Early Wednesday morning, TIME’s Person of the Year was announced as the “Silence Breakers” — those who spoke about their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment at the hands of powerful men, and used their platforms to invite others to unlearn their own silence as well. Many felt relieved that the title hadn’t gone to Donald Trump, a known abuser and predator himself, and that Tarana Burke, who founded the movement in 2006, was given credit in the #MeToo narrative (though many said that Burke should have been on the cover). Given that in the last two months since the Weinstein stories first broke, the credit for the #MeToo movement has often been given to white women like Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan, this was one step in the right direction for TIME.
But much to my disappointment, I and many others squinted at the official cover of the Person of the Year edition to see none other than Taylor Swift. Although Swift went to court after a DJ groped her, got fired, and then sued her for defamation (she countersued for $1 and won), the TIME interview is the first time she has spoken out about sexual harassment and assault. I was disappointed that Swift was chosen over myriad figures in the movement who have risked their reputations and lives to support survivors — women like Lupita Nyong’o, Gabrielle Union, Anita Hill, Amber Heard, or Kesha. Although I felt frustrated at the inclusion of Taylor, who has been eerily but predictably silent about #MeToo and is not particularly well known for speaking out on political issues, I felt more angry about those who were excluded. The omission of these women was telling, and begs the question: Who do we allow to be a part of the narrative and whose activism do we center?
From 2014 to 2016, Kesha was dragged through a brutal court battle in which she fought for freedom from her contract with SONY and her abuser, Dr. Luke. She was legally bound to work with the producer, who she had accused of sexual assault, and claimed that he had prevented the singer from releasing new music. All Kesha wanted was the freedom to create and release the music she wanted to without being beholden to her abuser, but she continued to face setbacks. Following the first waves of the battle, Kesha’s fans took to social media with the hashtag #FreeKesha and offered unwavering support. It was only this year that Kesha was finally able to release new music, although the case is still somewhat up in the air.
So to see TIME’s dismissal of Kesha and her tireless years of work feels like a personal affront to me and many others who identified with the singer’s open and earnest battle for freedom from her abuser. As a sexual assault survivor myself, knowing how difficult it is to speak up and ruin one’s own reputation to fight for some semblance of justice made watching Kesha’s battles particularly hard. For many of us, Kesha was a hero on the frontlines. We saw Kesha drag herself through hell and back to not only fight for her own safety and justice, but also to set a precedent for the justice that survivors deserve. In speaking out and choosing to go through drawn out legal battles and publicly humiliating chatter that called into question her honesty and her motives, Kesha didn’t just risk her reputation as a strong don’t-give-a-damn powerhouse, she risked her career and her future. Kesha allowed the world see her as torn, vulnerable, and out of options, but still worthy of respect and the chance to pursue her art. When Kesha chose to continue against all odds, she wasn’t simply fighting for herself — she was fighting for and uplifting her fellow survivors by refusing to back down.
During the course of her legal battles, she didn’t center the narrative around herself and instead made a point to uplifting fellow women and survivors. On top of her public statements, the artist released her album Rainbow earlier this year, in which she sings about her struggles and finding her peace in the song “Praying.”
On October 19 of this year, Kesha Tweeted in support of the #MeToo movement, saying, “I support the tremendous amount of women who are coming forward to tell their stories of harassment and abuse." As detailed by Billboard, Kesha is one of the more prominent figures who helped to shape the anti-harassment movement within the entertainment industry.
In the Person of the Year piece, Taylor Swift explains that she turned to Kesha for guidance and support during her own legal battle against a DJ who groped her, saying it helped to talk to “someone who had been through the demoralizing court process.” But while the “Silence Breakers” title boasts that all of the individuals grouped together are “the voices that launched a movement,” it fails to give recognition to Kesha, who put everything she earned and cared for on the line to stand up against abusive systems and power dynamics.
Kesha has continued to use her platform to uplift survivors of eating disorders, mental health issues, and suicidal thoughts, continually reminding her fans that being brave and being vulnerable can sometimes be the same thing. She lost years of her career, her income, and her sanity in order to fight a battle that she knew it was necessary to fight. Recently, she wrote a piece for TIME about dealing with mental illness during the holidays.
While Swift has fought legal battles of her own, her silence surrounding the struggles of other survivors of assault, coupled with her consistent failure to address criticism of her feminism, makes her placement on the cover of TIME a baffling one. It’s not that Swift’s experience with sexual assault is not on par with others profiled by TIME, which would be offensive to survivors, but that she has largely not used her voice as significantly as others in the #MeToo movement, and especially not in comparison to musicians like Kesha. Of course, it would be impossible and disingenuous to measure survivors' experiences against one another, but it is possible to measure uses of privilege and platform against one another. And at the end of the day, Kesha’s use of her platform and her voice to shed light on harrowing issues deserved space in the magazine.
When the world did not want to listen, Kesha broke the silence about her own experiences with abuse and sexual assault and in doing so, made space for others to break the silence as well. Kesha didn’t simply rise from the ashes to renew her career — she also used her pain to help heal others who could relate.
In an interview with The Root, founder of the #MeToo movement Tarana Burke described #MeToo as a bond between survivors and a “journey toward healing.” For this reason above all, I’m disappointed by Kesha’s exclusion in the movement, when she has always lent her voice and her hand to lift others up next to her during her own journey of healing.
Top photo: Kesha, "Rainbow" music video
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Elly Belle is a writer, digital media strategist, and pun enthusiast living and working in Brooklyn, New York. Unfortunately, she does not own any cats but still fiercely stands by her title of Supreme Cat Lady. Follow her on Twiter @literElly.