Words || Elizabeth Laughton
Taylor Swift’s ‘You Need To Calm Down’ music video opens with a pastel reimagination of a caravan park for the rich and affluential.
Familiar faces flitter across the screen, Swift makes a smoothie from hell, and everyone performs an unbothered facade in the face of angry, country hick protestors. At first it feels like a weird, self-aware critique of the bourgeois.
However, even more surreal than that: it is, supposedly, meant to be a ‘gay anthem’.
The familiar figures that strut around Swift’s park are all celebrities who are Out as queer. Their presence, as well as the line “cause shade never made anybody less gay”, are clues that we should be praising this hollow pop number as the next breakthrough for the LGBT+ community.
I don’t buy it.
Like, literally, I refuse to buy it.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a bit of a closeted Sw*ftie myself. I grew up on Swift’s album Fearless and have had a few good sobs to ‘White Horse’.
But I refuse to purchase or stream a song – nay, ‘anthem’ – for a minority group while a non-minority is profiting off of it.
This is where other Swifties will say, “But Taylor used the song to promote support for the Equality Act!” So she did, fellow Swifties. The video does conclude with a neat, on-brand font that instructs viewers to sign a petition supporting the Act. And it’s an important cause – the Equality Act is generating immense debate in American politics about how LGBT+ people are treated under American law.
However, Swift need not write a song that she profits off of to share a petition link.
There’s actually a term for this sort of strategic move to make money off of minority interests – ‘pink washing’. The term was coined by a breast cancer charity in the 1990s. They had identified a number of corporate sponsors who would flaunt their support of the charity to secure consumer trust and loyalty. Nowadays, brands will turn their products pink for months to ‘raise awareness’ with absolutely no intention of donating any profits.
Similarly, the term can be applied to instances where a corporation will perform some seemingly supportive deed for LGBT+ people to construct a narrative of allyship. This allyship is supposed to secure our favour as uncritical gays who just want to see a rainbow logo.
It looks like banks having floats in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Madi Gras. It looks like the Converse x Pride launch. It looks like celebrities that are not LGBT+, or who never spoke out for us when it would have jeopardised their income, suddenly being hailed as the gay icons we’ve been waiting for.
In addition to this, the video omits the reality of modern homophobia and transphobia. The celebrities who feature surely have their own experiences of discrimination as queer people. Yet, they remain protected from the often more severe oppression against working class LGBT+ folk. There’s also the representation of country hicks with misspelt signs as the typical bigots against the community. It feels like a tacky caricature of homophobia and transphobia that trivialises its threat to LGBT+ people. Furthermore, it forgets to mention the people in power who systemically oppress minorities through law and its enforcement.
This isn’t a question of whether Swift’s new song is a good one, nor whether sharing the petition for the Equality Act was meaningful. It’s a question of why Swift is allowed to profit off of advocating for the LGBT+ community. It’s also a question of how successful the representation of homophobia and transphobia was to qualify the video as ‘woke’. But really, I’d like to ask, should we be lauding around another rich, white, cisgender and heterosexual woman as the icon of our community?