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Taylor Swift and the Era of the Girl

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’Tis the season of Taylor Swift. Maybe you’re sick of her, or maybe you’re obsessed. Either way, you are likely finding yourself in the middle of a Girl Culture moment. But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


Girlhood’s Big Year

After Thanksgiving dinner, as my family members were settling in around the television for our annual football nap, a picture of a certain blond pop star floated across the screen. “Taylor Swift is so stupid,” a relative groaned. “Just show the game!”

I was surprised. Not by the comment itself—that’s typical uncle behavior—but because he was, shockingly, the first man in my life to express disgust about Taylor Swift’s recent ubiquity. Many of my guy friends have danced in the crowd at the Eras Tour. They have sent me silly social-media memes of Travis Kelce and Taylor, because my friends know I love their coupledom. For weeks, my father has been thrilled to answer all of my questions about “bye weeks” and “tight ends.” These men are not threatened by Taylor’s domination of the NFL. They love her! And I love them!

On that November afternoon, the realization hit me suddenly, even though the signs, and media reports, have been there for months: We are in the boom times of Girl Culture—brought forth, in part, by the incandescent glow of Taylor Swift’s torch.

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Girl Culture is the art and media that values and communicates girls’ perspectives, according to Elizabeth Scala, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Girl Culture has always been a Thing. (See: Clueless, and Jane Austen.) But in the past 10 years, Scala says, it has seeped into the mainstream in a new way: Swift’s Eras Tour, Beyoncé’s Renaissance, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. But also: hot-girl walks. Girl dinners. Taylor Swift is on ESPN now. It’s impossible to look away.

These days, professors at numerous U.S. colleges are teaching classes about Taylor Swift’s music and entrepreneurship. Last year, Scala became one of the first, designing a course in which students analyze song structure alongside famous literature. Scala wants her students to be able to speak intelligently and objectively about Swift’s work, she told me. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, three quatrains, or units of four lines, are usually followed by a couplet turn, which summarizes or questions the earlier lines. Scala gets her students to care about sonnet structure by showing them that “Taylor Swift is doing something very similar in moving from lyrics to chorus, and then the bridge is where she’s making the turn.” And, as all Swifties know, Taylor can write a bridge.

In my college friend group, liking Taylor Swift wasn’t cool. It was “girly,” which meant it was vapid. So when 1989 came out, instead of shouting the lyrics to “Out of the Woods,” I was watching boys play video games and pretending to love Arcade Fire. Lots of Taylor fans have stories like this. So does Swift, and that’s part of her success.

A lot of Swift’s music is about women giving their feelings and experiences the credence they deserve. “All Too Well” is a good example, Scala notes. The song is about a red scarf and an autumn romance, ostensibly with Jake Gyllenhaal, but it’s also an angry reaction to the notion that an important relationship was all in her head. “Taylor gets to come back and say, No, you don’t get to tell me this wasn’t real. I was there. It was rare; I remember it,” Scala told me. Like all of Taylor’s songs, “All Too Well” offers Taylor’s Version of a life event, and that version is often much more compelling—and richer in detail and sneaky Easter eggs—than a narrative that most intermediaries could provide. So compelling, in fact, that Swift has made some celebrity-profile writers wonder whether she even needs them anymore.

Even as I welcome the acceptance of girl culture with open, eager arms, a clarification is in order: Appreciating Girl Culture doesn’t mean being uncritical of it. You are free to dislike Barbie, for example, because you found America Ferrera’s monologue on feminism way too on the nose. You can be obsessed with Lena Dunham’s HBO show, Girls, while acknowledging that it becomes virtually unwatchable after Season 4. Similarly, just because Taylor Swift communicates an arresting narrative doesn’t mean that journalists—or even fans—have to accept it as truth.

In his Person of the Year interview with Swift for Time, Sam Lansky points out that, despite Swift’s assertions, no one actually canceled Swift in 2016—during a public feud with Kanye West and his then-wife, Kim Kardashian—or took her career away. But then Lansky immediately negates this important point by shrugging his shoulders and writing, “Who am I to challenge it, if that’s how she felt?” Can you imagine if all journalists treated their subjects so credulously?

Of course, the power of Swift’s feelings has always been her great strength. The tiny, specific details of her life—of all of our lives—are how she’s come to dominate Girl Culture.

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Thinking back, my family member’s Thanksgiving comment sounded strange because it was almost vintage. A tedious throwback to a time, albeit not that long ago, when it was socially acceptable to openly belittle the things that women like. Not anymore. We are in the “girlies” era now. Saying that in 2012 might have felt cheesy. Today, it feels metal as hell.

Related:


Today’s News

  1. According to law-enforcement officials, a former college professor who had applied for a position at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is suspected of shooting four people on its campus yesterday.
  2. A judge in Texas ruled that a woman whose fetus has a lethal abnormality may terminate her pregnancy despite the state’s abortion laws.
  3. Representative Jamaal Bowman was censured by the House for pulling a fire alarm in a Capitol Hill building in September; Bowman claims that it was an accident.

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Evening Read

Contributor / Getty

The Sanctions Against Russia Are Starting to Work

By Leon Aron

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Now that Russian President Vladimir Putin finds himself in a war of attrition, his only chance at victory depends on outlasting both Ukraine and its military supporters. He isn’t merely counting on the demoralization of the Ukrainian people and on “Ukraine fatigue” in the West; he’s also assuming that his own country has the stamina for a long and brutal fight. Yet after nearly two years in which Putin has largely succeeded in insulating most of his subjects from the war, the effects of Western sanctions—coupled with the astronomical and growing human and monetary costs of the conflict—are finally beginning to cause pain for the Russian general public.

Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine early last year, when the United States, the European Union, and other democratic nations moved to disconnect Russia from global financial and trade networks, many Western commentators hoped that the country’s economy would quickly buckle, creating pressure on Putin to withdraw. That hasn’t happened.

Read the full article.

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P.S.

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Caity Weaver, who is one of the best magazine writers working today, recently wrote an utterly charming profile of Stephanie Courtney—the actress and comedian you might recognize as Flo from the Progressive insurance commercials. The story is goofy and silly and also, somehow, extremely deep.

— Elaine

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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