Taylor Swift and the Good Girl Trap
Winning is Losing
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It’s hard to talk about Taylor Swift without pissing people off in some way, which is a real testimony to her power and influence. But I want to position this analysis before we start.
I am writing this piece in good faith (that you, as a reader, like to think more about the culture that surrounds you, whether it’s culture you love or hate or are ambivalent about) and that you are in turn reading in good faith (that I do not hate Taylor Swift, that this is not a takedown, that we’re talking about Swift’s image but we’re also talking about people’s reaction to that image).
Do I write this sort of preamble before every post about a cultural object? No! But we’re not always great at separating celebrity analysis from like/dislike, and that gets even more difficult when we’re dealing with an image with as much history and emotion accumulated around it as Swift’s. So I’m putting it here today.
Taylor Swift is arguably the most famous person in the world. She is in the middle of a record-smashing multi-year world stadium tour. The filmic version of that concert experience has grossed over $260 million worldwide. She has released three albums in three years (soon to be four in four years) and has re-recorded four more. She has successfully negotiated a very public and heavily scrutinized relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who will play in the Super Bowl this coming Sunday.
For two years, Swift has managed what Lainey Gossip aptly calls an “unprecedented PR streak” — we’re talking case-study-style mastery of the narrative. If football fans were mad that the camera was panning to Swift in the box at Chiefs games, they were telling on themselves. But Swift was treading a fine line, and she and her team knew it.
When a celebrity is that prominent, they are always in danger of becoming the figurehead of cultural and societal frustrations. Which is one of the many reasons celebrities periodically recede from the public eye: no matter how many people love you, there comes a point when the structure of a star image cannot shoulder the weight of the star’s meaning and import. The history of celebrity is filled with examples of people who did not or could not protect themselves from this scenario — because of their youth, because of addiction, because of others’ greed, including our own as consumers and fans — and careers and lives that imploded because of it.
Swift’s image didn’t collapse at the Grammy’s this past Sunday, not even close. But it did show signs of strain. It’s not about any one thing she did or did not do, or if those actions would be judged as “off” if another celebrity did the same thing. It’s about the significance of what she did in context: after the last two years, at this moment in her career, at an awards show, at this particular awards show, in context with others’ wins and acceptance speeches…..at this moment in her meaning, but also about how all of those things intersected with other societal frustrations and conversations percolating in this moment. So let’s unpack it.
Swift was nominated for six Grammy awards. She won Album of the Year for Midnights, making her the first artist to win the award four times — a historic achievement, and I understand why people are upset that it’s been overshadowed by other discourse. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first we should situate her win within the rest of this particular Grammys broadcast.
The first Grammy of the night went to Miley Cyrus for “Flowers” for Best Pop Solo Performance of the Year. It was also Cyrus’s first Grammy win ever, and she accepted the award from Mariah Carey and gave a brief and very Miley speech.
Cyrus also performed “Flowers” in vintage Bob Mackie, ad-libbing lines to further solidify references to ex-husband Liam Hemsworth and celebrate her win. This performance was no more or less calculated or orchestrated than any of Swift’s, but the overwhelming affect of it (and again, this is about context) was playful and vampy and celebratory, the pinnacle of her redemption arc post-rebellion from her highly regimented days as a childhood star.
Jay-Z accepted the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award by highlighting the Grammys’ history of systemic inequality and inconsistency. Looking directly at his wife Beyoncé in the audience, he said: “I don’t want to embarrass this young lady, but she has more Grammys than everyone and never won album of the year. So even by your own metrics, that doesn’t work. Think about that. The most Grammys, never won album of the year. That doesn’t work.” (Beyoncé has been nominated for Album of the Year four times and has lost to Taylor Swift (2010), Beck (2015), Adele (2017), and Harry Styles (2023)). It’s also notable that the artist with the most Grammy nominations in 2024 (SZA, with nine) came away with only three wins, none of them in “major” categories, including Album of the Year, which went to Swift.
Celine Dion made her first public appearance since announcing her diagnosis with Stiff-Person Syndrome — and was the one to present Swift with the Grammy for Album of the Year. Swift didn’t acknowledge Dion onstage or in her speech — which could be chalked up to surprise, but was nevertheless in marked contrast to Cyrus’s acceptance from Carey. (Swift later embraced Dion backstage, and FWIW I don’t believe it was a purposeful slight)
Swift used the second half of her acceptance speech to announce her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, to be released on April 19th. There is no rule against announcing new music at the Grammys, but the general sentiment was that Swift was making an announcement for her fans — when her audience (at the Grammys) was her peers. The Grammys understands itself as a celebration of other artists, not a promotional tool. Obviously this is a fiction. but when people say Swift “didn’t read the room,” that’s what they’re talking about.
There were other small things, too. Swift loves to support other artists at Awards Shows, often by standing up and dancing (even if that means doing it by herself). The camera then cuts to her standing up and dancing, which, as was the case in Tracy Chapman’s transcendent performance of Fast Car (alongside Luke Combs), can feel like she’s trying to make the performance about her. But Swift can’t ban the camera from cutting to her. Should she sit stone-faced instead? Imagine that scandal! The same sentiment applies to Swift’s insistence that Lana Del Ray join her onstage (after Del Ray lost Album of the Year to, well, Swift). It was awkward, it felt kinda weird — but if you read the situation with good faith, it also seems like Swift authentically feels bad that her winning means her friend losing.
Again, none of these behaviors were “bad” or “wrong.” But sometimes, when you keep on winning — awards, sure, but also in your career — it doesn’t matter who you are or how hard you worked for those achievements. People are going to find it harder to root for you. It’s when domination turns into over-saturation: when honest missteps become weaponized, when the interpersonal comes to feel emblematic, when every move becomes overdetermined.
This logic has governed the celebrity world for centuries, but this moment? It’s the most supercharged version of the celebrity/media/social media shitstorm in history. Swift is downstream of every conceivable cultural conversation. She’s an avatar — a puzzle piece that anyone can insert into their particular argument or way they see the world. Taylor Swift, the celebrity, will be consumed, processed, and evaluated in the context of everything that’s happening around her, which is mostly stuff she’s not involved with. It’s a signal of her importance, both as an attentional item and as an artist and human. It’s also excruciating. Winning is losing…again and again and again.
If that feels unfair, that’s because it it is. Women and women of color in particular reach this point of “over-saturation” much faster than men, which has everything to do with how society understands who should hold our attention and for how long.
And that’s the point Swift reached on Sunday night. In hindsight, it had been building for some time: you could see it vividly in the conspiracy theories coming from the far right. But it was also visible in renewed conversations about Swift’s embodiment of girlhood — and how that vision of girlhood, and the connotations of innocence it contains, is limited to a sliver of girls. See, for example, last week’s excellent episode of NPR’s Code Switch, featuring the work of cultural historian Addie Mahmassani on Swift and girlhood. (You can find a pretty decent transcript here).
Like all cultural and celebrity analysis, this conversation is ostensibly about Swift, but it’s also using the prominence of her image to talk about discourses of girlhood in general: who’s allowed to have it, who’s given the assumption of "innocence,” and how all of that connects to whiteness, thinness, and class. Of course, these conversations are not new: they undergirded the full decade of blowback after Kanye West interrupted Swift’s acceptance of Best Female Video at the 2009 VMAs. But I think they’re re-emerging now for a reason.
It’s about the uproar over the Academy’s snub of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie — but not Greta Lee and Celine Song for Past Lives, or Fantasia Barrino and Taraji P. Henson for The Color Purple. It’s about Barbie’s feminism just generally. It’s about exhaustion and fatigue and apathy and annoyance. It’s about the limitations of privileged white women’s progressive politics.
As a privileged white woman with progressive politics, I understand the frustration: we are generally good at seeing injustice, and we are generally bad at giving up our own sliver of societal power in order to rectify that injustice. What most reliably moves us to act is personal stakes, and the absence of them makes it easy for us to “move on” from causes that other people have no choice but to engage every day of their lives. It can feel like white women are only in the fight when the fight is popular, easy, and without significant social or financial risk — and when they do join the fight, they want to be celebrated for it.
And whew is that rough to hear! If you identify with Swift — particularly with the Eldest-Daughter, Type-A, highly regimented, no-choice-but-to-be-a-good-girl part of her — maybe it’s even harder. Because it’s about her, but it might also be about you, and it’s also not really about her or you, it’s about a whole group of people grouped with you simply because of their identity, and if that feels unfair, I would suggest sitting with that for a moment. But it also feels unfair because you can try and do everything you were told to do, work so hard to please so many different demands from so many different people, and still not get it right.
I’ve felt this, of course. But I have also come to understand that trying to fit into society’s understanding of a “good girl” is a trap, the same way that the “model minority” and the “good gay” and the “good fatty” are all traps. Even when you succeed at it you lose, because these roles are all ultimately means of containment: of circumscribing power by putting exacting, contradictory, standards on the way you’re able to “appropriately” wield it.
I think Swift has come to understand as much as well, at least when it comes to good girls. Yet there’s still strong fan identification with that feeling of entrapment — that no matter what she does, she’ll be unfairly criticized. And I’ve seen many fans recoil and refigure analysis as a form of misogynistic attack: of women failing to support other women. I understand why. But I want to reiterate: I don’t hate Swift, I don’t think you should, and I don’t think she should be canceled or disappear forever. But I also think that sort of reaction implies a fragility to Swift she’s actively trying to move beyond.
Fame asks so much of celebrities. It is challenging, exhausting labor. But Taylor Swift likes the work. She likes to work. She likes working on things. And, more than any other celebrity, we can see her working — on all of this — in real-time.
And that’s part of what makes Swift is so fascinating, so exciting, so easy to talk about: she adapts and evolves in public all the time. But even that work opens her up to criticism and disapproval. One person’s desire to do the work is another person’s version of being a try-hard. She can’t win. But I also think she might be giving up trying to. And that — that’s a very different type of growth.
Is Swift a vulnerable girl who can’t do the work of grappling with her privilege? Who dislikes the good girl cage but can’t break free of its comforts? Or is she a bold master of her career, a woman secure in her sense of self but also willing to ask herself hard questions? I think the answer is clear. And if you love her, I think you probably do too. ●
I’d love to hear how you’re working through this and what you’d add. The comments are, as always, a subscriber-only space; don’t be butts and let’s keep it one of the good places on the internet.