Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus. Which of these is not like the rest?
The answer? Taylor Swift.
There is a stark contrast between Taylor Swift and the rest of her fellow songstresses listed above. Yes, each of these artists are obviously different in personality and music style, but the true difference lies in the way they represent themselves to their fans, and to the rest of the world. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus all engage in what Amy Shields Dobson considers displays of “heterosexiness” – sexualized femininity with the intention of attracting the “masculinsed” heterosexual gaze as well as the recognition by other women that they are sexually appealing to men. This definition of femininity, however, actually derives from two sources: from the “traditional” femininity, of liking pink, pastel colors, and appearing delicate or cutesy, and from mainstream heterosexual pornography, of having “large, artificial looking breasts, high heels, excessive makeup, revealing clothing, or clothing which draws attention to sexual and erogenous zones” (Dobson, 5). On occasion, these displays of heterosexiness will cross the line and venture into displays of the grotesque – an inversion of ideal femininity: “images of debauchery, vulgarity, drunkenness and transgression by girls” (Dobson, 8). Whereas artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus have all, at one point or another, engaged in such displays, whether to go along with their artistry, or as a personal statement, Taylor Swift has largely been able to avoid using to that type of self-imaging. On her twitter account, Taylor Swift tweets almost daily with updates about what she’s been up to, be it preparing for her RED concert, getting ready to appear at award shows or even photos of her cat, Meredith. By all accounts, Taylor Swift is the definition of a “well-behaved woman” and as famous historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “well-behaved woman seldom make history“. In the eyes of her fans, and even her critics, Taylor Swift is a clean, wholesome, all around good girl. Her image is not sexualized, she doesn’t engage in feuds with other artists or go on rants to in attempts to draw attention to herself, and her music is relatable to millions of girls around the world. So how do we account for Taylor Swift’s 36,247,009 followers on Twitter, record breaking album sales, and sold out concerts? How is it that she manages to outsell her counterparts, without resorting to performing the same type of sexualized ideal of an idol?
The answer may be that although Taylor Swift isn’t selling her heterosexuality, she is selling an idealized image of femininity to her audience, which is that of the traditional female. The “traditional femininity” embodied by Taylor Swift is reflected in her photos that she uploads onto Twitter. A few of her photo uploads and retweets are of herself during photo-shoots for fashion magazines, where she is photographed appearing regal, poised, and highly glamorized.
In a photo she personally uploaded, she is pictured in a “long, glamorous, ‘classical’ gown” while lying on the floor (Dobson, 13). She is immobile, as her gaze is directed at the ceiling, and her limbs lay resting on the floor. There is no movement in this image, allowing for it to take on a “frozen-in-time” characteristic (Dobson, 13)
Critics of Taylor Swift’s “good girl” image castigate her for playing into patriarchy’s fetish for viriginity, purity, and view of the ideal woman as a Madonna. Taylor Swift even faces criticism from a fellow musical arist, Lorde, who denounced Taylor Swift’s “flawless” image as “unattainable” and not good for young girls. However, in the context of Sarah Banet-Weiser‘s article, “Branding the Post-Feminist Self: Girls’ Video Production and YouTube“, Taylor Swift, as a “self-branded girl” is actually exercising autonomy to be “self-reliant and empowered, especially within a consumer context” (Banet-Weiser 10-11). In Taylor Swift’s displays of what is considered traditional femininity, including the appearance of delicateness, elegance, purity, she actually “authorizes herself to be consumed through her own self-production” (Banet-Weiser 11). She sells her brand of femininity in contrast to what other artists are performing. Likewise, her music also contributes to her girl-next-door image; her most popular songs are about teenage heartbreak and the emotional roller-coasters that young teenage girls go through. This makes her extremely relatable as the everyday girl, someone that everyone can relate to. In a way, her music caters to the lowest common denominator, which greatly contributes to her popularity and rise as a celebrity. Aside from photos of herself that she uploads on Twitter, Taylor Swift also uploads non-controversial photos, of her cat, of her performing in concerts, and even of her “backstage” life, where she relaxes and watches TV, just like the rest of us.
Taylor Swift’s success as the girl-next-door, as the girl who loves a boy from afar, as the girl whose boyfriend cheated on her, etc allows her to connect with millions of people who identify with her branding as the shy, socially awkward girl, who does not necessarily engage in sexual acts, or drunken escapades. She enjoys staying home and playing with her cat, or watching episodes of “Law and Order” with a cup of tea.
In Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd‘s “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter“, they identify the definition of a celebrity as “a way that people are represented and talked about”; Taylor Swift has a known celebrity as the girl that understands the heartaches in love, and also represents the triumph of girls over heartbreak or cheating boyfriends. Taylor Swift, without having to exploit her sexuality has succeeded in utilizing her image as the proper young woman, to cultivated and sustained a sizable fan base to support her career.