The video for her latest single “You Need To Calm Down” is cut from the same cloth. Released yesterday, it features cameos from a star-studded call sheet that includes an impressive list of gay, transgender, and queer celebrities including Laverne Cox, the “fab five” from Queer Eye, actor Billy Porter, Olympic medalist Adam Rippon, a handful of drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race as well as RuPaul himself.
Debate is raging about whether this was a powerful act of allyship or a problematic exploitation of a marginalised community for her own benefit. But dig a little deeper and there’s a more worrying undertone to the video in how homophobia is depicted.
The video unfolds in a technicolor trailer park as Swift and her pals strut through the street unashamed, holding tea parties and celebrating in unison as two men in powder blue suits wed under a floral arch. A food fight ends with Swift embracing her longstanding rival Katy Perry, commemorating the end of a tabloid feud that's lasted for almost a decade. The video is a celebration of many things, chief among them the freedom to be queer and unbothered.
But Taylor's trailer park party is not without its detractors: a counter-protest stands in opposition armed with signs in their hands and snarls on their faces as Swift dryly chides, "You need to calm down." With lyrics like "Shade never made anybody less gay" and "Why be mad when you could be GLAAD", the song could be Taylor Swift's personal celebration of her private sexuality just as easily as it could be an ally's anthem in support of those who face discrimination that she does not.
Though Swift has never publicly addressed her own sexuality, the video ends with a call to action to sign her petition for senate support of the Equality Act, which would protect individuals from discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
But who is perpetuating these daily hate crimes, and who is standing in the way of progress? In the video's paisley-friendly paradise, homophobia is embodied by a caricature of the rural American working class.
The protestors are depicted as unkempt, unshowered, and uneducated with tattered clothing, stringy hair and misspelled signs. It's a visual riff on a common refrain, one that cites the American South as the source of the country's homophobia, and that the working-class communities are to blame.
It's not a fair fight, though: homophobia exists at all levels of the class system, and to pretend that the enemy is in double-denim with an American flag on its T-shirt does a disservice to the queer community regardless of whether or not Taylor Swift considers herself a part of it.
Swift was raised the daughter of a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch and a former mutual fund marketing executive, and has an unbelievably successful career in a lucrative industry. Yet LGBT+ Americans are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed than their non-LGBT+ counterparts, and around one in four LGBT+ Americans face food insecurity, according to a study by the UCLA School of Law.
Many LGBT+ people are from the very communities Swift is mocking. Not all of us are rich, and many of us still don’t have the freedom to be openly liberal and camp like the celebrity cameos in her music video. To create such a divide is disingenuous, and marginalises LGBT+ people who identify more with those on the other side of the fence.
More importantly though, to pretend that homophobia is made and manufactured in the sticks is a betrayal to Taylor's fan base, many of whom are both queer and working class.
It's not hard to imagine an easier target for Swift's flying of the rainbow flag than low-income rural communities. Where is Mike Pence, who voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, which would have banned acts of workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation? Or the president himself, who has repeatedly demonised transgender people and limited their access to the resources they need?
"You Need To Calm Down" might be Taylor Swift embracing her own sexuality; it also might be her using her platform to voice her in support of her queer fans. But biases against members of the queer community exist across the board, spanning class lines and backgrounds—to change the living conditions of those in our community, we need to start at the top, and Taylor's landed a low blow by depicting homophobia's dress code as cheap clothes and bad grammar.
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