White Feminists Can Stay Silent, But They Can’t Escape The Taylor Swift Memes


The year is 2017. There are literal Nazis running amok. The current president is seemingly on the verge of tweeting the nuclear codes. The Night King has — OK, I'll stop here in case you didn't watch Game Of Thrones last night, but it's not good, either. I don't have to tell you, because you already know: this country is a goddamn mess.

Enter Taylor Swift. She is not the hero we need, or the one we deserve right now. But her mere existence is, in a way, still providing a function that is more essential than ever — yes, I am talking about the memes.

Hear me out, y'all. It's not just that memes are funny; it's that in calling out Taylor Swift on her past and present behavior, they aren't just holding her accountable. They're holding everybody else — particularly white feminists — accountable, too.

It's no secret that a large portion of Taylor Swift's fanbase is conservative. She rose up with roots in country music, and has been toeing the line between performing feminism without alienating that base audience since 2014, when she veered into the far more liberal world of pop — a line that may as well be called White Feminism. It's evident, particularly after Swift's silence during the 2016 election and her silence now, that she has no intention of veering away from that line. But in some ways, her refusal to do so has only amplified the glaring problem that is not just her white feminism, but white feminism as a massive, damaging, and unfortunately powerful whole.

Twitter has been an uncomfortable place for some Taylor Swift fans to engage in the past two weeks, as well it should be. While Swift hasn't been above critical commentary in the past, now, in the wake of perpetuating her victim narrative as a "defenseless" white woman against a black man and her silence during the 2016 election, the magnifying glass is harsher than ever.

In the current climate, that's not just on Taylor Swift; that's on white women everywhere. It's no secret that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump — that 53 percent of white women made an active, conscious decision to put a known misogynist in the White House, a move that essentially meant shooting themselves in the foot so they could continue to hold onto the privilege they enjoy above marginalized populations who would have been much better served by ... well, literally anybody, if we're being honest at this point.

Taylor Swift, in her refusal to engage with those fans on a meaningful level during the election, became the face of white feminism. Maybe it's fair and maybe it isn't; the truth of the matter is that she's the most recognizable white female celebrity in the world, and that compounded with her self-describing as a feminist while a woman was running for office meant that the target on her back was always going to be much larger than anyone else's. Unfortunately, no words quite better sum up Taylor Swift during election season than her very own: "I've never heard silence quite this loud." Because of it, she will forever be associated with white women who have the power and privilege to make change, and don't — but while the problem of white feminism is widely acknowledged, the real trouble is the inability to engage that group on a personal or meaningful level.

See, after the election, a lot of people — Bustle staff included — were forced to acknowledge that while they could generate plenty of educational materials and articles and projections providing context for the election and the consequences of each outcome, they weren't getting to the people who needed to see them. Social media has created echo chambers. The articles about the dangers of Trump were shared by people who already knew the dangers, and ignored by people who didn't want to read about them. We shouldn't have been surprised — with our feeds so tailored to our likes, dislikes, and political beliefs, we were essentially all in a liberal circle jerk during election season.

So that leaves us with a frustrating question: how do you engage people on the problematic nature of their behavior if they never see the content in the first place?

The memes, my friends. The memes.

For whatever record, I don't think Taylor Swift voted for Trump. But that doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things; what matters is that a ton of women who support her did. And this week, when Taylor announced the drop of her album and released the subsequent single "Look What You Made Me Do," was the first time in years that she has put new art to the forefront that made people on Twitter engage — and the first time the cultural criticism of her was so much louder than the hype that her conservative fanbase had no choice but to see that content, too.

And damn, are they uncomfortable. We know they are, because they're engaging right back — it's the "LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!!!1!1" of 2017 up in here, and the defensiveness of the loyal fans who refuse to see any of the flaws in her moves from the last year is glaring and visible. In a weird way, it's been all too easy for the white women who voted for Trump to shrug and walk away from it, but moments in pop culture like the Taylor Swift discourse on Twitter in the last week make it impossible to escape.

But with that engagement comes a forced acknowledgement of their actions and leanings that white women skate around in the real world all the time. And yes, it's just memes — a far cry from the actual resources white feminists need to seek and engage themselves in to understand the privilege they're perpetuating. And yes, it's unfortunate that, yet again, the making of these memes and calling out of people like Swift falls largely on people of color, who are responsible for most of the viral memes on the subject this week. But there is no doubt that they're seen. We're usually at a loss for ways to make that happen with an audience unwilling to engage with it; if the first step to infiltrating groups of people who need to reevaluate the consequences of their self-serving actions is through memes about a white woman perpetually victimizing herself, then let that be the first mirror we hold up to them and say, "Look what you made me do."

Of course, this is beyond Taylor Swift as a human, and whoever she did or didn't vote for, or what she should or shouldn't have done. This is a problem much, much larger than her, that she has given her face. I don't think we'll ever be entirely certain what Swift is getting at with her latest single, be it attacking herself or her "attackers," but one thing's for sure — it's making her conservative female fanbase and her white feminist fanbase engage with and acknowledge their own problematic behavior, one cutting and powerful meme at a time. Maybe "Reputation" won't be the successful album Swift is hoping for, but for once, her past missteps might help us build something much more important than that.