HOLIDAY SPECIAL: Feminism in Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now”

Is Taylor Swift’s music as anti-feminist as critics say? And if it is, does it matter?

Greetings! I hope everybody feels physically and emotionally full from the weekend spent with family and friends.

I’d like to introduce a special series that will take place over the next few months leading up to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. You’ll never know when I’m going to drop a Taylor post instead of a regular blog post, so it’s best if you ~subscribe to my blog~ if this is the content you crave. 

If you’re an avid follower of my album rankings, you’ll notice that despite my background as a musician, I have little to say about the musical components of her pieces. I am obsessed with Taylor Swift specifically because of her carefully crafted lyricism. Pop music is notoriously catchy, meaning it follows a basic musical form by design. Her musical writing is pretty straightforward and not particularly innovative– it exists to serve as a vehicle for her words. Taylor Swift is a poet worthy of comparison to any of the great poets of the past few hundred years. In a rap battle between Emily Dickinson and Taylor Swift, I pick Taylor every time. I said what I said!!

Taylor Swift has gotten an unfair amount of flack from non-swifties ever since her career took off in 2006 with the chart-topping hit “Teardrops on my Guitar.” This piece encapsulated the stereotype of music crafted explicitly for teenage girls (literally me), but I was too cool for it, above it. I remember straightening my hair in the bathroom, wearing a tank top layered over a short-sleeved shirt, low-cut flare jeans, and heavy eyeliner when this song came on the radio for the first time. I hated it. 

This is a very terrible photo of me imitating Taylor Swift’s face in 2009. I was clearly not a fan.

Until her most recent albums, the media heavily criticized Taylor Swift’s music for focusing solely on boys. In this special series on each of Taylor’s albums, I will re-rank every song according to my enjoyment (it could be different than past rankings, who knows what my mood will be!) and discuss them briefly through a feminist lens. To be clear, I’m not ranking them from least to most feminist because I listen to her music not because of how empowering it is but rather for much I enjoy it regardless of messaging. However, before I take up the fight in defense of feminism in Taylor Swift’s music, I want to know if she deserves it. Taylor’s music inspired me to become more confident and self-assured, not apologizing for who I was or feeling like I owed anything to men. Doesn’t that sound like a feminist message? We shall see. The messages we hear in her music are subjective, and I can only provide my opinion.

I want to examine if Taylor Swift’s music is as anti-feminist as her critics say and if it actually matters. If I am a human who identifies as female and I have consistently drawn strength and courage from her music, can it be anti-feminist? What is feminism if not the unapologetic stories told from a non-male point of view?

A Fan for the Ages

Between 2006 and 2010, my perception of Taylor Swift shifted from negative to overwhelmingly positive. Taylor Swift’s new hit single, “Mine,” blasted through the kitchen as my friend and I baked brownies together. Much to my disdain, I discovered that I was enjoying the song. “Is this Taylor Swift?” I asked my friend. She replied, “yes! I actually really like this song!” Again, much to my disdain, I did too. It wasn’t particularly cool to like Taylor Swift, but I was already decidedly uncool. It was 2010, my senior year of high school, and here I was, unironically enjoying Taylor Swift.

A fan for the ages was born that day, so for that reason, I will begin my special series with Taylor Swift’s third studio album, Speak Now, released in 2010.

A nice visual of what I looked like in 2010. I’m about to dye my friend’s hair red.

Feminism (or lack thereof) in Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now”

Innocent- Favorite lyric: “It’s okay, life is a tough crowd, 32 and still growin’ up now”

This song is rough for so many reasons. It’s the first of a few Kanye-inspired pieces and frankly the worst one. We can all agree that while the “Imma Let You Finish” incident was likely not meant to be as malicious as it was perceived, Kanye has exhibited some unforgivable behavior in the years since that moment.

It’s also just not a great song, especially on an album where nearly every other piece is markedly fabulous. Is it feminist of Taylor to condescendingly forgive Kanye in front of the whole world? Ehh.

Feminism score: I’m giving it a D for rolling over to please haters when Kanye and most other men never would’ve done that. Remember how that incident somehow made Taylor look just as bad as Kanye, even though all she did was win an award? That’s a double standard if I’ve ever heard of one.

Haunted- Favorite lyric: “Come on, come on, don’t leave me like this, I thought I had you figured out”

I have nothing to say about this song that I won’t say elsewhere. It’s not her best lyricism, and she’s the one being left by a man, as usual. Meh.

Feminism score: F.

Speak Now- Favorite lyric: “And she is yelling at a bridesmaid somewhere back inside a room wearing a gown shaped like a pastry”

How did Taylor go from breaking up a wedding to singing, “the only kind of girl they see is a one-night or a wife”? I’m proud of her. This song is…yeah.

We’ve got “I’m not like other girls” dripping from every lyric. Tearing down other women in pursuit of a man is not a good look. However, she does take charge of the situation, and for that, I say, good for her.

Feminism score: D+. Sorry, Tay, I do love you.

Enchanted- Favorite lyric: “The playful conversation starts, counter all your quick remarks, like passing notes in secrecy”

I loved this song, but the magic of it has worn off for me. The fact that this piece is about the Owl City guy is just…a tragedy. I wish I never would have found that out. Knowing what is to come for our girl Taylor, I’m thrilled she eventually moved past this fairytale sheen. Leftover “Love Story” is how I would describe this song.

Feminism score: Eh, D? It’s just…a boy is magic, and magic is boy, but as a teen, it was nice.

Never Grow Up- Favorite lyric: “Take pictures in your mind of your childhood room, memorize what it sounded like when your dad gets home”

An automatic “A” from me since this piece explores relationships with growing up and family as opposed to boys. If you want to discuss sexism in this piece, I’m down; I’m just not seeing it in a meaningful way.

This album came out during my senior year of high school, and this piece comforted me. At a time when everyone seemed excited to “be an adult” and go off to college, I had a lot of love for my family and was afraid to leave them. It was nice to know she was too.

Feminism score: A. Taylor taps into universal emotions surrounding growing up and leaving home. Independence! Hooray!

Better Than Revenge- Favorite lyric: “I’m just another thing for you to roll your eyes at honey, you might have him, but I’ll always get the last word”

LOL. This song is an automatic fail for many reasons, but I LOVE this vendetta on paper. I am curious about how she will handle this song when she re-records Taylor’s Version of Speak Now. She is RUTHLESS in this song. This absolute take-down was in her all along; the snakes didn’t come out of nowhere in Reputation.

On a more serious note, slut-shaming is never a good way to handle a breakup. Will I still belt, “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress, WHOOOAAAA!!!!!” in the car? You know it.

Feminism score: F. Slut-shaming is out.

Mean- Favorite lyric: “You, with your switching sides, and your wildfire lies and your humiliation”

Taylor intended to reject her media portrayal with this song, but apparently, victims of domestic violence have viewed this song as a source of strength. Hell yeah. And the instrumentals slap.

Feminism score: Tbh, A. You tell ‘em, Taylor.

The Story of Us- Favorite lyric: “The battle’s in your hands now, but I would lay my armor down if you’d say you’d rather love than fight”

If you know my embarrassing relation to this song, then you know. The consistent tone of self-pity and victimization isn’t great, but Taylor’s music spoke to me profoundly at seventeen and eighteen. 

Feminist score: C. She adopts her signature victim mentality but still manages to evoke courage. Also, maybe she was truly screwed over by these guys?? I don’t think anybody likes feeling like a victim in any situation. I’m just saying.

Back to December- Favorite lyric: “I’d go back in time and change it, but I can’t, so if the chain is on your door, I understand”

Ah, Taylor Lautner. This song is heartfelt, earnest, and vulnerable. She takes responsibility for her actions and doesn’t “play the victim” as her critics would say. We love a strong apology. 

Feminism score: B. She’s begging for him to come back, but she’s also standing her ground and being forthright in her apology. Respect.

Mine- Favorite lyric: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter”

It’s about a boy, yes. However, Taylor Swift makes clear choices in this relationship. She’s trusting her instincts and leading the way. So what if she’s getting “saved” by somebody– I’ve needed guidance from many people in my life.

Feminism grade: I will give her a B for the independence of choice with a touch of self-doubt.

Long Live- Favorite lyric: “It was the end of a decade, but the start of an age”

I tear up every time I hear this song. We know it’s about Taylor’s rise to fame and her relationship with performing and her fans. However, this album came out my senior year of high school, so for my friends and me, it was about all the memories we would cherish forever, even though our lives were about to change.

I think about how touchingly beautiful the simplicity and importance of solid friendships are and how my friends and I belted this in my old Buick LeSabre, cruising the streets of Northfield, Minnesota. It was as cool as it sounds. We’re all still friends. 

Feminism score: A. Female friendship and loyalty are special.

From my Facebook album entitled, “Long Live.”

Sparks Fly- Favorite lyric: “My mind forgets to remind me, you’re a bad idea”

I’ll always throw down for “Sparks Fly.” It’s not remotely feminist. She’s putting her agency entirely in the hands of this man, but you know what?

I don’t care.

I love the way this song makes me feel. The romanticism of it all!! Kissing in the rain!! Get me with those green eyes!! This masterpiece is practically German art song. 

Feminism grade: F. She needs to be saved by a kiss and led up the stairs; apparently, he’s a “bad boy,” which usually means a guy who treats women like garbage for their enjoyment. She feels she can’t control herself around this person. And you know what– it’s a great piece. Come for me.

Last Kiss- Favorite lyric: “So I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep, and I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe”

An incredible song. This piece is peak early Taylor before she cared about feminism; you’re all right. Maybe I’m just proving all of the haters correct. But remember, she was COUNTRY FIRST! We must also recall that Taylor was still trying to please her label and therefore didn’t have the freedom to say everything she wanted to.

I’m so glad Taylor evolved past viewing herself through the lens of the man who breaks her heart. Still, we couldn’t get there without this– it makes her progression that much more powerful and mirrors the experience of many millennials, like myself, who had to embark on the same journey.

I’d say it’s one of her best songs of all time.

Feminism grade: It’s an F, but I honestly couldn’t care less.

Dear John- Favorite lyric: “And I lived in your chess game, but you changed the rules every day”

To anyone who started respecting Taylor Swift when she released folklore and evermore, I present you with Exhibit A of how she has always been an expert lyricist and artist worthy of every bit of recognition and accolades she garners.

Every word across this six-minute musical masterpiece sends shivers down my spine. Aren’t we all excited to roast John Mayer endlessly again when she releases Taylor’s Version of this album? I’m so ready. I have no proof of this, but I think her relationship with John Mayer kickstarted her desire to exhibit strength, agency, and choice in her future partnerships with men.

If you want to rage cry, I highly recommend listening to “Dear John” followed directly by “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.” Between the two, Taylor Swift paints such an evocative picture of heartbreak in the moment and in retrospect.

The progression is compelling. I’m not sure if there’s anything more profoundly feminist than writing honestly about your experiences without protecting the feelings of faulty men.

Feminism score: A-. There is strength in moving on, and haters will say she victimized herself. There’s nothing anti-feminist about speaking truth to power.

Speak Now Overall Feminism Grade: C

Taylor Swift deserves her early criticism in specific ways. She tends to play the victim and leave her fate to the men who ultimately break her heart. However, Taylor explores the complicated feelings of adolescence in a way that makes her listeners feel courageous and inspired.

When teenage girls were the largest consumers of Taylor Swift’s music, the population didn’t take her as seriously as an artist, which is profoundly sexist. If you pay close attention to her poetic lyricism, however, it’s clear that she has always been capable of high-level artistry, as evidenced by her third studio album.

Speak Now will forever hold one of the top spots in album rankings for her variety of emotional breadth and the time in my life when I first heard it. 

Which album should I rank next? Let me know!


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