Sexist Beatdown: Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Jolene, and Music’s Other “Other Women”
Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me"
Woman: Bitchy brunette cheerleader Taylor Swift
Other Woman: Geeky glasses-wearing Taylor Swift
Hey, ladies. It's time for another edition of Sexist Beatdown. Up for discussion this morning are girls who hate on other girls when a man gets in the way, and then write pop songs about it. As always, your hosts are that bitchy, popular ho Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown, and the adorably geeky woman of your dreams—me! Join us: We promise to pretend to be your friends while we try to fuck your boyfriend and ridicule your skanky dye job.
Sady has already done the groundwork on the "girl-on-girl sexism" phenomenon. In this special genre of pop music, the protagonist ridicules another woman who is either a) involved with "her man," or b) involved with a man the singer wishes were "her man." The protagonist typically cites purely aesthetic arguments—But she's a cheerleader! But she has bleached hair! But she just sucks!—for hating that other bitch and attempting to convince the "man" that he belongs with her. Sady notes that this trend most recently surfaced in Taylor Swift's beloved hit single, "You Belong With Me":
It put my hair thoroughly on end, with Taylor pleading over and over again for a boy to just go ahead and dump a girl (who apparently has goals in life outside of obsessively working to please this one dude), in favor of Taylor (who doesn't). I mean, I know we're supposed to be rooting for Taylor, because GLASSES, but this whole thing whereby girls who do not conceive of themselves as traditionally attractive deal with this by hating on girls who they think are prettier is just really repulsive to me, and I can't stand it, especially when it's framed as "empowering" rather than just insecure and gross. You have a problem with how limiting the mainstream beauty standard is? Fine. TALK ABOUT THAT. I will agree with you. But slamming "ugly" girls and slamming "pretty" girls both amount to slamming girls. So, you know. Less of that, please.
Meanwhile, Notes on Popular Culture has already provided the counterpoint for Team Taylor: "Sady calls the comparison between the two girls 'girl-on-girl sexism.' What Sady forgets is that this is what people do. That is what girls do, that is what teenage girls do, this is what girls do when another girl has they guy they like. It’s tame, and pretty damn fair."
Or is it?
SADY:: let's talk about ladies who don't like other ladies! through the universal language of SONG! (the ladies who hate other ladies. not me, or, i would imagine you. let us conduct this discussion instead through the universal language of Gchat.)
SADY: first of all, i think we need to separate the lady-disliking-lady song from the you-cheated-on-me-song (as sung by a lady). because both are venerable pop conventions. but one is pretty specifically about disliking a lady, and the other is more about being upset with somebody who cheated on you and referring to the co-cheater as a "tramp" or whatever.
AMANDA: so, you're saying there is a difference between your unnecessary "I Hate That Bitch" song and your Jolene rip-off?
SADY: i would argue, yes! although... maybe not? (BEHOLD, as i introduce and then disagree with my own points!) because, like, in "before he cheats," by carrie underwood, she mentions that there is "probably" a "bleached-blond tramp" in this dude's life before introducing some truly epic automotive destruction on the possible-tramp-liker.
AMANDA: oh ... "probably.” see, this is where it gets interesting. because doesn't carrie underwood appear to have bleached blond hair?
SADY: haha, and the hypothetical tramp sings "fake Shania karaoke" at one point. PROJECTION!
Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats"
Woman: bleach-blond, wavy-haired Carrie Underwood
Other Woman: bleach-blond, straight-haired Carrie Underwood look-alike
AMANDA: and isn't it innocent-glasses TAYLOR SWIFT HERSELF, ladies and gentleman of the jury, and not bitchy-brunette Taylor Swift, that is the "other woman" in "You Belong With Me"?
SADY: RIGHT! or in "girlfriend," by avril lavigne, which is basically the same song: "hey hey you you i don't like your girlfriend hey hey you you i could be your girlfriend why can't you see you belong with me?" they sort of blur together into an identical message point in my head. also that "don't you wish your girlfriend were the pussycat dolls" song. there are a LOT of these songs!
Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend"
Woman: Redhead glasses-wearing Avril Lavigne, who is "like, so whatever."
Other Woman: Brunette punk-rocker Avril Lavigne, who is a "mother-fuckin' princess"
AMANDA: practically the same song, except avril subs in "punky arm-warmers" for glasses. But let's go back to Jolene for a moment, shall we?
AMANDA: so, instead of trashy bleached-blond hair (or trashy brunette-died hair, depending on the version), jolene has got a smile like a breath of spring, or whatever.
SADY: right. there's a lot of lavishly detailed jolene-sexiness, which makes the song weirdly kind of ladyrotic, all about the power of another woman's sexuality.
AMANDA: right ... and it raises an interesting point about how these "other women" are romanticized and demonized in song. the "other woman" song is an interesting thing to talk about from a feminist perspective I think. for example, when Dolly Parton is begging Jolene not to take "her man," she exerts ownership over another human being and even attempts to control another human (jolene) in order to keep that ownership. instead of being like, "fuck it," which maybe would not have made for a very compelling song, i guess. and so, perhaps you could give a feminist reading to "Girlfriend" and "You Belong With Me" in that these are women reminding other humans that they aren't property.
Dolly Parton's "Jolene"
Woman: Can't compete.
Other Woman: Flaming locks of auburn hair, ivory skin, eyes of emerald green, smile like breath of spring, voice soft like summer rain.
SADY: welllllll... possibly? i think both are actually ABOUT competition over territory (territory = actual human dude). in one case you are trying to lure a dude away, and in another, you are trying to keep hold of him. but, weirdly, i don't think that is so feminist? because what a lot of these songs do is sort of make the dudes not responsible for who they cheat on you with / who they date, in order to transfer all of the animus onto another woman. women are always sort of the villains, even if it's a dude who is making the choices you disagree with. compare this to one of my favorite dude-finds-out-his-lady-cheated songs, "take a letter, maria," in which a dude rolls into the office, tells his secretary his wife's been sleeping with another dude. then, asks her to draft a divorce letter. then, tells her she's his girlfriend now. like, the dude just kind of keeps rolling on. the lady is STILL the villain, even in songs about cheating ladies sung from dudes' perspectives. not the guy his wife slept with.
AMANDA: so ... does any dude actually choose his girlfriend based on who writes the best song about why he should be their girlfriend?
SADY: i kind of wish they did!
AMANDA: i dont! i such at that shit!
SADY: well, i think the vast majority of dudes would get a case of The Creeps if we were all under their windows performing dance-offs about them. which DOES kind of make the whole "you belong to me" genre weirdly feminist: it's women being suitors, not desired objects. granted, it's in some kind of wacky "i could totally fulfill all your needs better than she can" way, but WHATEVS.
AMANDA: right, and weirdly enough, the guys are hardly humanized.
SADY: exactly. like, it's not about how dreamy they are or whatever. they're not singing the dude's praises. they're just like, "WANT DUDE! DUDE MINE!"
AMANDA: it's possible that these "empowering" other-woman songs are just co-opting the worst aspects of traditional male courting behavior. one of the things that irks me about both You Belong with Me and Girlfriend is the assumption that, well, the guy belongs with them.
SADY: yeah! exactly! like, Dude can't choose who he wants to date? MAYBE THE FACT THAT YOU ARE ALWAYS IN THE WINDOW MAKING MOONEYES AT HIM HAS CREEPED HIM OUT, Taylor Glasses!
AMANDA: it's the same old shit where a dude feels entitled to harass a woman because that's what is supposed to happen when you like a girl, no matter what she says about you—like, "no thanks," or "just friends"
Pussycat Dolls, "Dontcha"
Woman: Not hot like her.
Other Woman: Hot.
SADY: yeah, exactly. like, the whole "Nice Guy (TM)" bit of jargon we've coined to describe dudes who whine about how they're so awesome and girls STILL won't go out with them and the fact is that they're just kind of chasing the wrong girls around? that seems, weirdly, to be present in some gender-flipped form in "You Belong With Me." Taylor Swift is a Nice Girl (TM) and it is freaking me out a little.
AMANDA: or pretending to be friends when they're really trying to get a boner. full disclosure, I find that song catchy and I listen to it whenever it's on the radio, which is all the time, which is why I know enough about this song to have this weird reservation about one of the lyrics. you pointed this out, as well, but when Swift says that evil bitchy girlfriend "doesn't get his humor" and freaks out when he says certain things, it always seems obvious to me that the guy is saying something so monumentally douchey, and Taylor Swift is just lining up to be like, "I won't call you out on being a douche."
SADY: yeah, exactly. like, i have seen girls do this. the whole "i get boys" thing, that in practice always seems to be about siding with boys when girls call them out on being sexist and/or douches. and i don't know what it is – being known as a "guy's girl" can give you some power, or an illusion of power, in certain circles – but to me I always get post-traumatic Tucker Max flashbacks to when he's like, "but some of my FRIENDS are women! some of my FANS!" and, yeah, but maybe those girls are just biting the bullet and/or deluded enough to think that your douchiness will never affect them unless they laugh along. basically, i think "You Belong With Me" is a song about how Taylor Swift wants to date Seth McFarlane. that is what i think it is. i will never apologize.
AMANDA: maybe they would be cute!
SADY: he could talk to her in the voice of a mean-spirited british baby and/or laconic dog.
AMANDA: that other bitch just doesn't GET that like she does.
SADY: EXACTLY. you know, though, i have been forced to come to the conclusion that everyone in the whole entire world likes taylor swift a little bit more than i do. like, my over-the-top dislike of taylor swift may in fact be wrongheaded and the result of being hit in the head with a skipper doll as a small child or something. people in general don't dislike taylor swift as much as i do, so there is maybe something wrong with me. and i would like to apologize to taylor swift, for whatever i have written about her in the past, using a girl-hating-(i think?)-another-girl-song lyric. from destiny's child. it reads: "you know i'm not gonna diss you on the internet / cause my mama told me better than that."
AMANDA: i heard that song on the radio the other day. taylor swift has, essentially, said the opposite about her career: she's said that all her songs are about dissing people who have wronged her in some way.
SADY: OH GOD. SHOULD I BE WORRIED?
AMANDA: (Yes). But i can't help but thinking that—with all her deliberate high-school-band-geek-goofy-glasses image—taylor swift maybe has underestimated how much people were going to Totally Fall In Love With Her. she's the most successful artist right now, and smoking hot, and she's writing a bunch of diss songs, which probably won't play for very long. just a bit of career advice. because i know a lot about the music business. so ... you're doing her a favor, is what i'm saying, and i can't wait to see what wig taylor swift wears in order to play you in her upcoming single, "I Didn't Know He Had A Nazi Shirt On, You Bitch."