although West’s comments about Swift are inherently sexist, his misogynistic behavior does not give her a pass for failing to check her own privilege as a white woman. Her recent win and the words with which she chose to commemorate it are only empowering for a certain demographic. Her accomplishments, regardless of how deserving they may be, are a glaring reminder of the societal and economic benefit of whiteness and white femininity. Her triumphs are celebrated while her contradictory behavior remains overlooked.

If Swift continues to ignore the intersectional implications of the allotment of agency awarded to her identity in contrast to the identities of those around her, she is surely doomed to keep second-wave feminists’ failures alive and thriving.

[photo: Getty | video: CBS]