A Queer Reading of Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do

Last week when Taylor Swift’s new single Look What You Made Me Do hit the airways, I was devastated. While the album name ‘Reputation’ seemed promising, the lyric video seemed to confirm that Tayswi – Queen of the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood – was only interested in making a petty jab at Kanye West via a mostly terrible pop song. My god, I thought. Is Taylor just completely basic? 

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Please never watch the lyric video. Ever.

But when the new video directed by Joseph Khan dropped, all of my doubts perished, because THIS IS WITHOUT A DOUBT THE GAYEST TAYSWI VIDEO OF ALL TIME. (And by gayest of course I mean open to a queer reading i.e. seeing things sideways, and reading LGBTQ themes into things). Unsurprisingly the mainstream media are calling this Tayswi’s “shade” video which is simply about mocking all of her haters. They are entirely skimming over all the gay bits that they can’t make sense of (never mind that queers invented shade).

So bear with me for the incredibly long journey that is a queer reading (or really, just the most obvious and true and direct reading) of LWYMMD…

The opening shots lead us to a graveyard:

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This is surely an obvious story about Taylor’s trashed reputation, no?

Well, we are also immediately reminded of Leo Bersani’s famous paper Is the Rectum a Grave?, written in 1987 at the time when the peak of the AIDs crisis was unfolding in the USA. In Bersani’s paper he tracks the homophobic response to AIDS, but also how misogyny is also implicated in homophobia, where femininity is conflated with the “passive” bottom position in gay male sex. Bersani urges us to embrace the subordinate feminine/homosexual position as a way to contest and shatter hierarchies of power.

Here we see Taylor trying to “bury” her gaping grave that reveals her vulnerability/femininity/homosexuality:

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At the bottom of the grave we see 2014 circa Swift in her Met Ball gown, the same year of the peak rumours that her and Karlie Kloss were in a relationship:

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Much like the imagery of the video for Bad Blood (also directed by Khan) we appear to be transported to an “underground” world. We might recall that in that clip the underground involved an Amazonian-like alternate reality:

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But in this underground, Taylor isn’t fighting, she’s in a bath full of diamonds:

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While diamonds symbolise wealth, she’s not sitting in a pit of money – most clearly here we are called to think of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend:

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Not only was Monroe herself a famously closeted gay icon, the original song has some rather queer lyrics: “Time rolls on/And youth is gone/ And you can’t straighten up when you bend”.

Taylor’s bath is also in the centre of a room full of mirrors, recalling the saying “hall of mirrors” where one is not able to distinguish fact from fiction. But we also need to recall the intertextual reference to her earlier clip for Style, which is all about duality:

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We might also note the rainbows evident in this clip:

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And the tension between the internal masculine/feminine:

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A theme which is also represented in Bad Blood:

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But back to LWYMMD, we are met with our first glimpse of snakes:

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Which are mostly obviously a reference to Kimye’s attack on Taylor after the Famous shenanigan. BUT what about the fact that snakes appear on Taylor’s hands in a lot of her earlier video clips? For example, Style:

snake 1

Shake it Off:

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And Blank Space:

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The fact that Taylor wears many of these snakes as rings is also significant in light of her earlier ring choices, notably the fleur-de-lis of Our Song, representing chastity:

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So, Taylor has gone from a symbol of chastity, to snakes, which coincidentally are strongly associated with sexuality due to that whole Adam-and-Eve-snake-incident-thing. In other words, snakes are traditionally understood as representing sexual power. For Freud snakes were a symbol of male sexual drive, but lesbian culture has also embraced the snake namely in reference to the ancient matriarchal Minoan society symbolised by the “Snake Goddess”:

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We then see that Taylor is indeed positioning herself as snake queen:

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But she’s not only queen of snakes i.e. queen of sexual power, she’s drinking tea:

tea

Which seems kind of random UNTIL we recall that tea is associated with the gay community as Urban Dictionary defines: “Used within the urban gay community, ‘tea’ signifies a piece of sensitive and possibly highly sought-after information or tidbit”. Or, as A.J. Musser has argued: “While I do not want to argue that tea functions as the sign of lesbianism, it does serve as one among a collection of possible signs of female queerness”. So, here the tea drinking is not only about recalling a secret, it is a nod to lesbian stereotypes. In light of this we might see the “et tu Brute” chiselled into the columns as not only referencing Kanye as a backstabber, but perhaps also calling him out of the closet – i.e. “and you, Kanye?”

Next up it’s Taylor in an epic golden car crash, and as everyone has pointed out, she looks just like Katy Perry (but holding the grammy Katy doesn’t have – so shady):

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Up until recently the reason behind Katy and Taylor’s famous feud wasn’t known. Katy has since explained that it was about backing dancers. Are we really to believe that Taylor wrote Bad Blood, which features the lyrics “You know it used to be mad love” just because of a fight about backing dancers?

Maybe Taylor is trying to reference Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholy here – you become what you cannot love…(And, not to mention that Katy came out earlier this year).

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We then see Taylor the caged bird, calling to mind Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explores questions of lesbianism among other themes. We might also note that Taylor is in an orange jumpsuit behind bars, a la Orange is the New Black.

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But importantly, Taylor’s “feast” in the cage involves a lobster and a rat:

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While rats are symbolic of new beginnings, and lobsters also represent regeneration, “lobster” is slang for “lesbian”.

We are then taken to scenes of Taylor robbing what appears to be a music streaming company. But this isn’t just about her feud with Apple, she’s also sporting the very pansexual slogan “BLIND FOR LOVE” amongst a bevy of cats/pussies:

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Of course Taylor has been upfront about her obsession with cats for some time (also a lesbian stereotype), as we see in early videos such as 22 (where she just happens to be hugging a woman while making a “V” sign…):

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And lobsters/cats aren’t the only animal symbolism Taylor has used in videos – remember that beaver from We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together who (along with a random woman) beckons Taylor away from her bed/phone call with her boyfriend?

Beaver

Back in LWYMMD, things take a turn for the extra gay, with Taylor referencing Dykes on Bikes (a lesbian pride group which began in San Francisco in the 1970s):

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While some have suggested this is undoubtably a reference to Peter Lindberg’s “Wild at Heart” shoot for Vogue in 1991, there is no doubt that the inspiration for that was this:

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We then see Taylor as the dominatrix leader of a “squad” of plastic women (note the cats also on screen – it’s her “pussy squad”), in reference to her infamous girl gang groupies:

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While the figure of “dominatrix” has its own overt sexual connotations, the imagery (as Every Outfit on SATC has pointed out) is clearly referencing the 2016 horror film Neon Demon:

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WHICH notoriously includes an extended scene involving lesbian necrophilia.

Taylor then bursts in to the metaphorical closet:

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Which also calls to mind the “door” in her clip for Fifteen where she is 800% in love with a girl and is just a completely gay story for real (lyrics include “you might find who you’re supposed to be…take a deep breath and walk through the doors”):

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In the LWYMMD closet she doesn’t meet her teen girl crush, but rather a crew of effeminate men in heels, including the notable and openly gay Todrick Hall. A lot of commentators have pointed to the “I ❤ T.S.” on the men’s shirts as a jab at Taylor’s supposed ex-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston who wore a similar shirt when they were said to be dating:

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But I think the real takeaway message here is the association between those who declare their love for Taylor, and being gay/closeted. In other words this whole scene is about Taylor’s beards.

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The finale is Taylor standing on a pile of warring alter-egos (and of course the “T” referencing not only “Taylor” but the “tea” earlier in the clip):

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Up the front we have Taylor in her Swan Lake outfit from Shake it Off, and given that this particular character was chosen out of a cast of many from that particular clip, we might also see this as a reference to the lesbian horror (see a theme here?) film Black Swan:

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With feminine horror also referenced in Taylor’s outfit as she saws the wings off a phallic aeroplane:

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In the final scene Taylor once again meets the many sides of “herself”:

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A theme of self-confrontation we have also seen in earlier clips like Out of the Woods:

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But while Taylor’s previous clips have been about “finding” herself, it is clear in LWYMMD that we the audience have not yet found the “true” Taylor.

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Or, maybe she’s all and none of these characters. Maybe she’s been trying to flag her sexuality for the longest time, with her snake rings, masculine internal duality, tea, rainbows, closet doors, lobsters, beavers and cats. I guess only time, and the rest of Reputation may tell.

(Thanks also to Clare S for helping with this piece, specifically the research on lesbians and tea). 

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Judith Butler Explained with Cats

Following hot on the heels of Foucault Explained with Hipsters, here’s JB’s Gender Trouble  explained in Socratic dialogue style. With cats.

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All page references from Butler, J. (1990 [2008: 1999]). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York; London: Routledge.

Got any more ideas for philosophy/sociology/gender theory you’d like to see explained in comic form? Let me know in the comments below.

Foucault Explained with Hipsters

A comic I made for a second year gender studies course I tutored for in 2012, to help students understand some of the themes from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol.1:f1

f2All page references from Foucault, M. (1976 [2008; trans 1978]), The History of Sexuality: Volume 1., R. Hurley, [trans], Victoria: Penguin Group

Stay tuned for Judith Butler explained with cats!

 

Cultural Citizenship, Identity Politics and Spaces of Belonging

Music brings people together...and I'm not just talking music festivals

Music brings people together…and I’m not just talking music festivals

A few weeks ago I came across this article on “cultural citizenship” as discussed by a recent panel at Harvard University. What fascinated me was the focus on conceptualising citizenship as not simply related to national identity or civic activity, but to the artistic creation of spaces of belonging with others. More specifically, this article considers how shared creative activities can engender inclusion that isn’t simply about enveloping the other in a predefined space, but is in fact about creating a new space with the other. As panellist Colin Jacobson is quoted as saying, “In order to play with someone else, you have to have a shared common ground on which to stand”.

Notably it seems that cultural citizenship is also explicitly connected with ideas about minority expression, and as this article also discusses, the importance of being able to perform significant traditional forms of music in new contexts. However, the broader theme of creativity as key to emergent spaces of belonging that does not take identity, simple “pluralism”, or assimilation as centralising concepts par excellence for notions of belonging,  I think has relevance to potentially imagining new possibilities of gender and sexuality beyond binaries like man/woman and gay/straight outside of the problematics of identity politics.

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Perhaps we could see painting together as creating a space of belonging too

To test this idea, I racked my brain – could I think of an example where artistic expression is being used to develop such as space related to gender and sexuality? Then I realised, the queer choir I was part of last year does in many ways function as a model of artistic inclusivity in the Canberra community. Though the Qwire (as it is known) is also sometimes called the “Canberra Gay and Lesbian Choir” this is perhaps due more to its sexuality-politics historical roots in the 90s, than its current member base. Qwire was one of the first places where I felt very welcomed in the queer community “despite” identifying as pan/bisexual. There were of course a few people who I felt maybe weren’t so keen to chat to me once they heard I had a boyfriend. But aside from the individual-to-individual differences of orientation and opinion, the point is that as a whole Qwire is a place for singing together and thus creating a space for (literally!) expressing oneself in harmony with others. In choir I was more than just a funny sounding alto line – I was part of beautiful and complex chords.

The possibilities of artistic expression are endless...

The possibilities of artistic expression are endless…

This year I’m meant to be focusing more on study (blogging counts right? *cough*) so I’m taking a break from Qwire and enjoying being on the receiving end of many of their public performances. But when I think about my time there, the more it strikes me as a great thing to have been a part of. Often the Qwire performs at events where there might be a lot of problematic identity politics stuff going down – where questions might be being raised about only a narrow proportion of the queer community being represented, etc – but then Qwire will step up and sing, and for a moment at least those political tensions are put aside. Because Qwire is a veritable alphabet soup, and there’s a lot more joy and playfulness than there is policing of identity boundaries. And it seems to me that even if you’re just listening, you’re part of a new shared space.

Convoluted Schmonvoluted: The Value of Complex Ideas

  

JB. So rad.

JB. So rad.

I can’t deny it, I am a giant Judith Butler fan. If there were some kind of Judith Butler club, I would be in it, vying for Junior Vice President position with a T-Shirt saying JB FANGIRL. As it happens, the closest I can get to this is writing a PhD thesis on gender, and indoctrinating teaching undergrads about the wonders of Butler’s work. But one thing that always seems to rear its obnoxious face when I mention JB, is the claim that she is notoriously difficult to read and that her writing is unnecessarily, torturously, bad. This sentiment pisses me off. Here’s why:

Gender. Obvs so simple.

Gender. Obvs so simple.

1. Butler is dealing with the complexities of gender both in theoretical and real terms. Should that be a simple thing to explain? No. Why? The whole idea that gender is as simple as man vs. woman is what got us into this mess in the first place. It’s complex shit.

2. Butler weaves together, critiques and develops a bunch of full on theoretical stuff. She is some kind of theory-hero and as such deserves mad props, not the award for worst writing ever.

Heidgger. Dense *and* terrifying.

Heidgger. Dense *and* terrifying.

3. Even if we concede that Butler is dense, why is it specifically Butler that is singled out for this, always? Anyone try reading Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, ETC? Those be opaque mother f***ers. Yet we herald them as geniuses and give them a lot of time. Why not Butler too?

4. Butler is palatable. You just might have to read some other stuff first. Butler doesn’t exist in a vacuum. She’s a philosopher by training. The least you could expect from her would be philosophical writing.

5. There is a misnomer that if you are smart enough, you should be able to (and indeed it is your duty to) communicate complex ideas simply, for the digestion of a general audience. While I agree that important ideas should filter down to effect change in the world, I think they necessarily do without the need to involve ourselves in writing crappy newspaper columns. Complex ideas are such for a reason. When you reduce them you often throw out the champagne with the cork.

What I have to say to people that dismiss JB for her complexity

What I have to say to people that dismiss JB for her complexity

Mind you, having said all that, last year I did make a cat-based comic to explain Butler’s theory of gender performativity to my classes. But it was an addendum- you had to get your head around the complex stuff before you could really unlock the meaning of the cats.

In the end, I think it is reasonable to be confused by Butler. But that should be the impetus for asking questions and seeking to understand, not dismissing the work as “bad”. Sure, Butler is trouble, but in all the best ways.