If you haven’t seen Taylor Swift’s new music video “Shake it Off,” I’ve embedded it above. I don’t think you need to watch it for my commentary to make sense, and there’s no reason to listen to the song since I won’t be critiquing the lyrics extensively– so, if you really don’t like Taylor Swift as an artist, feel free to skip it.
Before we get started, I need to admit to some bias: I’m not a Taylor Swift fan. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid her ever since she released “You Belong to Me,” which practically screamed I’m not one of those girls. She also believe[s/d] that the definition of feminism is “women who are against men and also want everything without working for it.“
Because of all that, I was happy to hear this:
I go on too many dates
But I can’t make them stay
At least that’s what people say
But I keep cruising
Can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music
In my mind, saying it’s gonna be alright
Taylor Swift, unfortunately, has faced a lot of slut-shaming for her supposedly “high number” of relationships– I googled, and apparently that number is six. In my personal life, I’ve been in serious long-term committed relationships twice, have had short-term relationships twice, and have been out on a few dates with one other person, bringing my “number” to five. I’m pretty sure six relationships is pretty normal, which makes me a little baffled why she’s drawn so much criticism. Anyway, I’m delighted that she’s confronted this perception of her head-on.
There’s a few other things going on in the video that I think are positive– I appreciate that she’s not taking herself too seriously, and my overall impression is that it’s supposed to be fun and lighthearted.
However, I want y’all to notice something:
I just want to ask you some questions: which set of costuming decisions could be taken seriously, and which ones are a joke? Which set of clothing, makeup, and other styling decisions are overblown and ridiculous exaggerations of a particular culture? And of these two sets, which are typically associated with black culture in America?
But, we have to move on.
Question round #2!
In which picture can you see the women’s faces? Which picture is Taylor Swift not in? In the course of the music video, we only get to see one woman’s face in the booty-shaking-leapard-print-blinged-out segment, and she’s possibly white, maybe Hispanic. I couldn’t tell, and I think that was probably intentional, since the woman they chose was “racially ambiguous.”
Here’s photoset A:
And photoset B:
Which set demonstrates stunning beauty, grace, athleticism, and breathtaking physical abilities? And which one doesn’t? Which one is, again, associated with black culture, and which ones are considered serious art forms or have entire Olympic events organized around its existence?
And then there’s this:
That last one is the one that frustrates me the most. There’s whole sections of the video dedicated to breakdancing, which is a style of dance that was created in New York by black people and Puerto Ricans in the 70s. Since I became utterly obsessed with dancing when I was in college, I’ve thought of traditionally black styles as . . . well, they’re beyond description, and I love all of them. Krumping, in particular, is my favorite, but I also think that hip-hop is pretty spectacular, as well. But here, in this video, the person shown doing the most breakdancing is a white guy. They show a black man breakdancing for a few half-seconds, but this white dude gets maybe 10 seconds total through the whole video, doing a bunch of really impressive moves, while I think the black man is only shown doing not even a full rotation of a headspin.
But here’s the icing on the cake:
This shot comes at the end of a segment when Taylor has been crawling under and through the legs of twerking black women, and she’s turning and staring at their rear ends the entire time, then comes out on the other side and laughs.
If it’s not obvious by now, I think this music video is incredibly racist. What I noticed were the following:
- the video erases the existence and individuality of black women
- When black women are shown in the racist and stereotypical identifiers of “black culture,” they are nothing more than sex objects. The other black women in the video who are depicted as gymnasts, cheerleaders, and contemporary dancers escape this. That is horrifically racist, and is part of the larger culture that makes black women’s bodies inherently and overtly sexual. The promise of this video is that black women, you can escape being sexually objectified as long as you conform to white/suburban/European standards. It is respectability politics in a music video.
- it portrays traditionally white/European art forms as serious, beautiful, athletic, stunning, and difficult; but traditionally black art forms are shown as laughable, overtly sexual, and reduces the style to a single movement: “booty shaking.”
- The one form of black dance shown in the video is almost completely taken over (appropriated) by white people.
- White expressions of fashion and style are credible and treated as aesthetically pleasing; black styles are painted in caricature, are exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, and the intended result seems to be amusement, not appreciation.
If you are a person of color and noticed something else, or you’d like to add (or correct!) something here, please feel free. I very much would appreciation your voices and thoughts in the comments.
I think we also need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. I’m still educating myself on what that is and how to identify it when I see it happen, so I’d appreciate all of you sharing your thoughts on that aspect of what’s happening in the video. For example, I know that the fact that Taylor Swift has dressed up in these “costumes” is problematic because of the appropriation element, but I’m not informed enough to fully articulate why that is.
Anyway, I didn’t want this to go without comment: too often white feminists are completely silent when a white female artist does something like this (Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, anyone?), and I didn’t want that to happen again. If I see any good articles written by women of color about this, I’ll link them at the bottom here.