Last week, musical and cultural icon Taylor Swift released the music video for her hit song “The Man,” bringing to life her feminist anthem against misogyny and double standards.
With already over 21 million views, Swift’s directorial debut has sparked an explosive buzz about the powerful acting display from Swift — who, with the aid of makeup and CGI, is transformed into an alarmingly believable rich, white, Wolf of Wall Street-type male.
At the heart of the song throbs a familiar statement of discontent: that the world is a system that unfairly favours men, who dance up the ladder of success and get away with grotesque behaviour.
In her portrayal of this asserted reality, Swift’s response is both provocative and paradoxical. While calling out society for tolerating and even affirming toxic masculinity — from workplace rancour to luxurious indulgence to sexual conquests — it also proclaims that were she in their shoes, she would beat them at their own game.
(And indeed, she proves it, since Swift herself literally is “the man” she sings about.)
“The Man” is an intriguing power play, but it also raises an unsettling question: Is this really what the powerful feminist response should be?
The music video is mainly ironic, built on the mockery of a caricatured narcissistic male, but it also contains a hint of earnestness. The lyrics and scenes tell us that the male identity, however repulsive, brings a certain freedom and power that Swift can’t help but yearn for. As a result, “The Man” becomes an outcry not so much against bad moral behaviour but against inequality: If men can get away with it, why can’t women?
If the video isn’t evidence enough, the same theme bubbles up in the recent Netflix documentary on Swift’s career, “Miss Americana.”
In what she calls a “soapbox” moment, Swift talks of rejecting “the misogyny in my own brain” and holding fast to the supposed truths of gender equality: “There is no such thing as a slut, there is no such thing as a b*tch, there is no such thing as someone who’s bossy—there’s just a boss. We [women] don’t want to be condemned for being multifaceted.”
What “The Man” hinted at through irony, Swift addresses here head on. The feminist message she subscribes to is not just “Men, stop acting like jerks” but also “Let women act however they want without being called out for it either.”
Swift isn’t the only one championing this vision of equality. Indeed, it is the predominant feminist narrative. It is what brought us Shakira and JayLo’s Super Bowl LIV halftime show this year, in which aggressively flaunting sexuality is considered empowering, and any criticism against such a performance is considered sexist.
Perhaps the collective cultural response to male versus female promiscuity is “unequal,” but is giving equal affirmation to both truly desirable?
Swift would no doubt object to the object to a masculine parallel of her statement: There is no such thing as a bastard, there is no such thing as a son of a b*tch, there is no such thing as a manipulator—there’s only someone who knows how to be in control. Like many feminists (and in fact much of society), she got the first half of the equation right: she’s called out that kind of phrase as dead wrong. Manipulative men are both a reality and a disgrace to the name of true manliness, and their behaviour should not be tolerated. Indeed, their apparent prevalence has driven many to the unfortunate conclusion that their behaviour represents all that masculinity has to offer.
Unfortunately, Swift misses the crucial second half of the equation: that if men are to be held to a high moral standard, so should women.
But instead of condemning aggression, egotism, and promiscuity across the board, Swift champions such behaviour for women, labelling it as the badge of female power. In her worldview, women are never wrong — just “multifaceted.”
Calling what is crass “cool” and what is promiscuous “powerful” is a dangerous and degrading habit for both men and women.
Rather than fight for the “right” to be equally vicious with no shame, men and women have an equal obligation to uplift each other to a higher standard. That entails not only pointing out weaknesses but also (and perhaps more importantly) drawing out strengths and setting good example in order to spread positive habits like empathy, collaboration, selflessness, and understanding.
That is the only way for men and women to respect, honour, and love each other as fellow human beings working toward a common good. The alternative that Swift preaches can only perpetuate an ugly, counterproductive gender war.
Sophia Martinson is a writer with a primary focus on cultural and family topics. She lives with her husband in New York City.