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Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and the limits of Girl Squad Feminism

Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, and the limits of Girl Squad Feminism


Women can disagree about substantive issues and still be feminist

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The Grand Taylor Swift / Nicki Minaj Twitter Debate (Three days! Numerous Tweets! Three and a half celebrities! Ed Sheeran doing something stupid!) was many things. One of those things, of course, is "over." But we may also eventually look back on it as the event that defined exactly where Girl Squad Feminism falls short.

The basics of the exchange (or "spat," or "feud," or "catfight," or whatever dogwhistle language you employ to convey that some hysterical ladies are getting in a tizzy about their feelings) are now the stuff of Internet History. But here's the recap: Minaj felt understandably slighted when her video for "Anaconda" — which broke the VEVO record for most views in a single day, and was unavoidable in the fall of 2014 — didn't get a Video of the Year nomination at the VMAs. And, in an error common to any woman with a Twitter account and too much faith in humanity, she took time to explain the problem.

"If I was a different ‘kind' of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well," she tweeted. "When the ‘other' girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination."

A "spat," "feud," "catfight," or any other synonym for hysterical ladies in a tizzy

"Other" means white, of course, and Minaj is not wrong. Out of the five times "Video of the Year" has been awarded in this decade, four of the winners have been white: Lady Gaga (2010), Katy Perry (2011), Justin Timberlake (2013), and Miley Cyrus (2014). Twenty-seven acts have been nominated for the award since 2010; two of those nominees have been black women. Minaj could have been talking about Perry, Gaga, Cyrus; hell, she could have been talking about Iggy Azalea, who is white, is not fond of Minaj, and was a 2014 nominee. But, more to the point, she was talking about a pattern of discrimination.

Unless, of course, you were Video of the Year nominee Taylor Swift. In that case, Minaj was obviously talking about Video of the Year nominee Taylor Swift.

And thus, it began: The accusations of betrayal ("I've done nothing but love & support you"). The allegations that Minaj had broken the compact of sisterhood ("It's unlike you to pit women against each other"). The offer to throw Minaj a bone ("If I win, please come up with me!! You're invited to any stage I'm ever on").

The response came fast and hard, and in its wake, a lot of salient points got drowned in trivialization. (Who unfollowed who? Are we in the midst of a Taylor Swift Backlash? Is Nicki Minaj too angry? Which one is prettier? Fav for "Minaj," RT for "Swift," log off Twitter and go outside for human dignity.) If it wasn't about Swift before she spoke, it was afterward. And there's still something telling about Swift's proposed solution: Taylor gets the award, and Nicki gets to stand next to her, on her stage. Swift's idea of generosity was to offer another woman second place.

If it wasn't about Swift before she responded, it is now

The image is a familiar one. Swift has positioned herself as a champion for girl power, and a lot of it centers around demonstrating that famous women are friends with Taylor Swift: she brings them on stage at concerts, puts them in videos, and posts their pictures on Instagram, and they receive substantial exposure. She's essentially offering Minaj the same service she's given to Emma Stone and/or the US Women's National Soccer Team. But that solution doesn't work if the problem is that you're tired of being pushed to the sidelines. The message being affirmed, in every photo of Swift's squad, is the centrality of Taylor Swift.

The Taylor Swift brand, for all its strengths, has always had an uncomfortable insistence that Swift is, in fact, the Best Girl In The World. Before the days of Squad Goals, feminists were criticizing her for glorifying herself by denigrating women — framing herself as the pure, innocent woman wronged by an overtly sexual, low-class tart, as in "Better Than Revenge," or else setting herself up as an ideal girlfriend, unjustly overlooked in favor of some vapid bimbo, as in "You Belong With Me." (Or "Speak Now," or "Invisible," or... you know, pick your song, this was a common theme.)

The tone has shifted, but the problem isn't over. The racial appropriation and objectification of black women in the "Shake It Off" video is still fresh in our memory, but it's also notable that half the video was Swift mocking other female pop stars. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been advocating feminism for two-thirds of Taylor Swift's lifetime, but if they make a joke Swift doesn't like, they're bringing women down. And, as Katy Perry knows, there's a rich vein of irony in the fact that Swift is calling for women to stop fighting, when the very video she's nominated for is entirely about her elaborate preparations to punch another woman in the face. "Bad Blood" is reportedly directed at Perry, who brought this on by giving Swift's back-up dancers a better job offer, and who is now clearly having the time of her life with this, as anyone would. "Better Than Revenge" subject Camilla Belle also chimed in, and was told to drink bleach for her troubles. And Nicki Minaj very nearly made the hit list by daring to suggest she deserved an award Swift might get.

It's not entirely Swift's fault that she's disproportionately hyped: she's white, blonde, thin, was born rich, and has fine, upper-crust manners — all qualities that mainstream America instinctively likes and praises. We refer to a girl like her as "classy," which is really just shorthand for upper-class. We also penalize every girl who doesn't possess these rare, privileged traits — whether she's Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, or even Katy Perry, who may lack Swift's Emily Post polish, but who also grew up a minister's daughter on food stamps.

Swift didn't choose her privileges. But she doesn't have to lean into them, either. Whether intentionally or not, she's set forth a vision of "feminism" that can only be enacted by Taylor Swift being the most successful woman in the room, and other women agreeing to play supporting roles in her story — a world where your feminist credentials can be yanked if you differ from her, criticize her, or even seem to value your own career more than hers.

Women have meaningful, substantive conflicts, which deserve to be taken seriously

I'm acutely aware that I'm a white woman who can be clueless — let she who has not #WhiteFeminist-ed cast the first stone. And, for the record, I think Taylor Swift has said some smart and interesting things in her time, and I'm very aware that some people in this world (sexists) really would like nothing better than an excuse to take her down a peg or demonize her for her success. As you would expect from a star uniquely skilled at being likable, she got the crisis PR right and got it out quick: "I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I'm sorry, Nicki." Nicki Minaj, who'd been nothing but civil in her interactions with Swift, accepted quickly and graciously. It was all very... friendly.

But not every bad interaction between women is a "catfight," and not every woman is a traitor for not agreeing with everyone she shares a gender with. Women have meaningful, substantive conflicts, which deserve to be taken seriously. The problem Nicki Minaj pointed out is not an opinion, or a complaint: it's a matter of numbers. It's one in five and two in 27. For feminism to move ahead, those numbers need to change — which they cannot do, if we have only one Best Girl.