Taylor Swift & The Good Girl Narrative We Know All Too Well
Taylor Swift's 10-minute version of All Too Well and accompanying short film as part of the re-release of her album Red had me SHOOK over the weekend! Apparently I wasn't the only one because as I write this post, her short film has already been viewed almost 30 million times on YouTube.
Taylor is nothing if not a gifted storyteller. The foundation of her success is vulnerability. She built her brand by telling relatable stories about her real life. It works because her courage to share her raw moments invites us to remember ours too.
The things that haunt Taylor haunt many of us. And I was definitely haunted this time. Not only did I watch these two videos on repeat all weekend, I redirected my obsession over to Netflix where I re-watched her 2020 documentary, Miss Americana.
I'm not what you would consider a true diehard fan, but I've enjoyed Taylor's work over the years and I have been paying attention to her recent record label dispute and decision to rerecord her music in a bold move to take her power back. This time around, the documentary caught my attention about a very specific idea that is designed to disempower women from using their voices. And I saw it show up in her new art as well. Truth be told, this one hit home for me.
The Good Girl
Taylor talks about her self-imposed identity as a "good girl" and how it shaped her persona early on in her life and career. She opens up about how she had constructed her belief system around this identity and how those beliefs made it difficult for her to use her voice.
"But a nice girl doesn't force their opinions on people. A nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you. A nice girl doesn't make people feel uncomfortable with her views."
"I was so obsessed with not getting in trouble that I was like, I'm just not gonna do anything that anyone could say anything about."
As she came of age in an industry that coached her to avoid talking about anything that could be controversial, Taylor's beliefs that success was tied to working hard and being a good girl were further reinforced. She recalls being warned repeatedly about the cautionary tale of how the Dixie Chicks were cancelled after making a political statement about President Bush and the war in Iraq. The media immediately jumped to discredit the group with headlines and coverage that said actual things like:
"These are the dumbest, dumbest bimbos that I have seen."
When women step outside of the prescribed "good girl" persona and speak about things that are supposed to be off limits, the response is usually to attack them for their intelligence, not the ideas they communicate. This tactic makes it easy to dismiss women with contrary ideas because they have now been rendered lesser than, unworthy of a man's intellect.
Consequences of Dropping The Good Girl Persona
Taylor was sent very clear messages about the fragility of success for women who do not fall into line. And when Taylor began using her voice, the very things she had been warned about happened to her too. Backlash during the second round of public drama with Kanye West drove her out of the public eye around the same time she was battling a very emotional sexual assault trial. What happened when she reemerged?
She gave us a great comeback story to look up to.
Taylor revealed that she went inward to find her worth and reentered the public eye with a strong sense of confidence and even better art to share with the world. Over the past few years we've seen a very different Taylor who has settled into a more authentic and vocal persona. We even get a glimpse into a tough conversation with her father who preferred that she continue to avoid talking about politics or other polarizing topics out of fear she will lose her fanbase and put her life in danger by being so outspoken. Yeah... you read that right. Let it sink in.
Taylor's story inspires women to reject the false narratives that are designed to control our behavior and keep us small. And just as we think she's completely conquered the good girl demon, she gives us a glimpse into another vulnerable moment where she struggles with internalized misogyny as she critiques the way her face looks in her Me! video shoot.
"I make a mean face when I'm not trying to. See? I have a real slappable face. Yeah, you just wanna be like... what are you plotting? What's she planning? I wasn't meaning to look like that. I'm gonna try to be more likable on the next one."
It's one of those moments you seriously wish the idea of "resting bitch face" was never invented. And then you quickly realize why it was. Despite Taylor's growth, we still see her struggling in a society that demands nice, good girls over serious, confident women. It serves as the reminder of how vigilant we must be with our self-talk.
And if battling our minds wasn't enough, Taylor highlights the nature of how women have to work twice as hard to hold on to their success:
"The female artists I know of have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists. They have to or else you're out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent. Constantly finding new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny. Be new to us. Be young to us, but only in a new way and only the way we want. And reinvent yourself but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you. Live out a narrative that we find interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable."
All Too Well
Taylor brings this idea into her new version of All Too Well. The short film opens with a young Taylor asking a somewhat older man if he's "real" as the lovers embrace. We are immediately transported back to our own memories of the electric first weeks of a new relationship. I mean that kiss in the woods, am I right?
It's not long before we see the whirlwind romance unravel. The lyrics suggest the romantic getaways were actually his way of keeping her separate from his real life:
"You kept me like a secret / But I kept you like an oath"
As she eventually does integrate into his life, it's the beginning of the end. The moment she shows some insecurity, he responds by gaslighting her. Their first fight reveals that there doesn't seem to be much of a place for her whole self in his actual real life. Her emotional response is beyond the boundary of the nice, good girl that was easy to be with. Now she seems like more of an inconvenience to him. She sings,
"That idea you had of me / who was she / a never-needy ever lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you / Not weeping in the party bathroom / Some actress asking me what happened"
It's a stark lyrical contrast to the image of a guy with a "Fuck the Patriarchy" keychain she sings about earlier in the song. In true Taylor fashion, a deeper story is being told. The story of how stepping outside of the good girl identity comes with a cost.