With the revelation that Taylor Swift might have lied about her knowledge of Kanye West’s controversial lyrics, the hate bandwagon for Swift is now jam-packed. But is the hate well deserved? And what does it say about celebrity culture, women and race?
Taylor Swift’s success is undeniable, regardless of your opinion of her. The 27-year-old is not only the youngest recipient of a Grammy award, she actually has ten, according to her website. She is the only female in the history of the Grammys to win Album of the Year twice, and she is the world’s highest paid celebrity earning $170 million in 2016, with a net worth of $250 million, according to Forbes.
Taylor Swift poses with her awards during the 58th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. (Reuters)
However, anyone who’s been anywhere near any news or social media platform in the last few days knows that Ms. Swift is in the middle of veritable poop emoji storm. She has been caught lying, outed on Snapchat, by Kim Kardashian of all people.
The backlash to Swift has been swift and unrelenting. From a huge mural proclaiming “RIP Taylor Swift” in Melbourne, Australia as if she was dead, to a constant barrage of hateful, misogynistic tweets comparing her to a ham sandwich. Instagram users are filling her feed with the snake emoji and her best friend had to delete a tweet in support of Swift because of death threats.
Reveling in her downfall
It is now seemingly apparent, as Bridie Jabour pens in her opinion piece for the Guardian, that “when stories are published calling Taylor “insane” and a “control freak,” and when entire Tumblr threads are devoted to how “annoying” she is, we’re sending a message to young girls and women: You are not allowed to be seen enjoying your success or your sexuality – and you are certainly not to appear to think you deserve either.”
And therein lies the rub; the issue at hand isn’t whether or not Swift lied or was manipulated but the vitriol and glee with which not only private individuals on their Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter revel in her supposed downfall, but also how much of the media’s coverage in general is hateful and misogynistic. As Jabour elaborates, “It’s about the public discourse around young women: the way we still talk and write about their success, and the uncomfortable way we treat their sexuality. “
However, in this day of intersectional feminism, Swift cannot be considered wholly innocent as well. Part of her success is based on the fact that she has developed a public persona that is grounded in her perfectly curated palatable Western-aligned beauty and her steadfast silent protest against the “haters.”
The problem with this current scandal is that not only does it reveal truths about how successful women are treated when they misstep and the glee that society finds in their failure, but it also highlights that part of Swift’s appeal was directly related to the idea of her being manipulated or harassed by Kanye West, a famous black rapper and producer. And as that unravels, and it looks to be that West was in fact manipulated, we must step back to examine why we were so comfortable with that narrative in the first place.
If society is to be criticized for its reaction to Swift’s fall from grace, then Swift must be criticized for perpetuating and profiting from deep seated culture fears about the way that black men are and how they treat white women. In a time where racial tension in the States is at a peak with social movements demanding that #Blacklivesmatter as unarmed black men are shot in the streets and police are killed by snipers, for Swift to perpetuate the fearful aggressive black man stereotype is also unacceptable and must be examined. As stated by Veronica Wells in Madam Noir, “The narrative of the beautiful, frail, helpless White woman being bullied, attacked, or intimidated by the strong, overpowering black man is one this country knows all too well. In fact, it’s this narrative of the ‘threatening’ black man that we’re fighting against today. “
But what is our role in this scandal and how can we use this moment as a cultural touchstone to re-examine our reactions to gender and to race?
According to Annie Meikle, Founder of The Social Shop Dubai, a boutique content creation and social media agency: “Most viral phenomenon is caused by underlying criteria: they usually contain some sort of unique or intriguing element, which users want to share to be seen ‘in the know’ or somehow valuable to their peers for sharing. In this case, the ‘scandal’ involves three celebrity figures, all with massive followings, which means most things they do online would automatically ‘go viral.’ The difference is that there’s an intriguing conflict, which goes above and beyond the everyday given its emotional value, which users want to be part of or be seen to understand. Their desire to participate in the scandal, and therefore signal to their peers that they are ‘in the know’ or somehow ‘part of the conflict’ makes the content trend or ‘go viral’ more rapidly as their followers in turn do the same with their followers, creating a viral effect.”
Therefore, the first step is to step back and examine our reaction to viral content. Why is this content viral and what is it reflecting about society? The next step? To look deeper at what is being reflected and decide if it’s something that aligns with what you believe as a person before you share that content. Is it better to be ‘in the know,’ if part of that ‘know’ is a sexist, racist cesspool, or might it be worth it to take a minute and decide if maybe it’s better just to click on?
There’s no easy solution to misogyny and racism but it is in these moments of social viral windfire that we must step back and examine what’s burning before we add flames to the fire.