Taylor Swift, Amalia Ulman, and The Art of Owning Your Perception
In “Shake It Off,” the song that made us all Taylor Swift fans overnight and also hasn’t left our collective brain in about six weeks, TSwift takes all the criticisms that have been flung her way over the last few years and delivers them back to us in a neat list. Oh, you know that Taylor, she stays out too late; got nothing in her brain; she goes on too many dates, but she can’t make ‘em stay (mm mmm). In her new video for her single “Blank Space” that exploded the internet yesterday, she not only acknowledges the hate, hate, hate (I’m sorry, I can’t stop) thrown her way, she gives us a full reenactment. The absolutely hilarious video traces a “typical” Swiftian relationship, from the Ralph Lauren catalogue days of ball gowns and riding bicycles indoors to throwing the guy’s burning clothes out of her mansion windows and standing on horses.
And then, of course, one Kennedy look-alike is immediately replaced by another, and the cycle starts all over again.
I’m reminded of an Argentinia-born artist named Amalia Ulman who’s been getting attention the last few months because of an Instagram-based “online exhibition” titled Excellences and Perfections. For three months, Ulman “boycotted” her own online identity to craft what’s viewed by many as the ideal internet persona. She staged pictures to create the story of a young woman’s glamorous lifestyle makeover, complete with (fake) breast augmentation, (real) intense dieting and workout regimens, latte art, and motivational quotes. There’s an equal balance between pretty pink and white dresses and butt shots. The hope, ostensibly, is that by adopting the persona she sees society as wanting her to have, maybe (maybe) she comes a little closer to helping dismantle it.
But both women have been criticized for perpetuating the ideals they’re examining. Swift may be able to own her own specific public image and twist it back at her critics, but what about the larger image of women and girls in general? In a fantastic interview with NPR a few weeks ago, she talked about social media, specifically Instagram, and how it affects young girls.
We are dealing with a huge self-esteem crisis. These girls are able to scroll pictures of the highlight reels of other people’s lives, and they’re stuck with the behind-the-scenes of their own lives.
The obvious argument here is that Taylor herself is a major contributor to this problem. Talk about a “highlight reel” — her Instagram page is full of perfectly bobbed hair and Times Square performances. How are her young fans not supposed to feel inadequate by comparison? But is Instagram itself really the problem here? What is the problem with publicly declaring you did something you’re proud of? The selfie argument, trying to declare them once and for all as either damaging or empowering, has been going on for … I don’t know, ever? Girls spend so much of their lives feeling they are not cool enough, smart enough, or pretty enough to deserve attention. Shouldn’t we throw a party every time a 12-year-old feels confident enough to snap a selfie?
My very favorite line from Amy Poehler’s new book Yes Please is: “This is America and I get to have high self esteem.” If girls (or, hey, people) want to project an idealized version of themselves, good for them. The important distinction is making sure young girls realize that Instagram is not reality. The image, the perception, is not reality. Women like Ulman and Swift, who are reclaiming and exploding both their own specific perceptions in the media —
—and that of women in general, are only helping the cause.
Vivian Kane also makes the moves up as she goes, which is why she usually looks like this:
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