The Time magazine Person of the Year cover looks very good. The image, whether spotted on newsstands or shared and retweeted across timelines, is an arresting one that will make you stop and stare. You’ll pick up the magazine or click on the link, only to find that this victory—ostensibly a blow to Donald Trump—isn’t as strong as it seems.
Past the badass black velvet and the optics of inclusion, “The Silence Breakers” is more than a little problematic. Once the empowering imagery of a group of strong women snatching this honor out of the President’s tiny hands fades, we’re left to contend with the group of people who were chosen to represent a movement—women like actress Ashley Judd, strawberry picker Isabel Pascual, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, and pop singer Taylor Swift. In evoking a seismic sexual harassment reckoning, Time’s cover story attempts to illustrate how issues of workplace harassment and sexual assault affect women (and men) across race and class demographics. Additionally, it emphasizes that many women who make up this movement are nameless and faceless, under-recognized activists in a struggle that has been disproportionally attributed to famous, affluent white women.
But featuring a wide array of voices doesn’t make up for the fact that a few of these names feel like they were chosen by an SEO generator. The most jarring face on this cover is, of course, Taylor Swift’s. Swift technically fits the bill as a woman who took her groper to court this year. But Time’s decision to laud her as a “silence breaker” is ironic on multiple counts, and suggests that the magazine was willing to barter some integrity for star power and social media buzz. In her interview for Time, her first since the trial, Swift explains why she decided to pursue legal action against the Colorado radio DJ whom she says grabbed her butt during a photo opportunity (technically, that DJ sued Swift for defamation, and she countersued).
According to Swift, who won the case along with a symbolic dollar bill, “I figured that if he would be brazen enough to assault me under these risky circumstances and high stakes, imagine what he might do to a vulnerable, young artist if given the chance.” She continued, “I think that this moment is important for awareness, for how parents are talking to their children, and how victims are processing their trauma, whether it be new or old. The brave women and men who have come forward this year have all moved the needle in terms of letting people know that this abuse of power shouldn’t be tolerated…Even though awareness is higher than ever about workplace sexual harassment, there are still so many people who feel victimized, afraid and silenced by their abusers and circumstances.”
Swift, who has struggled with her public image in the past, comes across quite well in this interview. She jokes with the Time reporter that her stint on the stand “was the most amount of times the word ‘ass’ has ever been said in Colorado Federal Court.” She offers strong words of support for survivors and against victim blaming. Time even goes so far as to proclaim, “Her clear-eyed testimony marked one of several major milestones in the conversation around sexual harassment this year”—a claim few have ever heard before.
Still, whether or not Swift’s story actually helped jumpstart a movement isn’t what makes her under-qualified or even ineligible for this honor. Because while the singer’s story certainly fits the general description of a woman standing up to harassment, her entire public persona is completely at odds with the notion of a “silence breaker.”
Let’s put Swift’s Time puff piece in perspective. Women like Ashley Judd, one of the first women to come forward against Harvey Weinstein on the record, have had silence imposed upon them. When these women do decide to speak out, they risk mammoth personal and professional repercussions. Meanwhile, Swift consistently offers strongly worded statements only when she has something to gain from them. In this interview alone, it is striking to witness the specificity of Swift’s responses when discussing a movement that’s inextricably tied to politics in the Trump era. Swift is given a platform to show off her “good” opinions, but isn’t questioned on her decision to neither endorse Hillary Clinton nor denounce Donald Trump during the 2016 election.
While other celebrities, particularly those who advocate on behalf of women and girls, have routinely called out the accused rapist who is currently our Commander-in-Chief, Swift has failed to extend her survivor solidarity to Trump’s alleged victims. As The Daily Beast has pointed out before, Swift’s inability to criticize the Republican presidential candidate probably had something to do with her fan base. Swift isn’t just an entertainer who won’t take a stand against Donald Trump—she’s a woman who won’t even denounce her own neo-Nazi fans. In fact, Time’s “silence breaker” of the year has threatened legal action against a blogger for exploring the ties between Taylor Swift and her adoring Daily Stormer fan base.
When she’s not trying to literally silence the press, Swift speaks out in a way that is at odds with the intersectional feminist approach at the heart of Time’s latest endeavor. Swift is the beneficiary of a system that privileges whiteness, and she appears to have no moral qualms reaping the rewards of racist stereotypes. While the pop singer has repeatedly resorted to playing the victim, her routine reached problematic peaks in 2016. After Kanye West shouted the singer out in his song “Famous,” Swift proceeded to publicly demonize the rapper in an infamous Grammys acceptance speech.
“I wanna say to all the young women out there: there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame,” she said, not-so-subtly referencing the West track. Kim Kardashian subsequently showed that Kanye had in fact reached out to Swift for her blessings on the raunchy lyrics, and accused Swift of manipulating the situation to her advantage. “She totally knew that that was coming out,” Kardashian insisted. “She wanted to all of a sudden act like she didn't.”
While Swift contested the Wests’ version of events, the fact remains that Swift chose to publicly shame West, in a rhetorical feat that continued their epic feud and positioned her as the sexually objectified victim of an angry black man. Whether or not she understood the full implications, Swift played into a historically potent, harmful trope, and would have retained the public’s sympathy if not for Kardashian’s cunning social media coup.
Swift’s bravery in showing up to court to confront the man who groped her isn’t up for question. But to call Swift a feminist “silence breaker” is a bold erasure of every time she’s failed to show up or speak out for women in the past. Swift, who was initially reticent to call herself a feminist, has embraced “girl power” rhetoric without all of the pesky politics. Instead of, say, actively protesting in solidarity with women everywhere in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Swift … tweeted. “So much love, pride, and respect for those who marched” she wrote during the Women’s March. “I’m proud to be a woman today, and every day.”
Because of her spineless feminism and political passivity, Taylor Swift is hardly the figure of female empowerment that Time is making her out to be. In fact, a recent meme has highlighted just how uninspired the internet is by Taylor Swift. After a fan shared an image of Swift and dared Twitter to “name a bitch badder” than TayTay, the world wide web clapped back with lists of women who have actually put their lives on the line, surmounting enormous odds in order to make a difference or achieve greatness. Answers ranged from Zheng Shi, a sex worker in Canton who was captured by a pirate and ultimately commanded a fleet of over 300 ships, to literally any of these women of color.
Time’s “silence breaker” of the year: an out of touch, ACLU-condemned fair weather feminist who probably only agreed to do the interview on the condition that they didn’t ask her about Donald Trump.