Taylor Swift and the Case of the Zero-Sum Feminist

yas girl

In Taylor Swift is Not Your Friend Dayna Evans is unimpressed with Taylor Swift’s feminism.

At the heart of the problem with many a feminist critique of successful women is a fundamental misconception of success. These pieces assume success is zero-sum. Which is, of course, absurd. My blog subscribers don’t dwindle when Taylor Swift gets another Number 1 single.

Further, this view foments bitterness and hostility toward ambitious, successful women. How especially ironic to use feminism to justify it.

Zero-sum feminism

Here I’m defining success as achieving a goal. Some goals are zero-sum. There can only be one biggest pop star in the world, and it’s Taylor Swift. But even in that the competition between artists vying for the top spot spurs innovation that makes music better. So even in zero-sum goals everybody wins something. Generally, though, me working toward and achieving my goals doesn’t preclude you from doing the same.

This understanding of success takes away much incentive to shit on successful women. I’m not threatened by Taylor Swift making audacious goals, unabashedly pursuing them, and then parading out her wins like the boss motherfucking bitch that she is. In fact, there’s nothing I want more than nakedly ambitious women to fight hard for what they want, and win.

It’s not like her goals are to slash-and-burn the rainforests or perpetrate genocide. She wants to be the biggest pop star in the world.

According to Evans, Taylor Swift:

  • Wowed her audience (bringing the USWNT on stage)
  • Bored her audience (bringing Heidi Klum on stage)
  • Included unscripted moments in her live shows
  • Made those unscripted moments seem intentional
  • Was bad at gyrating
  • Was tiresome
  • Made inarticulate pre-song speeches
  • Got really good press
  • Made simple, unfussy music infused with inane platitudes

Sounds like a motherfucking pop star to me!

How to prevent success: Shame ambitious women

Now, I do not aspire to pop stardom. I fully believe in the division of labor, where young, pretty, skinny, marginally talented young women work their asses off, take lots of singing lessons, learn to write songs, mail their videos to producers along with the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog they modeled in to show they’ve got “the look” and eventually get a deal to record and ceaselessly promote the album and then make another record until they’re huge pop stars, and where shorter, fatter, less pretty, older women write think pieces about said pop stars. You do you, I do me.

I am not upset in the least that Taylor Swift gets to Taylor Swift and I don’t. But zero-sum feminism is upset. And so to prevent women like Swift from succeeding, it uses patriarchy’s oldest trick: Shame women for trying.

It’s not just wrong for Taylor Swift to be the world’s biggest pop star, because that somehow means other women can’t also be big pop stars, but it’s also fucked-up that Taylor Swift so obviously wants to be the world’s biggest pop star.

Taylor Swift may not have come from the bottom, but you can bet your ass she’s going to the top. And the fact that she is utterly and absolutely unapologetic about it, the fact that she is brazen about her goals, the fact that she nakedly ambitious, that is what upsets zero-sum feminists.

Zero-sum feminism sees self-improvement as sacrilege because your benefit is my detriment.

Success versus feminism: Everyone loses

“Swift isn’t here to help women—she’s here to make bank.” Evans accuses. “Is she really working for empowerment of women? Or is her priority empowering Taylor Swift?”

If the ability to reach your audacious goals isn’t empowerment, then what the fuck is? Is it only empowering when your goals are the same as mine? So we all have to aspire to shitty blog posts in Gawker shitting on Taylor Swift?

Zero-sum feminism doesn’t respect ambition so it can’t understand ambitious women working together to achieve their goals. It accuses Taylor of using other women for self-promotion. But in doing so it condescends to famous women by saying they’re being used instead of savvily working together for mutual benefit. Patriarchy teaches that while men can cooperate and build each other up, women can only work against each other.

Zero-sum feminism can’t stand Taylor Swift because she rejects a feminism that pits itself against women’s success.

Okay, she’s not my friend

Taylor Swift isn’t my friend so much as she’s me. The other thing zero-sum feminism doesn’t understand about success is that it’s not about money. Yes, Taylor Swift wants to get paid for her work. And no, she’s not going to apologize for that. Men don’t. And in no reality is a woman standing up and demanding to get paid for the value she creates not a massive win for women. Taylor Swift is normalizing not just ambition, but self-esteem. She’s saying that it’s okay for a woman to be aware of her worth, and to demand it. She’s saying fuck-you to the stigmas that have kept women poor.

But beneath all the drive and flaunting of her success I still see an insecure girl. Maybe Taylor didn’t start off dirt poor in Zimbabwe, but she felt alone growing up. And while ignorance and grinding poverty are bad, there’s actually kind of nothing worse than that.

People tend to shy away from what they’re not good at and focus on what they are. So Taylor wrote songs instead of making friends. She got a record deal instead of a prom date. It wasn’t until she was a bonafide star that she started to make friends and have boyfriends. And now that she has them, she flaunts them. She wants everyone to know that she’s not that lonely girl anymore. But mostly, she wants to know that herself.

Y’all need markets

The irony of all this is that feminism itself is ambitious. Its goals are audacious: End sexism, dismantle patriarchy, empower women.

And we are far, far closer to accomplishing them today than we were yesterday. But it’s difficult to disentangle exactly why. Yes, it was Marie Shear articulating “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” But it was also Ada Lovelace helping to usher in an economy built on information and service instead of brute strength and physical endurance.

Competition within a market economy is not the enemy of feminism, it is to thank for it. That women can create as much as or more value than men is a really important idea. But it didn’t gain traction until there was a place in the economy for women to test it. Part of being a person is contributing to other people.

As long as zero-sum feminism fights the very notion of success, it will flounder and fail, as it should. In the meantime, we can’t let it hinder the very force that freed us.



  1. Seems to me that Evans is one of the poor lost souls that is putting her own self-righteousness above real achievement and self-empowerment. Thanks for this piece, it’s important to call out the ones perpetuating the practice of shaming instead of growing up and doung important things themselves. We need more ladies to say “fuck you and your expectations! I’m going to go my own path, regardless of whether you like it or not. I am going to make mistakes, sure. Sometimes I might not even know what I’m doing or where I’m going, but I’m sure as hell not going to apologize for that or give you the satisfaction of validating your narrow view of the world by agonizing about whether this is ‘acceptable’.”

    Cathy, is there a good way to get in touch with you?

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