When Taylor Swift released her directorial debut in the form a music video for her song “The Man,” she knew it would be making a strong statement. Many applauded it as a scathing rebuke of our patriarchal society.
But where Taylor could have used this moment to open up a greater dialogue about how gender stereotypes negatively affect both men and women, her video ends up coming off as an overly simplistic caricature of men. She falls back on tired stereotypes of “male privilege,” portraying a Wolf of Wall Street type character who gets away with the worst behavior imaginable.
Now, I want to get this straight right off the bat: none of this is a criticism of Taylor’s directing ability. I actually thought the video was very clever and creative. And no one can deny that her transformation was pretty incredible. Who knew Taylor made such a believable dude? But because the video is so jam-packed, it takes several viewings to really unpack what’s going on there. I mean, does Taylor Swift really think that all men can go around acting like Jordan Belfort and get away with it? Or is her experience with men tainted because she’s part of one of the most exploitative and sexist industries around?
How Has Being a Woman Affected Her Career?
I’m just curious: what exactly does Taylor Swift think she would have been able to achieve as a man that she’s hasn’t already as a woman? At the time that she won her first Grammy of the Year, she was the youngest person – not woman - to have ever won. She was the first artist since the Beatles to have four consecutive albums spend six or more weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart. She’s tied with Madonna for the most top 40 singles of all time. By any objective standard, she’s one of the most successful musical artists of all time, male or female.
I’m so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I’d get there faster if I was a man…
This isn’t to say that she hasn’t had to work hard (it’s clear according to her documentary that she’s a powerhouse on and off stage) or that she hasn’t had issues because of her gender. There’s no question that the tabloids have treated her short-term relationships very differently than they would have if she were a man. If every woman got shamed for dating a dozen guys during her twenties, we’d all be tabloid fodder. I also doubt Kanye would have gotten up on stage to shame a fellow male artist, when he had no problem doing it to a 19-year-old Taylor Swift.
But I think Taylor is really missing the real question here. Would she have had a career at all if she were a man? Don’t get me wrong, she’s a decent songwriter and her tunes are catchy, but plenty of other artists have fun melodies and memorable lyrics. What made Taylor unique - and able to last for over a decade - was that she was a girl singing about what it’s like to be a girl. Her music guided her fans through their first heartbreak, the fear of not being accepted by others, and the excitement of moving to a big city for the first time. She’s been able to create music that appeals to almost all women, and her music has matured along with her audience. It’s no small feat.
Her fans love her music because it’s so true to who she is - so why would she want to change that? Taylor’s success isn’t in spite of her being a woman - it’s because of it.
Do All Men Get To Act Like the Wolf of Wall Street?
Taylor’s “Man” is a pretty big douchebag. He manspreads, he pees in public, he throws a tantrum when he loses at tennis. It’s clear that her character is molded after Jordan Belfort of Wolf of Wall Street fame. Obviously, men like that exist (or else how could Jordan have written his book?), but is it really representative of the average American man?
Every conquest I had made would make me more of a boss to you. I'd be a fearless leader, I'd be an alpha type.
It makes you wonder how much of Taylor’s perception of men is poisoned because of her industry. Entertainment is rife with sexual harassment and abuse, handed out by agents, producers, and execs who take advantage of young women trying to get their big break. Harvey Weinstein, the big-time Hollywood producer who used his position to bully women into sexual acts, was the spark that started the #MeToo movement. Worse, it’s clear that many in the entertainment industry, men and women alike, knew about the abuse and decided to stay quiet rather than risk their careers. It seems like being steeped in this environment may have given Taylor and lots of other young women a particularly pessimistic view of the male gender.
The Killers See a Different Kind of “Man”
Taylor Swift isn’t the only artist with a killer anthem called “The Man.” In 2017, The Killers (best known for “Mr. Brightside”) made a comeback with their single “The Man.” The song is told from the perspective of a man very similar to the one in Taylor’s video: egotistical and narcissistic, doing drugs, sleeping around, obsessed with fame and power. At first you think it’s just the singer stroking his own ego about how great he is. But by the end of their video, you realize that the men shown are actually miserable and faking their lifestyle. They’re actually weak, pathetic, and scared.
The lead singer of The Killers, Brandon Flowers, wrote the song about himself. It’s a reflection on his early days of fame, when he felt like “God’s gift” to the world. The band had managed to make it big on their very first album, and were suddenly expected to act the part of a famous rock band. Flowers, who had grown up with an alcoholic father, turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with the pressure.
Getting married and having his first child is what inspired him to finally get clean. The band continued to put out new albums and perform, but Flowers devoted as much time as he could to his family. Several years later, when his wife began experiencing severe mental health issues, he decided to choose his family over his career. The band cancelled the last six shows on their tour, and Flowers headed home to care for his wife and take over daily tasks like driving the children to school.
I got gas in the tank, I got money in the bank. I got news for you, baby, you're looking at the man.
This experience inspired "The Man,” in which Flowers reflects on his younger self. He had lived the male fantasy - drugs, women, partying, fame. But he gave up the addiction and the lifestyle to have a family, and therein discovered the true essence of masculinity: taking care of others. Whereas Taylor relies on stereotypes and hyperbole to make her point felt, The Killers’ song is an introspective critique of the macho man lifestyle. They’ve achieved what Taylor failed to: not only to portray the stereotype, but move beyond it to the deeper meaning of what it is to be "The Man.”
From what’s been happening in the entertainment industry lately, it’s no surprise that Taylor felt the need to weigh in on the double standards in Hollywood. It’s great to use your platform to bring attention to the issues. But she shouldn’t lose sight of what made her a worldwide phenomenon in the first place - her ability to tell the truth through music. She couldn’t do what she’s done if she were a man - and that’s the way it should be.