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Taylor Swift, White Womanhood, and the Political Battle Over Who Gets to Be the Face of the Nation
Allyson Shortle,

Allyson Shortle, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in political science at the University of Oklahoma and a 2023-2024 PRRI Public Fellow.

Pop star, entertainment mogul, and white American woman, Taylor Swift was named TIME Magazine’s 2023 Person of the Year. The magazine’s selection was described by another national publication as “only slightly less inevitable than the rising of the sun.” Most observers felt the decision, which has been determined annually for just short of a century, was predictable in light of the success of Swift’s Eras tour, her concert film’s Golden Globe nomination, her encouragement of 35,000 young fans to register to vote in a single day, and her ascendance to new-billionaire status, while stimulating the entire U.S. economy wherever she went — a phenomenon coined Swiftonomics.

While there is no debating the pop star’s successful year, news of her Person of the Year status caused an eclectic patchwork of reactions. Most surprisingly, many of the pop star’s most vocal critics were not defined by their contradictory musical stylings or divergent entertainment preferences. Instead, these critics were frequently defined by their right-wing political identities —though they were joined by other critics with progressive political beliefs — making for a surprisingly bipartisan crew.

Even more puzzling to some, the progressive critics who weighed in to criticize Swift’s Person of the Year status are arguably the most liberal members the political Left has to offer, including an anti-racist activist objecting to the mass attention lobbed onto the pop singer during a time of global political upheaval. The activist referred to the fanfare as “White nonsense, white violence, white love of Black and brown genocide.” Meanwhile, the “alt-right” criticisms appeared more personal in nature. For example, one alt-right activist’s social media account lodged an attack on Swift’s “DINK lifestyle (dual income, no kids),” and “vaccine shill” boyfriend.

Not that the anti-Swift political factions will be breaking bread anytime soon. However, both the Left’s and the Right’s criticisms reveal a shared fear regarding Swift’s invisible political power to shape young minds. Some have gone as far as characterizing Taylor Swift as a political weapon. All the politically steeped criticisms seem odd since Swift is not predominantly a political actor. What explains her bipartisan political foes?

Examining debates about national identity may help us better understand why Swift is facing criticism as the face of the nation.  At the same time, such examinations demonstrate how normative beliefs — through which people define their national identities — can become activated by publicly discussed ideas, events, or public figures, even if those figures are entertainment icons.

Differing definitions of “American-ness” are used by everyday people to form their attitudes on a range of subjects. Studies of American nationalism currently focus primarily on (white) Christian nationalism, an exclusionary nationalistic ideology steeped in American exceptionalism that has at its core white supremacy, Christian domination, and male violence. Other work expands our understanding of exclusionary nationalism by examining the notion that the country is getting “too soft and feminine.” This sentiment is considered a gendered nationalist belief that prizes masculinity as a “true” American trait. Gendered nationalists support traditional gender norms for men and women in society. Altogether, this research examines the tendency of some Americans to subscribe to exclusionary forms of nationalism to legitimate an imagined national racial, religious, and gender hierarchy.

Debates over national identity may explain Swift’s far-Right critics, since the pop star’s elevated public image — to that of a certifiably ideal American by her Person of the Year status — may have led some observers to develop cognitive dissonance-fueled negative reactions when their image of an American ideal didn’t match up with their perception of Taylor Swift. This raises the question of which far-Right beliefs could have caused such negative reactions? And what might explain Swift’s critics on the political Left?

To the Right

While it is notoriously difficult to gain access to far-Right groups to ask them about their ideas about national identity, PRRI’s 2023 American Values Survey asks about several interesting associations that may explain how the far Right’s narrow definitions of “true” American-ness likely play into their criticisms of Swift. Among Americans who identify as “strong Republicans,” we find 76% agree that America has gotten “too soft and feminine” (e.g., gendered nationalism), compared with 48% of all Americans.

Meanwhile, according to PRRI’s 2023 Climate Change survey, 67% of strong Republicans felt that Christianity was an important marker of a “true” American, versus 31% of Americans overall. Altogether, these proportions suggest that America’s strong Republicans tend to center masculinity and Christianity as societal ideals.

When looking across groups that have been associated with the far Right, support for exclusionary nationalism increases even more. The 2023 PRRI/Brookings Christian Nationalism survey shows that among white evangelical men who identify as strong Republicans, 83% hold gendered nationalist attitudes (saying society has become too “soft and feminine”). Similarly, the vast majority of evangelical, male, strong Republicans believe that “to be a Christian is an important trait to being a true American” (70%).

These findings suggest that the far Right would be taken aback by a (feminine) woman being named the Person of the Year. The findings also suggest that the far-Right would prefer a Christian to earn such a title. While Taylor Swift identifies as Christian, it is reasonable to believe that most white evangelical Christians would not likely view Swift as Christian “enough,” given her public support for abortion rights. Overall, this data may reveal that Swift’s image as an ideal American challenges the far Right’s deeply held understanding of the primary ingredients of an ideal American: supporting both masculinity and Christianity.

To the Left

In contrast to the most far-Right Americans, the far Left cannot be deemed gendered nationalists;  86% of strong Democrats reject the belief that the nation has gotten “too soft and feminine.” Furthermore, Democrats who hold racially liberal attitudes are the most numerous rejectors of traditional gender attitudes. The 2023 PRRI/Brookings Christian Nationalism survey shows that only 13% of strong Democrats who believe white supremacy is a big problem hold gendered nationalist beliefs. An even smaller proportion of racial liberals support the idea that Christian wives should submit to their husbands — 4% of strong Democrats subscribe to this form of hostile sexism. These percentages suggest that the Left should not have a problem with women who challenge the patriarchy being considered ideal or “true” Americans.

However, the antiracist Left has made clear the dangers of centering white womanhood in the pursuit of social equity, i.e., critiquing white feminism. The premise of their claims is that whereas white women’s success is almost always painted as a social justice “win” in public discourse, America’s white women rank high in resources and are more likely than women of color to support policies and candidates who prop up white dominance across all national power channels.

For example, a minority of Americans (32%) do not believe that white supremacy is a major problem in the United States. Breaking the PRRI data down by race and ethnicity, only 9% of Black women say white supremacy is not a problem, compared with 20% of Latinas and 35% of white women. White women say that white supremacy is not a problem at four times the rate of Black women in America. These numbers explain why many antiracists remain skeptical of celebrating white women’s success as a sign of progress for all women. Most white women are supportive of social justice aims for women, but with a large chunk denying that white supremacy is a problem, their view of justice comes off as performative.

The United Distaste of America Is Here to Stay

We should not expect the antiracist Left and the far Right to build a political coalition based on their anti-Swift stances anytime soon. However, the fact that a pop star can activate political responses outside of formal political spaces is, indeed, notable. Furthermore, this development points to the power of national-identity discourse to activate politicized thinking about who deserves better treatment in the nation. It appears that Taylor Swift and debates over who we are as a country had one very important thing in common in 2023: They were inescapable.