Readers! Have any of you been adolescents? (Probably yes.) Specifically, have you been adolescent girls? (Probably sometimes. It’s complicated!) Well, super. Because now, we’re going to conduct a brief pop quiz on the adolescent female experience, and trust, and who exactly will fuck you over and how. Specifically, when you think of the wilds of female adolescence, and the young ladies who are capable of causing the most damage therein — when you, as a wee tween, are choosing who to trust and who not to trust — which of the below do you choose? Which one is going to hurt you the worst, and on purpose?
(A) The sulky, eyelinery girl who already smokes cigarettes at age twelve, smokes pot and drinks beer, drinks that beer either in the company of her parents who know about it or figures she can get away with it because they never pay enough attention to her to find out, and lashes out sometimes, mostly at adult authority figures, because something is going on with her life and it’s just not good.
(B) The chick with the tragic wire-frame glasses who looks like her parents still dress her and is really into The Dragonriders of Pern, who occasionally tries to come up with a stinging comeback when she’s being picked on but who’s too awkward and divorced from social norms to pull off anything convincing.
(C) A perfectly normal, wholesome, well-behaved young lady who’s involved with many normal, wholesome, character-building extracurricular activities and always has a smile for everyone and never gets involved with any of the troubles or bad decisions that plague other girls and just, really, seems so nice.
As we all know, Option C IS THE MOST DANGEROUS GIRL ON EARTH. In adolescence, no-one is normal. That’s why it’s adolescence, for fuck’s sake. The girl who can pull off “normal” the most convincingly is usually the girl who’s best at lying. And all too often, she is The Smiler. The Smiler is nice. The Smiler is pretty. The Smiler is popular, but not too popular; she’s just normal folks, you know? The Smiler is good in school and her teachers love her, but she’s not the valedictorian. The Smiler is in show choir and is cast in all the theater productions, and she makes sure of her position by purposefully fucking with people’s heads and making them cry during auditions with “helpful advice” about how nobody likes them and they should leave to make people happy, but she’s smiling. (Actual true story.) The Smiler is a respected youth group leader, a pillar of her community, and she tells the girl who’s been abused by her boyfriend that it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t presented herself so provocatively, but she promises that Jesus can make it better, and she’s smiling. (Also actual true story.) Sometimes, the Smiler is so good at what she does that the Smiler is your friend: Talk to the Smiler! Hang out with the Smiler! The Smiler only wants to help! Tell the Smiler your troubles — your many secret troubles that no-one knows about because you’d prefer to keep them private! But surely you can trust the Smiler? Except that two weeks later, everybody somehow knows a distorted Grand Guignol disastrous version of exactly what you told the Smiler, and your life is effectively over until college. (I was home-schooled.)
And sometimes, a girl wins a Grammy or several with songs and/or a personal brand that would appear to be the exact musical equivalent of a Smiler. Let’s talk about that with the exciting and lovely Amanda Hess of TBD, just ONE. MORE. TIME!
ILLUSTRATION: She seems sweet!
SADY: Hello! Are you ready for Taylor Swift: Round 12,500,723?
AMANDA: I hear Taylor Swift has released another album that is unflattering to her sex partners and/or sex partners’ sex partners. Therefore IT IS GO TIME
SADY: I don’t know. I have problems with Taylor Swift, which are, Example A: Slut-shaming, and Example B: The fact that she is posited as an anti-bullying Girl Power archetype when she writes songs that are like “go and tell my friends that I’m obsessive and crazy / that’s fine I’ll tell mine that you’re gay.”
AMANDA: Oh great.
SADY: Example C: Articles that are like, “the thing that is great about Taylor Swift is that she hasn’t ‘accidentally’ released a sex tape,” with the “scare” “quotes,” to show that you know everyone else is a big old whore. But then I wrote about her and I was like, “hmmm? Is this slut-shaming? Have I stared into the abyss TOO LONG?”
AMANDA: Haha. Perhaps. I mean, I am by no means going to come out against a person writing a song about John Mayer being kind of a shithead. That rings true to me.
SADY: WHAT??? John Mayer was a JERK? UNPOSSIBLE!
AMANDA: But there are some contexts where I think Swift overplays her naivete to cover for her own personal shitheadedness. For example, writing a song about how dude should dump his girlfriend for her, and then writing a song about some bitch stealing her boyfriend. It’s kind of cute in an “oh, youth” kind of way, but not exactly in a “great song!” sort of manner.
SADY: Right. I mean, “Speak Now” THE SONG would, with a different last verse, be one of the more hilarious things ever written. She is like HIDING IN THE DUDE’S CURTAINS AT HIS WEDDING at a certain point, so that she can take him away from his horrible bitchy bride. But then the last verse is like, “and he’s totally thrilled that I showed up here stalkerifically and he thanks me for saving him from the woman he was going to marry five minutes ago for no apparent reason because we all know I am the only one for him.” Which is still pretty hilarious, but in a different way. And I think I’d be in a place to forgive it, if she weren’t being branded as a “role model.”
AMANDA: I mean, her songs are deeply crazy* to me. She comes off as self-righteous and delusional a lot of the time. And that would probably make for some really awesome music if she got a little bit of self-awareness and learned to criticize herself along with … all other women, specifically, and humans, more generally? In that song, for example, the bride-to-be disinvites Taylor Swift from her wedding. And Taylor Swift is indignant over this detail! Meanwhile, she is scheming to derail the marriage entirely. So, that whole disinvitation thing kinda makes sense?
SADY: It’s a very strange cosmology, in which morality is determined not by The Good or utility but by How Nice You Were To Taylor. Or, really, How Much You Like Taylor For She Is A Beautiful Princess.
AMANDA: It’s the princess thing that is so odd. I was perplexed, in the Don’t Marry That Bitch song, about all the details concerning how ugly the other lady’s wedding dress. Taylor Swift has essentially positioned herself as the only person allowed to wear a white dress at any occasion. So, that is unreasonable.
SADY: But, like: Taylor Swift is “Twilight.” It’s this totally idealized romantic narrative that fourteen-year-olds can project themselves into which is unrelated to the realities of relationships. Like: I have never broken up with someone and been like, “clearly, I can see who the villain was here, and ascertain my own innocence entirely!” And I can see why fourteen-year-olds think that getting up on stage and singing the words “you’re gay” about an ex is what empowerment looks like, or find that “Better Than Revenge” song, with ACTUAL BACKING VOCALS singing “she deserved it,” to be a means of rising above adversity. My problem is, if we as adults agree that demeaning the most people the most effectively in the quest for boys is what adolescent girls should be doing to “empower” themselves, then the problems of female adolescence — nay, female existence ITSELF! — just got a whole lot more Exactly The Same.
AMANDA: Right. I mean, the best girl is the one who gets the boy! But if another girl gets the boy, she is a slut! Also, the boy is John Mayer? So everyone is empowered … to be awful in this scenario.
SADY: Exactly. Also, remember: If a boy dumps you, he must never know sleep or the loving touch of a woman/slut again, for he has cast his bid on the side of Evil and Hatred and Kitten-Drowning in the great cosmic battle. All women to come into contact with this boy in the future are scheming evil mattress harpies who wear pastry dresses. However, if you dump a boy, merely release a single saying that he was nice and you’re sorry you were kind of mean! That should fix it!
AMANDA: OK. So there was this point at the beginning of this conversation where we were like, so … is this slut-shamey? But I have since lost any train of thought that might support that hypothesis. Thoughts?
SADY: Well, I wrote something about how her marketing really depends more on the fact that these are all real live boys — famous boys! Possibly Gyllenhaalian boys, in fact! — and that the whole deal with people being excited about this record is the fun hot celebrity gossip. But then I was like, “pointing out that a lot of her music depends on Look At Who I Dated You Can Get The Real Dirt Here might be essentially calling her a whore.” I am conflicted!
AMANDA: Eh! Yeah, I mean, I don’t mind so much about the celebrity cross-promotion synergy. That would just make the songs sort of aesthetically horrible. It’s the tone that makes them more offensive.
SADY: Indeed. I just… I enjoy ladies who write about their lives, Amanda! That is a thing I am really into! And yet, the Taylor Swift, she is only Writing About How She Feels, and of course the way we feel about things is always contradictory and self-incriminating and self-centered at times, AND YET. What I feel is that I am hanging out with the youth group leader/glee club star/all-around nice girl who also spreads a rumor about how you went to third base with Derek and are a total skank.
AMANDA: And the song about this encounter is like 7 minutes long and sounds like all the other songs about the other skanks, as well.
SADY: Right. If Swift committed to being an asshole, imagine how much more fun it would be! Like, don’t sugarcoat it, lady! BE THE JERK THAT YOU ARE. But the packaging is like putting chocolate sauce on a dog turd. Do you think I’m not going to notice the turd (which is you being mean)? Or do you think I find turds (which are you being mean) delightful and delicious?
*I know some folks don’t like this use of the word! Tiger Beatdown acknowledges and respects that. Tiger Beatdown also isn’t a fan of comments that focus on one word or line in a piece rather than the piece as a whole. Please keep that in mind.