by Celeste Montaño
The increasingly-familiar sight of a white woman twerking and objectifying black women is back on your screens, this time brought to you by Taylor Swift. On August 18, Swift released a new music video for the single “Shake It Off” to coincide with the announcement of her “first official pop album.” As a result of this initiative to explore new frontiers, Taylor finally took the plunge and allowed people of color a prominent role in her music video—a first in her eight-year career.
The new song is all about shaking off criticism and being yourself, so the video goes to great lengths to remind us that Taylor’s self is the dorky girl-next-door that doesn’t fit in. As she appropriates tries out different styles of dance and fashion, Taylor proves too rambunctious for ballet and too clumsy for interpretative dance. Things start getting weird when she suddenly attempts a B-boy look and has men of color striking tough-guy poses behind her, but it gets way worse a minute later. Taylor’s second attempt at an “edgy” and “urban” persona arrives in the form of cutoff shorts, fuchsia lipstick, and chunky gold jewelry. And animal print!
Of course there has to be animal print because this is when women of color enter the video. They dance in the background as Taylor tries to imitate them, except not really because she needs to make it obvious that she sucks at this twerking thing. You see, twerking isn’t as easy for Taylor as it is for the other dancers. Because twerking is sexual, and being sexual is easier for a black woman than it is for Taylor Swift.
It should be noted that not all the women in the scene are black. But by some funny coincidence, it’s a black woman who’s front and center in the video’s most recognizable scene: the bridge of twerking bodies. At this point, the camera gets so close that the women become nothing but legs and butts as a wide-eyed Taylor that crawls beneath them. It’s a black woman’s body that the camera features most prominently at this moment; it’s a black woman that Taylor gapes at unapologetically.
Unlike the white artists that surround themselves with black friends (in music videos, at least) and markers of black culture to prove they’re cool and a little bit dangerous, Taylor does the opposite. She surrounds herself with hip hop and breakdancing, but the point is to reject those things with a self-deprecating attitude. When we see Taylor goofily failing to twerk, she seems to be saying, “haha I’m such a white girl, this is so embarrassing,” which is actually code for “haha I fail at being sexual or dirty or threatening, I’m just innocent and endearing.”
Yet Taylor manages to act both innocent and sexy, particularly when she sings about “the fella over there with the hella good hair” who should “come on over, baby, we could shake, shake, shake.” Embodying both sides of the coin is a feat rarely achieved, though if anyone could do it, it would definitely be a white woman. But it’s only one of Taylor’s several balancing acts with in the video—like how she’s bad at ballet because she shakes her hips too much, but she’s bad at twerking because she doesn’t shake her hips enough. Like how she uses hip hop elements and the presence of people of color to prove her newfound edginess while also reassuring (white) America that she’s still sweet as apple pie.
It’s ironic that this video is supposed to set Taylor apart from pop stars like, say, Miley Cyrus. Taylor can’t twerk like Miley (supposedly) can. Taylor gets scared when black women twerk! It’s true, both Taylor and Miley dress up in stereotypically “street” clothing. And yes, both Taylor and Miley reduce their black dancers to a single body part. But it’s different! It’s not like both women are totally blinded by white privilege, not at all.
Just like Miley, Taylor waited for a very specific moment in her career to create a video that prominently features people of color and their art. This video never would’ve happened while Taylor was a teenage girl with teardrops on her guitar. To her, black art is inherently mature and rebellious. It only comes in handy when she needs to announce that she’s too tough to let criticism get to her; after all, the creators of black art are themselves strong, incapable of vulnerability, and impervious to pain, right?
It’s not surprising that Taylor Swift decided to go for a tough (but also fun and non-threatening!) attitude this time around, since she gets so much crap for being “too sensitive.” And yet there’s still a lot of people—namely studio executives and fans—who are willing to pay tons of money to hear about her feels. Meanwhile, a black or brown woman in Taylor’s quirky Keds would have a hard time making it in the industry. She wouldn’t be marketable because she wouldn’t be believable: women of color aren’t allowed to be sensitive or silly, and they certainly can’t be victims.
It’s the privilege to embody those characteristics that launched Taylor Swift’s multi-million dollar career. It’s the same privilege that will no doubt allow her to dismiss critiques of racism as just more “haters” while she keeps pretend-twerking and telling her listeners to shake it off. But what happens when you’re a black or brown girl being told to shake off the haters by the person perpetuating the hate?