Feministing Jamz: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

our mudflap girl, jammin on her headphones

If you spend most of your social media time on Twitter, your feed is probably mostly about what’s happening in Ferguson, MO, right now. If you spend most of your social media time on Facebook, however, it’s probably light on the racialized state violence and suppression of journalism, and heavy on the NEW TAYLOR SWIFT SINGLE (what’s up with that social media split? Buzzfeed explains).

That’s right, everyone’s favourite 25-year-old permateen has a new song out, and it’s poppy and upbeat and it’s all about not letting the haters get you down. Totally a message that feminist bloggers need sometimes, though this is traditionally the image we use to drive that message home:

The new TSwift song is highly danceable, and because inside the hard, snarky, feminist shell I present to the world there is secretly a thirteen-year-old who is almost physically incapable of sitting still when there’s a poppy beat on, I’ve been bopping around to this one while trying to write a blog post about what’s wrong with the video.

The video’s been getting a lot of press because a) Taylor Swift and b) it features a bunch of Swift fans, regular people, because Taylor Swift is a regular person, you guys.

That’s definitely the schtick she’s going with in this video. She’s regular, and clumsy, and awkward, and adorkable, and not comfortable with lots of professional dancers around her. She’d rather shake it out with her fans, dancing around like a low-level employee of the Ministry of Silly Walks. She’s so relatable. She’s also so using Black and brown women’s bodies as props.

Here’s the video:

There’s lots I could say about this video, but I want to compare two dance sequences, and focus on them, because I think they’re really telling. The first is the ballet sequence, with the dozen ballerinas, all of whom appear to be white, in Swan Lake style tutus and headdresses. The second is the hip hop and twerking sequence, with the half dozen Black and brown dancers in denim shorts, leopard print jackets, and chunky gold jewellery.

The central idea of this video is that it’s cool to be goofy and to not fit in, to dance your own weird steps when everyone around you is doing the choreography. Great message. I’m down with that 100% and will be using it as an excuse to totally screw up in dance class from now on. But in these two sequences, Swift is setting herself apart from the crowd in very different ways. In the first, she’s surrounded by staid, elegant, straight-faced ballerinas, in their sparkly white tutus and pointe shoes and tights. They’re in perfect lines and she’s shaking her ass around, or running doing hopscotch over their pointed feet and then making jazz hands at the camera. She’s not one of them. She’s a cool fun weird quirky girl, not like these sparkly white perfect pretty princesses. Which is a bit odd for someone who spent the first seven years of her career cultivating an image of herself as a sparkly white perfect pretty princess (I mean, when she wasn’t making the dustbowl look super fun, that is).

Compare that to the twerking sequence, when Swift is surrounded by dancers who all appear to be of colour. Again, she’s dressed the same as them, and has her hair tightly braided. But this time, while they’re all dancing, she’s either trying to dance like them (adorkably, of course; everyone knows that Princess Taylor doesn’t really twerk), or she’s gawking at them. There is honest to god a shot in which she crawls between a bunch of Black and Brown women’s legs and gazes up, wonderingly, at their shaking asses. Here is a gif of it.

Are you fucking kidding me with this?

So Taylor Swift is not a pure white dancing snowflake swan princess ballerina, but she really wants you to know that she’s still white. That’s what I take away from this video.

Something else that I take away from it is that it appears to be really hard to make a music video, as a white woman, in which you refrain from using Black women as props. Miley Cyrus couldn’t do it. Lily Allen couldn’t do it. Meghan Trainor couldn’t do it. Even when starlets try to make feminist arguments in their songs, like Allen, or body-positive statements, like Trainor, or sing important messages about resilience in the face of criticism, like Swift, they can’t seem to stop themselves from using Black and brown women’s bodies as props, as shorthand for overt sexuality, as symbols of difference and otherness and slow-motion spectacle. The thing is, it shouldn’t be that hard. It shouldn’t be – it isn’t – that hard to include women of colour in your videos without turning them into punchlines or cultural punching bags, or ways to borrow cool from one vision of Black culture.

And yet, that’s what keeps happening. Taylor Swift is just the next in a long line of starlets who can’t seem to help themselves. But don’t bother calling this video racist, you guys, because she will just… shake it off.

Avatar ImageChloe Angyal is bracing herself for the wrath of TSwift fans. 

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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