Pride Month 2020: Taylor Swift's growth from 'queerbaiting and performative activism' to a champion of the cause
From a silent observer who worked behind the scenes to an out-and-proud ally, Swift's journey as a LGBTQ+ activist has been quite the ride
This year has been a proud moment for fans of Taylor Swift. The singer has long stood for marginalized and oppressed groups, but her activism has often found itself at odds with many who didn't believe Swift was truly an ally, but instead believed her to be a capitalist simply masquerading as one. But if 2020 has proven anything, it is that Swift has found her voice and knows exactly how to use it.
'Performative activism', a pejorative term that refers to activism that benefits the activist rather than the group they are advocating for, has found increased usage in the last decade or so, owing largely to online activism and call-out culture that holds individuals accountable when they engage in surface-level activism as opposed to getting down and dirty with their fellow activists. It is largely frowned upon, mostly owing to it being a rather hollow form of activism: one that paints the activist as morally superior and part of a movement all while they profit off of their stance, without them ever really doing enough to further the cause itself.
The uproar around Swift being an artist who engaged more in largely performative activism struck a fever pitch last year with the release of her music video for the song 'You Need To Calm Down', featuring the biggest names from modern queer society, including Ellen Degeneres, Laverne Cox, Jonathan Van Ness, Adam Lambert, Billy Porter, and the crew from Queer Eye. On the surface, that should seem like a huge win for the LGBTQ+ community, especially since it celebrated several sections of it right in time for Pride in addition to encouraging viewers to get active in demanding better for our queer brethren by sharing information about the Equality Act.
But after the video dropped, several opinion pieces followed calling Swift out for 'queerbaiting'. Satirical news site The Onion, for instance, put out a piece, titled 'Taylor Swift Inspires Teen To Come Out As Straight Woman Needing To Be At Center Of Gay Rights Narrative' and that essentially highlighted why so many found Swift's actions performative to begin with: they often centered her and her own work instead of the marginalized groups she was advocating for. In the case of 'You Need To Calm Down', Swift was seen walking through a massive, campy party filled with the brightest colors as queer folk engaged in stereotypical queer scenes including a same-sex wedding and a drag pageant, all culminating in a huge food fight amidst which Swift quashed her beef with a longtime rival, Katy Perry. Essentially, it was a Swift video with some LGBTQ+ friends in the background, and that didn't sit too well with everyone.
Swift's fans were overjoyed that the singer was finally taking such a strong stand in favor of LGBTQ+ communities, declaring herself an ally beyond doubt. But for others, it felt a bit hollow, especially considering the singer's largely apolitical view in the years prior. Others also pointed out that the video's 'bigots', a group of redneck hillbillies, was also a stereotypical representation of what queerphobic people look and sound like, because in reality, they can be anyone, anywhere.
Many might question what the harm in queerbaiting is: After all, if that's how an ally chooses to uplift the cause, then what could possibly be so wrong as to call them out? Queer sociologist Prof Amin Ghaziani once explained that queerbaiting "means using aspects of queer cultures or queer political support to signal hipness, coolness, political correctness, tolerance or open-mindedness; the performance of a liberal sensibility in a self-interested way, such as for selling a product." And that, in essence, is why queerbaiting actually hurts the community instead of helping them: it causes the advocacy from artists to only reach as far as personal gain. When it comes to showing up and fighting for the cause, many of them remain silent.
But Swift, contrary to the criticisms levied against her, has risen above them and shown what it looks like for a seemingly-apathetic artist to grow into a full-fledged activist and ally that uses their platform to effect real change. An article in The Guardian last year concluded with the statement, "...better yet, would have been using the last 10 years of her career to peddle the message that gay is OK. The real test will be how she uses the next 10," and given Swift's no-holds-barred criticism of police brutality and President Donald Trump —including declaring that he would be voted out — it's clear she has made her choice: Swift is no longer a silent observer, but an active voice for her generation.
In an interview with Vogue last year, Swift finally spoke up about her stance, stating the reason she had remained quiet before was that she simply didn’t realize she could advocate for a community she wasn't a part of. What essentially stands out about Swift's activism is that instead of staying complacent with allowing people to assume what she stood for, she took the time to educate herself and find her own voice. How glorious that this voice happened to be one that loudly, proudly advocated for those whose voices often go unheard. And to that end, Swift has finally learned to use her platform the right way — to uplift those who are often denied their chance at the mic.