Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” is one of the clearest and most powerful articulations of why I’m afraid of white women. It just happens to be set to a catchy beat. Swift recently premiered the music video for her new single at the 2017 Video Music Awards (VMAs), and the lyric video had been released just two days prior. The video tries to remark on the cracks in Swift’s public image but instead reveals little more than that Taylor Swift reads her Twitter mentions. Interestingly, “Look What You Made Me Do” uses a horror movie aesthetic that I find to be a profoundly fitting choice, as the premise is an unsettling one: White women can always be perceived as innocent despite evidence to the contrary. They can also weaponize that perception to the detriment of others.
Here was Swift’s dilemma: the young woman whose music portrays her as an innocent young woman unlucky in love was now seen as possibly manipulative and dishonest. But in her musical response, she takes no ownership in her role in her damaged image. The video opens on the scene of a grave that reads “Here lies Taylor Swift’s reputation” before a zombie version of her emerges from the grave to sing. But it’s not clear who killed her reputation. Someone did. But it wasn’t her. It’s also interesting that the death of her reputation is represented by her own actual death — both visually and lyrically. At a later point in the song she sings, “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Oh, why? ‘Cause she’s dead.”
The video makes clear that vendetta is against virtually all of the public criticisms of her and not just Kanye West. Her retort to the thoughtful criticisms of her “squad” being an “exclusive club [that] seems to skew overwhelmingly, white, slim and heterosexual” is to depict herself at the head of an army of robot women (all thin, mostly white, with a sheen meant to invoke images of a doll) while she holds a whip under a sign that reads “Squad U.” As the camera scans through a crowd, we see a few close ups of black women. However, we know these women aren’t actually her friends. They symbolize that she has heard the critique and is upset about it. They are props. At later points in the video, she dances with smaller groups of women meant to represent her actual “squad.” The black women are absent.
In what could possibly be interpreted as another attempt to address the criticism she has faced around race, she dances with men of color (meant to be read as queer) including the performer Todrick Hall. They are dressed as her bodyguards with earpieces, walkie-talkies, fishnets and high heels. They flank her on both sides and reveal crop tops with “I love TS” written across them. Stills from this scene had many accusing Swift of mimicking Beyonce’s “Lemonade” visual album. The choice to represent the men as her protectors is an odd and potentially loaded one. To that point, some of Swift’s most vocal critics have been women of color. I find it curious that they are largely absent from the narrative.
When Swift was found to have lied about her knowledge of the controversial West lyric about her, many Twitter users tweeted snake emojis at her to represent how they felt about that dishonesty. In the video, she sits atop a throne of snakes, and a later point embodies a character that only hisses. This is as clever and as introspective as the video gets. Swift’s telling is that her reputation has been “unfairly” tarnished. She is angry about it and is out to seek some yet unknown revenge on her critics.
Elle Woodward wrote a deeply insightful article for Buzzfeed about Swift’s taking on the posture of a victim to build her career. Swift also seems to reference this in the video. Woodward writes:
[Swift’s] conflict with West … proved that Swift recognized the power her white womanhood affords her – presumed innocence and empathy — and used this to her advantage in repeated acts that she surely knew would damage West’s reputation and strengthen her own.
Woodward argues that much of the response to the controversy was rooted in racism, and Swift has intentionally capitalized on that.
And it is this particular point that is at the heart of my fear of the white women. I have learned to avoid upsetting white women for my entire life. My family told me the story Emmett Till was a cautionary tale of how even a dishonest white woman would be believed over an honest black person. Not only that, innocence is granted to an adult white woman before it is granted to a black child. A white woman’s “innocence” could mobilize people to kill without repercussions.
I’ve learned to ignore the white women who grab their purses more tightly if I sit near them on the train. I make sure not to walk too closely behind a white woman while walking down the street. I know that if I’m in a bar, and a white woman provokes a confrontation with me and I choose to respond in a similar fashion, there will be an “Is there a problem here?” directed at me from the bartender, the doorman or a patron. Maybe all of them. I have been told I was aggressive for simply disagreeing with white women in professional settings. Even in the anti-racism organizing that I do, there is a running joke that the number one way to derail a conversation about race is for a white woman to start crying. All of the resources of the space will be redirected to maintaining her comfort instead of the issue at hand.
I don’t want to dismiss the very real fear that women can have in interactions with men. But a white woman’s fear of me is supported by the state. Her phone call reporting “suspicious behavior” can get me stopped and detained by police. Her complaint about my “aggressive” behavior can get me fired. Strangers will rally behind her. Conversely, people who read this headline may believe I’m being hyperbolic or ridiculous. Some of the people I love dearly happen to be white women, but as a black man, I navigate a genuine fear with white women I do not know and even some that I do.
At the end of the music video, all of the different iterations of Swift’s career talk to each other. This is meant to reinforce the narrative that she has reinvented herself. Each version of her repeats a criticism she has faced. One says, “There she goes playing the victim again!” But the video offers no real commentary on those criticisms. It only shows that she has heard them. Again, there is clearly someone to blame for her damaged image, but it’s not her. Even still, the song positions her to hand out punishments of some kind. Swift sings, “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined. I check it once then I check it twice. Look what you made me do.” She is “innocent” yet somehow sees herself as able to inflict harm. I find that to be a terrifying premise.