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Look What You Made Her Do: Taylor Swift And The Power And Appeal Of Feminist Rage

by Nancy Jo Sales

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour has earned an estimated $129.8 million at the box office in just two weekends, already making it the highest-grossing concert film in domestic history. By now, no one is surprised to hear another stat underscoring the devotion of Swifties, the most passionate fandom in existence outside of the Beyhive. Over the last year, Swifties crashed Ticketmaster’s website trying to score tickets to the Eras Tour (predicted, at $2.2 billion, to become the highest grossing tour of all time), caused an earthquake at Seattle’s Lumen Field, and, according to the Federal Reserve, boosted the U.S. economy. Even non-Swifties struggle to find the words to describe the thrill of not only Swift’s performances but the electric sense of excitement and solidarity emanating from her audiences. 

But what is surprising is how little attention has been paid to what makes Swift’s fans love her so much. As someone who interviewed Swift ten years ago, at a kind of turning point in terms of her public image—when she quoted Madeleine Albright saying “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”—I have wondered if the reason for this is that it’s more comfortable for some to see America’s blonde pop superstar as just a sweet, unthreatening girl-next-door rather than the feminist revenge queen she actually is. I think if they ever make another movie about Boudica (the ancient British queen who led a bloody military campaign against the Romans after they raped her daughters), casting Swift in the lead would be a very good call.

Stories in the media about what makes Swift fans tick usually focus on her “relatability,” her expressions of adolescent angst, her personal connection with her fans, and her canny creation of a cohesive, Easter-egg-laden fandom spanning across social media platforms. Well, sure. Undeniably, Swift is a songwriter who tells such personal stories that fans feel “kind of like they’re reading my diary,” as she herself has said. “She wrote a song called ‘Fifteen’ when I was 15 and I was like, Oh my God, I’m 15 too, she gets me,” says Katy Legge, 33, a Brooklyn bartender I talked to recently after I decided I wanted to know what Swifties themselves had to say about what made them feel so zealous about their fandom. 

“But now that I’m older,” Legge went on, “I also see how she’s this incredibly strong woman who’s not going to take shit from anybody, and that’s very inspiring. There were clues to this side of her early on with songs like ‘Picture to Burn,’ but as she grew and found her voice, the floodgates kind of opened.”

“Picture to Burn,” on Swift’s self-titled debut solo album (2006), is a breakup song in which she tells her unnamed, sexist ex (who has a “stupid old pickup truck” he never lets her drive): “As far as I’m concerned, you’re just anothеr picture to burn / There’s no timе for tears / I’m just sitting here planning my revenge.”

Swift has never made any secret of the fact that resistance is one of her central themes. Song after song in her oeuvre expresses her desire and need to settle the score—by writing hit songs. Whether they’re about high school bullies (“for whom she wrote “Mean”) or internet trolls (“You Need to Calm Down”) or the men who have mistreated her professionally (“My Tears Ricochet”) or in romantic relationships (there are an estimated 21 of these, including one called “Better Than Revenge”), she makes it clear that she won’t put up with anybody’s abuse. 

“I think a big part of her appeal is that she talks about bullies and revenge,” says Bianca Brummel, 33, an English teacher from Plainfield, Illinois. “Some people say that makes her seem like she’s ‘playing the victim’ but I think it makes her seem powerful and unafraid to call out the truth.”

“I believe she’s fulfilling a need for women to express revenge,” says Sujeong Kim, 25, another English teacher in Tongyeong, South Korea. “The lyrics of her songs make people think about what is not fair for women and what could be seen as the toxic traits of men.”  

“All I think about is karma,” Swift says in her searing revenge anthem “Look What You Made Me Do.” “And then the world moves on, but one thing’s for sure / Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.”

It has been widely speculated that that song is about Kanye West, who has attacked Swift repeatedly over the years, starting in 2009 when she was only 20. In 2023, as West’s reputation has nosedived and Swift’s has continued to soar, it might be hard to remember that he once had stadiums full of people chanting along gleefully to an offensive line about her in his song “Famous” (as seen in her first concert tour movie, Miss Americana, released in 2020).

“If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing,” Swift says in her song “I Did Something Bad.” “I don’t regret it one bit, ‘cause he had it coming.”

“She has publicly stood up to a lot of men who have felt as though they could walk all over her,” said Charlotte Van der Linden, 17, a college freshman originally from New York. “Like [music industry executive] Scooter Braun,” whose refusal to sell Swift her master recordings for her first six albums inspired her to re-record them as “Taylor’s Version.” 

“She has also called out huge platforms such as Netflix for using her as the punchline of a sexist joke,” Van der Linden said, referring to when Swift condemned an episode of Ginny and Georgia that made a tired, misogynistic reference to her dating history. And “many of her songs, like ‘The Man’ and ‘Mad Woman’ are digs at societal issues regarding sexism,” she added.

In “Mad Woman,” Swift asks, “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back? / They strike to kill and you know I will.”

Like that time in 2017 when Swift testified against David Mueller, the Denver country radio DJ who sued her for $3 million for allegedly getting him fired after she told his bosses that he sexually assaulted her, reaching under her skirt and grabbing her “bare ass” during a photo shoot in 2013 when he was 51 and she was 23. Swift countersued for $1 and won. “I thought what he did was despicable,” she said in court.

And this is why Swift fans tell me they adore her—“because she’s a badass you better not mess with or she’ll get you back,” said one, who asked not to be named as she shared: “There have been times in my life when I felt like I wanted kill myself but then I ask myself, ‘What would Taylor do?’ and I know she would never do it.”   

At a time when millennial and Gen-Z women, who make up the majority of Swift fans, are experiencing challenges of unprecedented proportions—with rates of suicide, depression, anxiety and loneliness skyrocketing, and instances of sexual assault horrifyingly high—Swift comforts and inspires by being, like her song says, “Fearless.” Like so many of her fans, she has been cyberbullied, sexually assaulted, treated unfairly in love and work, stalked. And yes, she tells fans, “Shake It Off,” but also fight back. And don’t forget to vote.  

“The tour was absolutely surreal,” says McKenzie Prince, 28, a behavior analyst in Louisville who attended the Eras Tour in Nashville. “It was literally a cathartic experience. It’s no joke what they say about that moment when she first comes out, you just look around and everyone is overwhelmed with emotion. It’s hard to even describe because she means so much in so many ways to everyone who is there. It’s just really special.”

top image: screen grab from youtube

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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