Home Uncategorized Alison Mau: What Taylor Swift’s new song can teach us about everyday sexism

Alison Mau: What Taylor Swift’s new song can teach us about everyday sexism

11 min read

OPINION: There are some weeks more than others when keeping up-to-date with goings-on in the world is a bleaker task than usual.

The relentless spread of coronavirus, the suggestion that people are getting it twice, and the likelihood that it will eventually be as imbedded in human health inevitability just as the flu is; the resulting slow-motion tumble in sharemarket and business confidence, the knowledge that we will not escape it here in New Zealand and therefore we should be stockpiling hand sanitiser and practising coughing into our elbows. As the younger generations might say, it’s a lot.

You can’t blame me, then, for going looking for diversion, and this week I found it in Taylor Swift. This is as surprising to me as it might be to you.

I’m not a Swiftie (the collective name for her fans) and I can readily see how a rich, young, straight, white woman can raise the ire of just about everyone when she starts weighing in on issues that affect others more than they do her. When Taylor Swift raps about oppression, or feminism, the fact that she is not a person of colour, queer or poor, for example, is right there in your face.

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Taylor Swift’s video for The Man doubles as a musical middle finger to the male establishment.

That’s valid criticism. But feminism is not always about the massive issues. And who says it must always be delivered with a set-jawed grimness? Sometimes a skewering with a beat behind it is just what you need, and that’s what Swift’s latest single, The Man, delivers.

In it, the increasingly political Swift wonders how different life would be if she were male. The song is about everyday sexism – the kind that does not change (or endanger) your life, but is instead the constant back beat to it, if you are a woman.

In the video clip, Swift herself is transformed into one, thanks to clever prosthetics and fake facial hair. She then strides through an alpha-male dream-life, being applauded for bare-minimum fathering, high-fived for another sexual ‘score’, and epically manspreading on the subway. 

It’s so delightful, I felt almost guilty as I watched it three times in a row, and I suspect I felt that because the song speaks loudly about stuff we are not usually allowed to talk about; those tiny, everyday disses that make women feel just a little bit less-than. But of course it is also that small stuff, that shapes society’s attitudes towards women.

And when we fight back, it is often in small mutinies. Take the pavement refuse-to-yield movement, for example. In the middle of this week in Wellington, a rather famous feminist lawyer almost smacked straight into a man who strode out of a shop and into her path. She ducked around him with a smile and a “sorry” – only to be faced with muttered aggression from the man.

Why so grumpy? Was it because he assumed his right of way? Perhaps he was angered that she didn’t duck out fast enough?

If you are a woman, you’re expected to be the one who yields. But there is a growing number of women who are refusing to do so, and the resulting collisions even have a name: manslamming. 

I’ve tried it – and because I am as socially-programmed as the next woman, I have to consciously remind myself to walk in a straight line when I do.

This is not an anti-male tirade; I’m not saying all men, or indeed any man, does this on purpose. The men who walk their line are just as socially-programmed as I am. That’s plain from the confusion on their faces as they realise their path is blocked by an advancing, unyielding object. While I’ve not had too many full-body collisions, I have caught a few incredulous gasps out of the corner of my eye.

The Man references other double-standards Swift has experienced. There’s a dig at the way male stars like Leonardo Dicaprio are lauded for dating multiple women (“And we would toast to me, oh, let the players play/ I’d be just like Leo in Saint-Tropez,” she sings), while Swift’s dating life is scrutinised, and criticised.

Footpaths can be a battleground for women, who are increasingly refusing to suffer through a manslam.


Footpaths can be a battleground for women, who are increasingly refusing to suffer through a manslam.

There’s even a nod (“what I was wearing/If I was rude”) to Swift’s experience with sexual assault. Faced with a defamation suit, in 2017 Swift counter-sued DJ David Mueller for sexually assaulting her at a photo-call before her Denver concert in 2013.

Swift won the case, the jury giving her the symbolic $1 in damages she’d asked for, but not before she was subjected to the same victim-blaming narratives sexual assault complainants all over the world endure when they take the witness stand. Why didn’t she fight, why didn’t she yell, did her own behaviour contribute in some way to what happened to her?

All this probably sounds a bit deep for a pop song, but in the end her song is a catchy and clever way to deliver some important messages, about the chalk-and-cheese way society treats men and women.

The coup-de-gras comes as it should, right at the end, when man-Taylor is executing a spectacular on-court meltdown at a womens’ charity tennis tournament. As he spits and yells and hurls tennis balls at the umpire (played by Swift’s own father) the camera cuts to the ball-girl, who rolls her eyes in a seen-it-all-before expression of resignation.

And if you are a woman, you probably recognise that feeling.

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