Taylor Swift’s outward-facing persona is a carefully cultivated one of adult birthday parties, and Fourth of July sleepovers, and “candid” Instagram shots that look like they took at least a few takes to perfect. But yesterday, Swift was unvarnished, angry, sharp—and, for many women, stirring.
The pop star was testifying in a civil trial over an alleged groping incident that occurred in 2013. A DJ named David Mueller originally sued Swift, claiming that Swift got him fired by accusing him of reaching up her skirt and grabbing her buttocks during a meet-and-greet in Colorado. Swift countersued for $1, claiming that she wanted to send a message to all women that “you can say no,” and that if David Mueller didn’t want to get fired, he should have restrained himself from groping Taylor Alison Swift.
During yesterday’s stint on the stand, Swift referred to the attorney cross-examining her as “Gabe.” She was pissed, and unintimidated, an avatar of female strength in the face of an offense that nobody should have to deal with.
“I’m critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass,” she said in response to Gabe the lawyer’s suggestion that her bodyguard should have stopped the groping.
When Gabe the lawyer asked why none of the other people at the meet-and-greet saw the groping, Swift retorted, “Because my ass is located in the back of my body.”
Did anybody have a direct line of sight? “The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone lying underneath my skirt and we didn’t have anyone positioned there,” Swift spat.
Swift seems aware that she’s in a much better position to face down the man she alleges assaulted her than most women who have been similarly groped. She’s rich and famous and white, for starters. She’s also facing her alleged groper in a civil courtroom, where guilt is determined by a “preponderence of evidence” standard rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard applied in criminal court. She’s suing her alleged attacker for $1, so anybody accusing her of trying to profit from her alleged assault, or trying to get famous from her alleged assault, would be barking up the wrong tree. She’s got plenty of money. She’s got plenty of fame. She’d probably rather be almost anywhere else.
One of the more compelling aspects of Swift’s crusade isn’t what she’s said. It’s why Swift’s testimony went viral as empowerment theater, and the issues that virality highlights.
Swift has meticulously crafted her public image from the beginning of her career. She’s never been photographed drinking alcohol or taking drugs, her relationships with men are discussed to but never graphically displayed, she’s not a party girl.
Of course, the notion that in order for assault to be legitimate, the assailed must be a saint is hogwash. But often, when a woman accuses somebody of sexual harassment or assault, her character goes on trial. What was she wearing? Has she been known to engage in this sort of behavior consensually in the past? Why was she out walking all alone so late at night? Why was she drinking? Why would a woman go into a room alone with a man if she didn’t want to have sex with him?
And, to an extent, Gabe the Lawyer has tried to pull that on Swift. Why didn’t she end the meet-and-greet after Mueller allegedly groped her? Why didn’t she say something right away, to the right people?
But what happened to Swift pales in comparison to what other women who come forward with accusations of assault face. That’s because most victims aren’t as “perfect” as Swift.
Former Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who carried the mattress she was allegedly raped on as part of a performance art piece, was attacked and doxed. So were her the other women who accused Sulkowicz’s alleged attacker of assault.
In 2011, a Texas prosecutor accused an 11-year-old rape victim of being a “spider” that somehow attracted her own alleged gang rape by 20 teen boys and men. A 16-year-old girl named Jada, who was raped while unconscious at a party, became a cruel meme.
R. Kelly has a long history of troubling to abusive relationships with young women. Somehow, he’s not a pariah. To paraphrase a recent Soraya Nadia McDonald piece on The Undefeated, Kelly’s career is a testament to how little many in society care about black women and girls.
Even women who come forward and do the “right” thing face long odds. States across the country house huge rape kit backlogs. It’s hard to see sexual assault as something law enforcement takes seriously when they’re not even doing the bare minimum to investigate it.
That’s not to say that Swift’s case shouldn’t be taken this seriously. Rather, the cathartic nature of Swift’s courtroom testimony highlight the disparity between how seriously her case is being taken and the way others’ cases are treated. Swift’s is the best-case scenario. For the sake of every other woman, we’ve got a long way to go.