Taylor Swift: from saccharine songstress to fearless feminist

After the ‘groping trial’, the debate over whether she is a good or bad role model is over

Taylor Swift: “My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard.” Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

For years, a debate has raged over the question of whether Taylor Swift was a fantastic role model for girls, or a terrible one.

Her supporters make the point that she is a healthy, clean-living, self-made woman who inspired a generation of girls to creative expression. Together with her honey-limbed, white-smiled “squad”, who are regularly photographed sweetly wrapped around one another on sandy beaches or in nightclubs, she has elevated female friendship to a glossy artform, they say.

Her detractors point out, not unreasonably, that someone who became famous for songs in which she literally sang about waiting for a man on a white horse to save her can hardly be declared a feminist icon.

It is, they say, also tough to apply the label to someone who once declined to define herself as a feminist at all: "I don't really think about things as guys versus girls," she responded to the question from an interviewer from the Daily Beast in 2012.


She later revised her stance, saying she hadn’t understood back then what feminism was; that once she had it explained to her, she knew she was a feminist.

In a way, that only seemed to reinforce the criticisms against her: that she was a bit too passive, too apolitical, too uninvolved, too bland. She only wanted to get involved in anything controversial if it was a celebrity feud. Her silence during the US presidential election led to her critics calling her “spineless”, “anti-feminist” and even “complicit”.

In January 2017, Buzzfeed published a 6,000-word diatribe against her, accusing her of building her career on “playing the victim”.

For a long time, the case against seemed stronger. But as of last week, the debate is off.

What the internet is calling, tastelessly, her “groping trial” marked Swift’s evolution from saccharine songstress to smart, fearless – and yes, furious – feminist.

The background to the trial – which, she has said, she decided to pursue because she wanted to give a visible show of strength to other women who have been similarly violated – began four years ago, when she was 23, at a Denver concert.

Awkward photo

Swift stood for an awkward photo during a meet-and-greet with 51-year-old David Mueller, a local radio DJ, and his then-girlfriend. She later claimed that, while the photo was being taken, he put his hand on her “bare ass”. The photograph, which is being circulated on the internet, neither fully proves nor disproves her claim – though his hand certainly seems to be in the vicinity of her bottom – but the jury believed her.

Last week, a jury threw out Mueller’s $3 million unfair dismissal case, in which Swift was a co-defendant, and ruled in her favour in her own civil case countersuing him for $1. On Monday, he was found guilty of assault and battery.

Swift released a statement thanking her attorneys “for fighting for me and anyone who feels silenced by a sexual assault”.

“I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this,” she said. “My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard. Therefore, I will be making donations in the near future to multiple organisations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves.”

He did not touch my rib. He did not touch my arm. He did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare ass

But it was her evidence during the trial that really demonstrated how Swift has come of age as a courageous, outspoken, and occasionally fierce advocate for women who have had enough of being expected to quietly and uncomplainingly endure unwanted physical contact.

Far from playing the victim, she became a voice for voiceless women who – in the era of a pussy-grabbing US president – are tired of being told they imagined it.

Or being told that an “accidental” brush was actually accidental. Or that a touch was not a touch. Or that they brought it on themselves. Or that they’re overreacting. Or that he made a mistake. Or that he was wrong, but he doesn’t deserve this. Or that they shouldn’t make a fuss. Or that they should relax. Or that they should be flattered. Or that they’re lying. Or that it never happened. Or that they wanted it.

Spell out

Again and again throughout the trial, as Mueller claimed he only touched her “ribcage”, or that a colleague might have been the one to grope her, Swift was forced to spell out what he had done to her.

“He did not touch my rib. He did not touch my arm. He did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare ass.”

“He stayed latched onto my bare ass cheek as I lurched away from him. It was a definite grab. A very long grab.”

“Other than grabbing my ass against my will, underneath my skirt, and refusing to let go, he did not otherwise touch me inappropriately.”

“I’m critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”

“He had a handful of my ass. I know it was him. I thought what he did was despicable.”

“I am not going to allow your client to make me feel like it is anyway my fault because it isn’t.”

On and on it went. She didn’t waver. Those of us who have been where Swift stood – and, let’s face it, few women among us haven’t – cheered silently as she landed blow after blow not just on Mueller’s case, but on the notion that it’s okay to grab, to stroke, to touch, to fondle, to hurt, to assault a woman, just because she happens to occupy the same physical space as you.

Perhaps even more revealing than Swift’s account of the assault was the testimony from her mother, Andrea. They had not gone to the police, she said, because she did not want it to “define” her daughter. In other words, they made the same calculation every other violated woman in history has made, and decided the cost was too high.

“I did not want this event to define her life,” she said. “I did not want every interview from this point on to have to talk about it.” She also feared internet trolls would use the incident to embarrass her daughter by Photoshopping “funny things,” into photos of the superstar.

Rape culture is women knowing they've been violated, but feeling too powerless . . .  to do anything about it

So many of us can relate to this. We have a “thing”, a “thing” we have pushed to the back of our minds. We think about the thing often, and sometimes we get angry. Sometimes we even consider pursuing the thing further but then we think about the cost, and it seems easier to let it go. Eventually, when Mueller decided to sue her, Swift decided that she would not let it go. She could have settled; instead she chose to fight.

Telling moment

There was another telling moment in Andrea Swift’s testimony.

She was asked by the opposing counsel why her daughter would finish hours of meeting with fans if she had been assaulted and was genuinely upset. Andrea Swift replied, her voice breaking: “She couldn’t believe that after he grabbed her, that she thanked them for being there. It was just destroying her that she said that. As a parent, it made me question why I taught her to be so polite.”

To parents everywhere, and particularly to the parents of daughters, I imagine Andrea Swift’s comment will have cut to the quick. We spend so much time telling our children, our daughters particularly, to be polite, to say thank you, to not make a fuss, to not be bossy or rude or nasty. We tell them not to be such a cry baby.

We do it because we mean well, because we don’t ever foresee the day when the politeness we have so painstakingly drilled into them will be the thing that hurts them.

But those are the pillars on which rape culture is built. The fear and politeness of women. The entitlement of men.

Rape culture is a privileged, internationally famous, multi-millionaire popstar who suffers a sexual assault, and instinctively thanks the guy who assaulted her.

Rape culture is women knowing they’ve been violated, but feeling too powerless, too fearful or too ashamed to do anything about it. Rape culture is women not wanting to make a fuss.

Rape culture is women deciding that they are angry enough to risk making a fuss, but then doing a calculation about what the cost of standing up for themselves might be, and deciding it’s not worth it.

Rape culture is men knowing all of this and feeling empowered by it to grope and assault, to take the chance that even if she does report him, she probably won’t be believed. It is a toxic circle, spinning around on the twin axes of entitlement and fear.

Last week Taylor Swift struck a blow against it.