My iTunes account has been malfunctioning lately, so while working out I’ve been listening to YouTube videos. One of my go-to artists in the gym is Taylor Swift, which is how I’ve found myself watching the video for my all-time favorite Taylor song — “Blank Space” — more times than I’d like to admit in the last week.
The song is amazingly catchy to listen to and the music video is entertaining. There is a super-hot male character. There is a gilded castle, apparently for Taylor and her co-star alone. Add to that an array of toys — luxury cars, sparkly dresses and majestic gardens — and the scene is set for a pretty awesome video.
But the video also raises questions about how we as an audience perceive portrayals of domestic violence in pop culture. The video contains troubling, very violent scenes. And yet the video was largely insulated from any backlash or criticism for this.
Open the music video. Go to 2:08 (Taylor throws a flower vase at the man, which narrowly misses his head), and 2:44 (Taylor throws burning clothes off a balcony, toward the man standing below), 3:24–3:39 (Taylor pins down the man and pummels his head on the pavement).
So why does she do this? The video starts off as a cute and chic day-date at a beautiful castle, with sumptuous meals and garden strolls. But at 1:51 Taylor evidently notices the man texting someone else (“Oh my god who is she/I get drunk on jealousy/but you’ll come back each time you leave/because darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”), and then the violence begins.
The scenes are disconcerting because they provide a message, approved by a pop star, that this domestic violence is warranted. When a man spurns a woman for another, when she is no longer the sole and only focus, the video shows — and therefore implicitly justifies — a violent reaction. It is troubling, even if the majority of domestic violence worldwide is perpetrated against women.
Most of Taylor’s songs are about love, and she has been criticized for mining her material from her own relationships. Such criticism, unchecked, makes Taylor out to be desperate, obsessed with ex-boyfriends. Many say this is sexism, as male artists do the same but are not called out for it as frequently.
The “Blank Space” video is Taylor’s response to such criticism. She sings: “Got a long list of ex-lovers/they’ll tell you I’m insane/but I’ve got a blank space baby/and I’ll write your name.” You may think I’m crazy, but I have the stardom and the platform to write about you, Taylor says.
As we watch Taylor in the music video and hear her lyrics, then, our view of the violence is distorted. Her throwing, pinning down and pummeling are no longer seen for what they really are: domestic violence that most people would not condone.
Instead, the violence comes across as first, symbolic of Taylor’s insistence on reclaiming her own agency and power: against boyfriends who spurn her, and more broadly, against a media culture that criticizes and degrades her for mining her material from her own romantic relationships. At the same time, the violence is instrumental in Taylor’s parody of her reputation as Hollywood’s crazy ex-girlfriend.
Our view of the violence is further distorted. Taylor is beautiful, and portrayed in traditionally very feminine ways (pastel-colored clothes, long dresses, pretty makeup).
The New York Times raved over the song, saying, “This is Ms. Swift at her peak. It’s funny and knowing, and serves to assert both her power and her primness.” Taylor is prim, to be sure. I would argue that without her primness, the Times might’ve not called the violence “power,” but rather used its actual name: violence.
The video thus provides powerful evidence that, armed with moral agency, irony, beauty and femininity, Taylor can portray domestic violence that would likely be called out if carried out by a different type of, or really, different looking, pop star.
The violence in “Blank Space” went too far. Taylor could have kept the same song, lyrics and plot line. She could’ve kept the sparkly costumes, the castle and the male model. She even could’ve kept the part where she stabs a portrait of the male character.
She also could have replaced her throwing and pummeling with angry expressions and non-violent gestures. The song’s quality and popularity, and the acclaim she received, would not have suffered. This would not have been a monumental rewrite, and it would have had important implications: No longer could fans look at the video and see Taylor-approved justification for acting out violently in the face of anger and jealousy. No longer would the video provide evidence that moral agency, irony, femininity, beauty and talent let Taylor off the hook for portraying domestic violence in her work.
Kirsten Schnackenberg is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.