The Time magazine Person of the Year cover looks very good. The image, whether spotted on newsstands or shared and retweeted across timelines, is an arresting one that will make you stop and stare. Youll pick up the magazine or click on the link, only to find that this victoryostensibly a blow to Donald Trumpisnt as strong as it seems.
Past the badass black velvet and the optics of inclusion, The Silence Breakers is more than a little problematic. Once the empowering imagery of a group of strong women snatching this honor out of the Presidents tiny hands fades, were left to contend with the group of people who were chosen to represent a movementwomen like actress Ashley Judd, strawberry picker Isabel Pascual, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, and pop singer Taylor Swift. In evoking a seismic sexual harassment reckoning, Times cover story attempts to illustrate how issues of workplace harassment and sexual assault affect women (and men) across race and class demographics. Additionally, it emphasizes that many women who make up this movement are nameless and faceless, under-recognized activists in a struggle that has been disproportionally attributed to famous, affluent white women.
But featuring a wide array of voices doesnt make up for the fact that a few of these names feel like they were chosen by an SEO generator. The most jarring face on this cover is, of course, Taylor Swifts. Swift technically fits the bill as a woman who took her groper to court this year. But Times decision to laud her as a silence breaker is ironic on multiple counts, and suggests that the magazine was willing to barter some integrity for star power and social media buzz. In her interview for Time, her first since the trial, Swift explains why she decided to pursue legal action against the Colorado radio DJ whom she says grabbed her butt during a photo opportunity (technically, that DJ sued Swift for defamation, and she countersued).
According to Swift, who won the case along with a symbolic dollar bill, I figured that if he would be brazen enough to assault me under these risky circumstances and high stakes, imagine what he might do to a vulnerable, young artist if given the chance. She continued, I think that this moment is important for awareness, for how parents are talking to their children, and how victims are processing their trauma, whether it be new or old. The brave women and men who have come forward this year have all moved the needle in terms of letting people know that this abuse of power shouldnt be toleratedEven though awareness is higher than ever about workplace sexual harassment, there are still so many people who feel victimized, afraid and silenced by their abusers and circumstances.
Swift, who has struggled with her public image in the past, comes across quite well in this interview. She jokes with the Time reporter that her stint on the stand was the most amount of times the word ass has ever been said in Colorado Federal Court. She offers strong words of support for survivors and against victim blaming. Time even goes so far as to proclaim, Her clear-eyed testimony marked one of several major milestones in the conversation around sexual harassment this yeara claim few have ever heard before.
Still, whether or not Swifts story actually helped jumpstart a movement isnt what makes her under-qualified or even ineligible for this honor. Because while the singers story certainly fits the general description of a woman standing up to harassment, her entire public persona is completely at odds with the notion of a silence breaker.
Lets put Swifts Time puff piece in perspective. Women like Ashley Judd, one of the first women to come forward against Harvey Weinstein on the record, have had silence imposed upon them. When these women do decide to speak out, they risk mammoth personal and professional repercussions. Meanwhile, Swift consistently offers strongly worded statements only when she has something to gain from them. In this interview alone, it is striking to witness the specificity of Swifts responses when discussing a movement thats inextricably tied to politics in the Trump era. Swift is given a platform to show off her good opinions, but isnt questioned on her decision to neither endorse Hillary Clinton nor denounce Donald Trump during the 2016 election.
While other celebrities, particularly those who advocate on behalf of women and girls, have routinely called out the accused rapist who is currently our Commander-in-Chief, Swift has failed to extend her survivor solidarity to Trumps alleged victims. As The Daily Beast has pointed out before, Swifts inability to criticize the Republican presidential candidate probably had something to do with her fan base. Swift isnt just an entertainer who wont take a stand against Donald Trumpshes a woman who wont even denounce her own neo-Nazi fans. In fact, Times silence breaker of the year has threatened legal action against a blogger for exploring the ties between Taylor Swift and her adoring Daily Stormer fan base.
When shes not trying to literally silence the press, Swift speaks out in a way that is at odds with the intersectional feminist approach at the heart of Times latest endeavor. Swift is the beneficiary of a system that privileges whiteness, and she appears to have no moral qualms reaping the rewards of racist stereotypes. While the pop singer has repeatedly resorted to playing the victim, her routine reached problematic peaks in 2016. After Kanye West shouted the singer out in his song Famous, Swift proceeded to publicly demonize the rapper in an infamous Grammys acceptance speech.
I wanna say to all the young women out there: there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, she said, not-so-subtly referencing the West track. Kim Kardashian subsequently showed that Kanye had in fact reached out to Swift for her blessings on the raunchy lyrics, and accused Swift of manipulating the situation to her advantage. She totally knew that that was coming out, Kardashian insisted. She wanted to all of a sudden act like she didn't.
While Swift contested the Wests version of events, the fact remains that Swift chose to publicly shame West, in a rhetorical feat that continued their epic feud and positioned her as the sexually objectified victim of an angry black man. Whether or not she understood the full implications, Swift played into a historically potent, harmful trope, and would have retained the publics sympathy if not for Kardashians cunning social media coup.
Swifts bravery in showing up to court to confront the man who groped her isnt up for question. But to call Swift a feminist silence breaker is a bold erasure of every time shes failed to show up or speak out for women in the past. Swift, who was initially reticent to call herself a feminist, has embraced girl power rhetoric without all of the pesky politics. Instead of, say, actively protesting in solidarity with women everywhere in the wake of Donald Trumps election, Swift tweeted. So much love, pride, and respect for those who marched she wrote during the Womens March. Im proud to be a woman today, and every day.
Because of her spineless feminism and political passivity, Taylor Swift is hardly the figure of female empowerment that Time is making her out to be. In fact, a recent meme has highlighted just how uninspired the internet is by Taylor Swift. After a fan shared an image of Swift and dared Twitter to name a bitch badder than TayTay, the world wide web clapped back with lists of women who have actually put their lives on the line, surmounting enormous odds in order to make a difference or achieve greatness. Answers ranged from Zheng Shi, a sex worker in Canton who was captured by a pirate and ultimately commanded a fleet of over 300 ships, to literally any of these women of color.
Times silence breaker of the year: an out of touch, ACLU-condemned fair weather feminist who probably only agreed to do the interview on the condition that they didnt ask her about Donald Trump.