May 9, 2010

Taylor Swift and Anti-Gay Bullying

Taylor Swift. Lots of people love her. Others can’t stand her. At Duke, I was surprised to find guys in my freshman dorm listening to her while they sat in the hallway [an aside: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with guys listening to Taylor Swift…or any other artist. And I recognize that my “surprise” might imply some sort of gender binary and norm…but I think it’s more a reflection of the masculinity construct that existed at my high school/in my home community]. Me? I sometimes listen to her when I’m doing work. Which is what I was doing before deciding to write this post.

There’s probably a lot that I, as a feminist and member of the LGBTQA community, could criticize about her songs. As an outspoken member of both of those communities, there’s a lot to criticize about a lot of songs by a lot of artists. And I could probably find things she does well, too. But right now, I only want to be critical about one thing, and that is a line in “Picture to Burn.”

“State the obvious, I didn’t get my perfect fantasy/I realized you love yourself more than you could ever love me/So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy/That’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay

I was surprised when I first listened to the song and heard those words. In the context in which those words are presented, I can come up with two scenarios for the characters in her song.

1) Her ex-boyfriend is gay and she’s going to out him in revenge. I obviously don’t have to explain to the readers of the blog why outing someone is inappropriate and incredibly hurtful. In this case, though, the song justifies her outing her ex-boyfriend, sending the message that it's okay (at least under some circumstances) to out someone.

2) She’s going to spread an untrue rumor to hurt him. This scenario implies that being gay is “bad” (cause, um, you typically don’t spread nice/flattering rumors about people you don’t like/your ex-boyfriend). It perpetuates the negative connotation of being gay. More than that though, it normalizes anti-gay bullying of non gay-identified people [aside #2: I don’t think anti-gay bullying of anyone is okay…gay-identified or not. I chose to highlight the non-gay-identified part, though, because in this scenario her ex-boyfriend isn’t actually gay]. Anti-gay bullying doesn't just hurt LGBT-identified individuals. It doesn't just hurt individuals who are silently questioning their sexuality. Nor does it solely affect individuals who have gay friends or family. The fact of the matter is that being called gay or another homophobic slur is the worst insult an elementary school-, middle school-, or high school-aged kid can be called. A 2005 survey by GLSEN found that the second most frequent reason kids are bullied is because of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Even if peers don't actually think that another student is gay, homophobic language is still likely to be used to degrade another student. Last April, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover commit suicide after being bullied with anti-gay slurs for months. The point is: anti-gay bullying is harmful to anybody who bullies target, it is pervasive, and it hurts.

A third possibility: Maybe I’m way over analyzing this all (it’s been known to happen).

I don’t know that I have anything really intelligent to say about it, other than "this is bad" (which doesn't count as "really intelligent" in my book). And maybe nobody else listens to her so you don’t really care about what she says in her songs (though I would argue that as a community we need to take issue with it even if she isn't the most played song on your ipod because pop culture themes penetrate the rest of society).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this, though, is that when I went to look up the lyrics to confirm what I heard (I’ve been known to hear weird things that don’t exist), I saw that a few websites list different lyrics that exclude the gay line. Is this indicative of a “clean” version? Which then seemingly admits that she understood why what she says in that line is problematic. Yet she still included them.



  1. Risa, thank you SO much for posting this! It's so important that people realize the culture that produces this sort of thing, and the impact it has on culture in return. I personally find that it's the subtle production of culture that takes the biggest toll. To listen to this as we do homework or just admire a favorite pop star is to understand being gay, or any other part or extension of LGBT, as a bad thing -- an insult. More people like Taylor Swift who have a widely heard voice need to take notice of this and be a little smarter about how they present themselves.

    Basically, I think you're right.

  2. Yeah, there is a clean version. It's "And don't mind if I the way, I hate that stupid, old..."

    I think another possibility is that Taylor is trying to ruin her ex-boyfriend from being able to date/hook-up with her friends. By telling them he's gay, this would make him appear unattainable or undesirable (no one wants to date someone they think is only pretending to be interested to prevent being thought of as a homosexual). This theory could be corroborated by Taylor's previous insinuation that dating someone's friends is a good way to get back at an ex-lover ("I'm just sitting here planning my revenge/There's nothing stopping me from going out with awlll yer best friends").

    Just thought it was worth throwing that out there before we go all "Imma let you finish" on T-Swizzle.

  3. And I know what you're thinking. Yes, that's a real beard.

  4. As an engineer who works with computers, I have a great respect for the character "*" - because for people like me that character is a Wild Card, capable of representing, well, anything and everything. It's like an Ueber version of the blank in Scrabble, because not only can it replace any ONE letter, it can replace any number of any characters.

    And because of the great good fortune to teach a rather large group of exceedingly fantastic and wonderfully different students, I've gotten a much better sense that what is said of one of us might well apply to all of us. And so I've started putting the * in the place of any gender, sexuality, racial, geographic, or whatever-based commentary to see if it passes what I suppose I am about to coin, for myself, the * test.
    So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy/That’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re *
    Hmm. Fail. I'd like to believe - perhaps naively so - that it's a failure of ignorance versus of commission...just as I would like to believe many of my failures are in precisely the same vein. I don't think I have that luxury any more. I think I am glad not to have that luxury anymore. I know I have the contributors here to thank for that.

  5. (ugh...wrong profile...that's me above)

    And for comic relief, the "code word" I had to supply to get to the right account was...pingles.

  6. First off, let me say that I am a huge T-Swift fan. When I first heard this lyric, I thought it was hilarious and was upset that that version of the song did not appear on the re-release of her first album that I had bought. For me, calling someone gay, who in fact does not identify that way,(for the purposes of this, I am going to assume that her ex identified as straight)is not always inherently homophobic. First off, she is using "gay" in the proper way, to describe someone's sexual orientation, not in to mean "stupid," something that I view as a positive. In a society where the word "gay" has become synonymous with "stupid," any usage of the word in its proper context I think is beneficial to the community. Secondly, as Aaron pointed out the song is about getting revenge on her ex-boyfriend and, frankly, what better way to get revenge on him than to ensure that he does not ever get another girlfriend. By telling her friends that he is gay, I do not think that she is painting him as worse person because of it, just that he is undesirable for her girlfriends to date, since he will not be attracted to them.

    I think our society as a whole expects to much of the music industry (and the entertainment industry). While I am obviously against the blatantly homophobic lyrics of Beenie Man (who openly calls for the murder of homosexuals), I do not have a problem with many of the other "homophobic" lyrics. Frankly the inclusion of LGBT populations within the mainstream speaks volumes as to how far we have come as a community. We fought for so long not to be silenced and now we definitely aren't. This is the way I feel about "no homo," a phrase that has become very popular in hip-hop music. Yes it's kinda homophobic. However, in many ways it is serving to redefine masculinity (a fight that is strongly being taken up by the LGBT community). Everytime that some rapper says "no homo," they are acknowledging that they are stepping out of prescribed norms of masculinity and are therefore contributing to the breakdown of strict gender binaries.

    I think the LGBT community is very quick to call foul against people we see as being homophobic, when that is not necessarily the intention. I did really love your post Risa and do find value in educating all people on ways not to offend certain populations (clearly enough people were offended that the lyrics were changed), just wanted to give an alternate view.

  7. Risa!! So I told you this already before....but I'm a little with Jack on this one! I wonder if she just meant "gay" as a blanket statement of, "girls won't see you as a potential mate because you're not into them" type of statement, not one that meant to imply any sort of negative connotation (as a perceived insult). But I love that you're bringing up pop culture trends on the blog. :D Nice work!!! =)

  8. Thanks to everyone (Aaron, Jack and Megan) who was critical of my interpretation. I think you've all presented an alternative situation which is plausible. The truth is that I can't really know what she meant, and I think your interpretation makes a lot of sense.

    Jack, I hadn't thought about the positives of her potentially using gay in the proper way (as describing someone's sexual orientation). I agree that anytime the media/pop culture uses "gay" properly, it is a good thing. So thanks for bringing my attention to this. Also, thanks for bringing up the point that inclusion in the mainstream is progress (in some way). Your perspective on 'no homo' is really interesting and I'd love to talk with you about it more.

    I'm glad we could use the blog to think and talk about these issues. This is a great forum for our community, so thanks for contributing to a conversation about this and for challenging me :)

  9. You've got a song about an acrimonious break-up. Often during acrimonious break-ups, people say stupid and immature things. Especially if they're in high school.

    "Picture to Burn" is a song with a character who breaks up with her boyfriend, and responds in a way one might expect a high schooler to respond: stupidly and immaturely. Verisimilitude is an admirable quality in storytelling, you know.

  10. I think Jack and others have it right on the interpretation of the song. If it was intended as homophobic, she might tell his friends he was "gay" with the thought that they might harass him or even beat him up for being gay. It seems clear she is telling her own friends he is gay to make him undesirable to women. She might have gone with under-endowed or bad in bed if she were older and had a more mature image.

    Another possibility is that it is an empty threat playing on the ex-boyfriend's own homophobia even if the girl in the song is not homophobic. She's describing him as a self-absorbed, old pick-up driving, the-guy-should-drive-not-the-girl, redneck jerk. Although there are self-described rednecks who are not homophobic, using the broad brush of song lyrics, she's conjuring that "redneck" stereotype who would be truly threatened by any implication of homosexuality. The fact that he's the kind of guy who would consider being called gay seriously offensive is part of the reason she hates him and is burning his pictures.

  11. Seriously...what's wrong with people these days. Think of a hotdog. You have a weiner. You have a bun. Now think of a hotdog being two weiners. Or two buns.. NOT RIGHT. So dumb.

    I'm pretty sure that Taylor was insulting her ex boyfriend saying "he's gay". That's literally the worse insult she could give the dude. If her friends are going to not want to hang with the guy because he's, gay she probably has the same attitude! THANKFULLY! Props to her for having the guts to not be politically correct! Wish there wasn't a bunch of libtards that made it impossible for them to keep playing it on the radio the way it was written and intended! You guys are a bunch of jokes.

    Quit cryin boys, you're make up is running.

  12. Just heard this song, and regardless of how much anyone analyzes it and justifies it, it is clearly homophobic. The lyrics parallel "obsessive and crazy" with "gay" as insults.

    I realize that Taylor Swift's target audience is 13-year-old girls who probably think this line is just totally like LOL and OMG!, but it's offensive to most (intelligent) people.

    And, yeah, it just continues to promote anti-gay bullying among teens.

  13. I've just played Taylor's album in my car for the first time last night, while driving to my hometown (I live in Brazil). I was looking for some careless 16 year old's songs, but this particular line got me seriously thinking about not listening to Taylor again, even though I enjoyed the other songs.
    My first impressions were that she used "gay" as an offense, paralleling it to "obsessive and crazy" as said above.
    But now, after reading other points of view presented here, I think the parallel the song makes is not with the adjectives, but with the social damage caused.
    If you think about it, most girls I know take it as a very serious offense being called crazy, because of their own fears of inadequacy if boys perceive them that way (no boy would have a serious relationship with a crazy and obsessive girl). So, the girl takes revenge by trying to cause the same damage, causing the homophobic redneck boy's inadequacy and rejection on part of other girls.

  14. I have to admit, when I first saw this controversial line in the lyrics for this song, I thought it was a mistake. I have the "clean" version and didn't know this was even out there. I was shocked to hear the version we are talking about and immediately did some research, leading me here. I think there are lots of intersting opinions on the subject, and many good points have been made. Here's how I see it.

    First and foremost, she made a mistake. It was inevitable that someone see the song as homophobic. No matter what she intended the line to mean, people will make up their own minds on what it might mean, does mean, doesn't mean, whatever. And there are bound to be negative opinions. That said, I think she deserves some credit for realizing her mistake and trying to right her wrong.

    Secondly, as perviously mentioned by others, I think that what she said was influenced by the culture around her. As a highschooler myself, I can confirm that the term "gay" is used as a synonym for "stupid" all the time. Shocker, right? If she intended the word to have this meaning, then shame on her and she does deserve all this anger, upset, whatever you want to call it. But frankly, I don't think that's what she meant. She said that she would tell HER friends, not his.

    Lastly, I would like to point out that she is not a repeat offender. I'm pretty sure that this is the first controversy over any of her songs. It's not like she loads her songs full of homophobic, antiracial, antisemitic etc. remarks. She was a 16 year old country singer from Pennsylvania when she first recorded the song for goodness sakes, not an alcoholic actor!

    P.S. Perez Hilton, who is openly gay and very honest about his opinions, is a strong supporter of Ms. Swift. Then again, he doesn't really have the best track record with the six letter F word.

  15. As a huge fan of Taylor, I can tell you that I've heard her clear up rumors about this. She's basically saying "if you tell a lie about me that'll make me undateable, I'll tell one about you." She has changed the song so there will be no confusion or hurt feelings, though.

  16. Even if it's just meant as a 'cock-block' - to inhibit his future liaisons for heterosexual conquest -- anyone with an inkling of what happens to a boy with the 'gay' label in the average American high school cannot view this lyric passively. As for 'realism' in storytelling -- realistic would be a discussion on violence and bullying that drives queer youths to suicides in numbers that even the sanguine poster Jonathan might think twice about.

  17. This is so stupid. She was saying "I'll tell mine you're gay" so that girls will think he's gay and not go after him. This is not offensive in the slightest. Honestly, I can't believe I wasted time out of my life reading this. It's a joke seriously, people need to calm down.

  18. i just wish to encourage the LGBT folk to seek better inspirational role models. taylor s. is a joke who will be another pop footnote in a decade's time. LGBT folks need to rely on their own creative resources rather than opportunistic heteroceleb money chasers paying you 'lip service' to cash in at the box office.

  19. It annoys me now when I develop a liking for a certain musician, actor etc. and I later realise they're homophobic. This has been true with jennifer hudson, tyrese, denzel washington etc. One feels an awful mix of deception, anger and disappointment.

    Anyway, to the issue at hand: "friends" can be girls, boys or girls and boys. So when she says she'll tell her friends he's gay, she doesn't mean she'll tell her *girl* friends. What, girls don't have guys as friends? And still, some of those friends could be gay guys. How would that be a bad thing to say about him to them? So the idea that she's telling her friends he's gay so they may not date him, is simply ridiculous and ignorant because one assumes that the only people a girl has as friends are straight girls.

    I also agree that there's a clearly a parallel in those lyrics of "gay" with "obsessive and crazy" as insult. I don't know 'bout you, but being "obsessive and crazy" is a awful thing to be. Apparently according to taylor, being gay is also an awful thing to be.

    Let's even grant for a second that ridiculous argument about ensuring he doesn't find a girlfriend by telling her friends he's gay.
    There's obviously a difference between not considering dating someone because they're gay and not considering dating them because they're obsessive and crazy! Come on! I would not just not want to date an obsessive and crazy person, I wouldn't even want to be their friend. If was writing a song I wouldn't be so careless just as she wouldn't be careless with potentially racist lyrics.
    Thank you.

  20. it is not homophobic. people get called gay all of the time and they dont take it as an offensive description of themselves. besides, oneof taylors friends is a lesbian so what does that show about how she feels about gays?

  21. She explained already that it was about telling a lie to her friends about him so the girls won't date him, you are looking way too much into it. She has been in anti LBGT bullying ads (there is one on Vimeo called Hate Crimes PSA that she is in) and she has spoken out against anti-gay bulling in the wake of Lawrence King and gave tribute to him. I think NPH or someone also talked about how she realizes gays and lesbians love each other very strongly to fight against the disapproval and how great she thought that was for them or something. She has gay friends. There are even rumors about her with certain friends but now we are getting into gossip territory. That song she wrote when she was in high school as a teenager while a bit immature, was not anything anti-gay and I have NO IDEA how you could see it that way, why can't it be literal? You are way too defensive and most competent gay (or straight) people should be able to realize what she is saying there, like come on...