If you haven’t been following Taylor Swift’s legal drama recently, you’d be forgiven for being a bit cynical about the second part of my title. You might be fully up to date with it, and still suspicious. In many ways, Swift is a problematic flag-bearer for feminism. But my goodness, she was superb in court. And when the jury found in her favour, this case felt like a landmark in terms of how sexual assault is understood and discussed.
First things first, this wasn’t a criminal case against David Mueller, the DJ from Denver who groped Swift during a photo opportunity in 2013. Oh no. Swift and her mother reported the incident, and some time later, he lost his job, at which point he decided to sue Swift for $3m in damages for ‘ruining his career’. Yep, that’s right. The groper was suing the gropee. What Swift did was countersue. And she did it well.
Her suit was for $1 — a symbolic amount. And she won, in every possible sense of the word. She’s a multi-millionaire; she didn’t need that dollar. What she really achieved was a high-profile declaration of where the damn line is, and what it means when someone crosses that line. She taught a generation about acceptable conduct, personal space, and where the blame lies.
Take a moment to enjoy how freaking awesome she was in court. Here are her 10 most powerful comebacks during cross-examination, according to Glamour.
(1) McFarland suggested Swift could’ve taken a break from her concert meet-and-greet if she was so shaken up by Mueller’s alleged assault. (Swift previously said she was distressed by the incident but carried on with her schedule because she didn’t want to upset her fans.) Swift’s reply: “Your client could have taken a normal photo with me.”
(2) McFarland noted that Swift is actually closer to Mueller’s girlfriend in the photo. (Presumably the point of this was to imply Swift could’ve been confused about whose hand, if any, grabbed her backside.)
Swift’s reply: “Yes, she did not have her hand on my ass.”
(3) McFarland suggested Swift’s bodyguard, Greg Dent, could have intervened if a sexual assault did occur. Vogue reports the lawyer then asked Swift if she was critical of Dent for not preventing the alleged incident.
Swift’s reply: “I’m critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”
(4) McFarland argued there isn’t anything visibly inappropriate happening in the photo of Swift and Mueller.
Swift’s reply: “Gabe, this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt—with his hand on my ass. You can ask me a million questions—I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.”
(5) McFarland argued Swift’s skirt showed no signs of disruptment.
Swift’s reply: “Because my ass is located in the back of my body.”
(6) According to Rolling Stone, at one point Mueller himself stated: “My hand came into contact with part of her body. I felt what appeared to be a rib cage or rib. … And it went behind her, and her hand, or arm, went behind my arm.”
Swift’s reply: “He did not touch my rib, he did not touch my hand, he grabbed my bare ass.”
(7) McFarland questioned why no one witnessed Mueller grabbing Swift’s backside.
Swift’s reply: “The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.”
(8) McFarland asked Swift if she thinks Mueller got what he deserved. He was fired from his job at KYGO shortly after the incident, which is why he’s asking for $3 million in damages. Mueller claims Swift’s team is the reason why he lost his job.
Swift’s reply: “I don’t feel anything about Mr. Mueller. I don’t know him.”
(9) The defense asked if Swift is open to the possibility it wasn’t Mueller who supposedly grabbed her.
Swift’s reply: “He had a handful of my ass. I know it was him.”
(10) McFarland asked Swift if she had any feelings about Mueller losing his job because of the incident.
Swift’s reply: “I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions—not mine.”
Second thought: Are we absolutely sure that ‘disruptment’ was the right word there, Gabe?
Where we might be feeling some (or lots of) cynicism is where Swift profits personally from this. As I said above, that $1 definitely wasn’t a profit. The most significant personal gain for Swift was in her approval ratings. It is the biggest possible boost to her feminist credentials, at a time when she desperately needed it. After the high profile humiliation of the Kim Kardashian receipts, the lingering spat with Katy Perry, the social media bashing from Calvin Harris, and the contempt she faced during her real-or-fake relationship with Tom Hiddleston, the Swift brand was in trouble.
I’m not suggesting that this was the root of her motivation with her countersuit. I imagine that many others will… I suspect her aim was noble, though she must have known that this would be good for her brand. My main question here is: does it matter if it makes her look good? Does the personal gain make us feel differently about the wider social gain? Is Swift so tainted as a public figure that what she has achieved will be diminished, or scoffed at? Can she be a feminist icon if her particular brand of feminism is also convenient for business? Swift’s politics have been (rightly) criticised in the past, as Ben Beaumont-Thomas notes in his Guardian piece today:
She stayed quiet during the Trump-Clinton election and over the upheavals surrounding Black Lives Matter, and eroded her black fanbase as a result of the latter. She tweeted about the Women’s March in January, but was criticised for not attending.
Extreme cynics will say that her fight against Mueller is engineered to reverse these perceptions in an era when being “woke” has major cultural currency. A more modulated argument is that the groping case, as with the response to Kanye West, shows that Swift only engages with social issues when they’re routed directly through her own life - that she responds to sexism only when she can best leverage social capital from it - ie when the story is entirely about her.
‘Haters gonna hate’ etc etc. Sorry. Maybe I’m being naive here, but perhaps this represents a political evolution for Swift, and a move away from the apolitical, neatly packaged, pretty-rich-white-girl ‘squad goals’ brand of sisterhood that she has previously espoused. Maybe that’s what her PR team want us to think…
Either way, a victory is a victory. If it translates into album sales, fair play to her. Because she has the power to encourage an awakening in others. She has the profile needed to show everyone where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie, and who is to blame when those boundaries are crossed. By putting herself through this, she sets an example for others, and may give them courage to come forward as well. She has drawn attention to charities that support survivors of sexual assault and violence. All of this is priceless.
Bravo, Taylor Swift. Bravo.