On Aug. 18, Taylor Swift erased the photos from her Instagram account and, over the course of three days, replaced them with a flickering image of an emerald snake. The last post revealed the snake’s head. Its red eyes gazed forward as it lurched towards the viewer with fangs bared.
Theatrical album releases are nothing new for Swift, who, shortly after her social media switchover, dropped her darkest single to date. The music video for the song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” opens with an image of a gravestone. Etched on its face is a single sentence: “Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Reputation.”
While there are those who have embraced Swift’s new sound and video, many fans were horrified to witness “America’s sweetheart” claw herself out of her own grave. Perhaps the most startling image is the one in which Swift stands atop a mountain of past selves. It’s unnerving to watch the white T-shirt wearing “You Belong With Me” Swift lose her grip and fall with arms outstretched into the blackness.
The Christian Post wrote of that Swift in 2011, saying she “[stood] out for being one of the most positive figures in pop culture; acting as a good example to young fans.” Looking at Swift in “Look What You Made Me Do,” and the subsequent audience response, I could not help but be reminded of Miley Cyrus – another white, female “role model” who lost her sheen in the public eye and subsequently, to some, fell from grace.
The “good-girl-gone-bad” trope is so embedded into pop culture, that the public is primed to expect a “fallen angel.” But Swift didn’t offer that with her latest release. Rather, she gives us a confrontational call-out of the entire expectation game. “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now,” Swift says in one scene. “Why? Oh ‘cause she’s dead.” Maybe that Swift feels she must destroy her “sweetheart” image to be heard should alarm us. Swift was sainted without her consent. The unsettling reality is that the same expectation continues to be imposed upon women, celebrity and non-celebrity alike.
We as Christians should think critically about the role the church plays in enforcing this narrative. Despite the growing acceptance of female faith leaders, many churches still ask their young women to sign or verbally agree to purity pledges. “Chewed gum” and “sticky tape” metaphors are used to discourage sexual promiscuity and to shame those who do not comply. This past May, Maddi Runkles made national news when the Christian school that she attended decided to deny the 4.0 average student the right to participate in the graduation ceremony. Why? Because Runkles had become pregnant and thus had been deemed guilty of violating the school’s sexual purity policy.
There is harm in that purity narrative. We see that harm personified in Swift’s video. While much of Swift’s video comprises scenes of physical destruction, the scene in which the past Swifts form a line and criticize one another bears witness to the emotional destruction of notions of purity and other external expectations thrust upon young women that often go unacknowledged. In the final moments of her video, Swift stands behind these images of her past self, looking on as they turn on one another.
While there are elements of Swift’s video that are problematic and are deserving of thoughtful reflection, I am reminded that Swift did not ask to be “America’s sweetheart.” It was a title imposed on her — a title she was initially emboldened by and ultimately burdened by. Perhaps our main issue with Swift’s new song is not the song itself, but rather our disappointment at discovering that Swift is not who we built her to be.
When we idolize purity or perfection — and when we wait for its inevitable unravelling — we put our young women at risk of becoming labeled, fragmented, and isolated. Swift’s video serves as an invitation for Christians to enter in to an honest conversation about purity culture in the church and the way it colors our view of female reputation. We would do well to remember that we are neither sweethearts nor serpents. Neither is Swift.