Not ever one to mince her words, Camille Paglia’s choice of “obnoxious Nazi Barbie” Taylor Swift as her latest target is unsurprising considering the widespread, unquestioning adulation Swift receives from her legion of young female fans.
In an essay for the Hollywood Reporter the cultural critic said the singer “should retire that obnoxious Nazi Barbie routine of wheeling out friends and celebrities as performance props”.
But Swift’s – admittedly slightly nauseating – habit of bringing her “girl squad” on stage with her has already been subject to mockery online, most famously in the viral Marie Schoenhals parody Please Welcome to the Stage.
But Paglia has gone one step further by saying that the “tittering, tongues-out mugging of Swift’s bear-hugging posse” is out of step with modern feminism and presents a “silly, regressive public image”.
Even those who aren’t fans of her music should feel for Swift. In many ways, she can’t win. Her confessional brand of songwriting has seen her portrayed as the “crazy ex-girlfriend”: manipulative, calculating and obsessive; now the “fascist blonde” is doing female bonding wrong as well. Paglia called the singer’s persona a “scary flashback to the fascist blondes who ruled the social scene in my youth”.
Swift’s girl squad of real-life friends and associates is, of course, something of a marketing gimmick (a pop star who engages in gimmicks – who would have thought it?). But to hold her stage production up as a totemic symbol of the hollow nature of modern female relationships seems somewhat unfair.
As with any figure popular with teenage girls, Swift occupies an uneasy place on the cultural landscape. The demographic she attracts means many do not take her seriously as an artist, but she is expected – like so many women in the public eye – to be a role model to those younger than her.
Perhaps Paglia is forgetting just how young Swift’s fans are. Adult women are perfectly able to form their own interpretations of female solidarity and its manifestations in the public sphere; children, not so much. All they see is a group of women on stage having a laugh, in the same way my generation saw the Spice Girls and noted their simple message on the importance of female friendship. It’s hardly sophisticated, complex feminism. But then, why does it need to be? See it as a gateway drug.
Paglia is right that female bonding needs to be about “mentoring, exchanging advice and experience and launching exciting and innovative joint projects”. For all we know, Swift could be doing all these things behind the scenes. But her fans have paid for concert tickets, not a panel discussion.
I also think that Paglia is wrong to argue that “women have lost the natural solidarity and companionship they enjoyed for thousands of years in the preindustrial agrarian world, where multiple generations chatted through the day as they shared chores, cooking and childcare”.
Liberated from the kitchen, these days we chat over the water cooler, or cocktails, using text message and social media, with women not just in our immediate family or community circles but also in our professions.
Most women know there is nothing more valuable in a workplace than a more experienced female mentor.
Furthermore, we are lucky enough to be able to exchange information with women all over the world. The internet has provided an international solidarity movement for women.
You don’t have to be a teenage girl to notice the venom Swift, or indeed any woman in the public eye, is subjected to on a regular basis. The fact that her girl squad has been pulled up as an example of the shallowness of modern culture demonstrates the extent to which women’s behaviour is still monitored, scrutinised and then castigated – frequently by other women.
Still, if Swift is bruised by the accusation that she is failing as a role model, she should look to the other examples Paglia cites of approved female bonding – Charlie’s Angel and Sex and the City – and conclude that the academic doesn’t know what she is talking about. There were some positive messages in there somewhere, if you delved beneath the leather trousers and vacuous consumerism.
But sophisticated portrayals of the many complexities of female friendship? Don’t look to Hollywood. – © Guardian News & Media 2015