Appropriation Nation: Why I’m Falling Out of Love with Taylor Swift

I’ll be the first to say it: I really like Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989. The songs are really catchy and some of her lyrics have a feminist message! What’s not to like, right?

Despite the “sick beats,” I’m afraid to say that my love for Taylor is dwindling. She, like so many other white women in the music industry, has been guilty of appropriating black female bodies in order to make a profit. In “Shake It Off,” Taylor can be seen shimmying around in front of a line of twerking dancers. There is a scene where she is literally crawling on the ground through the dancers’ legs, looking up in awe as they gyrate above her. The dancers are mostly women of color and it seems to me like she is almost making fun of them at their expense. I know a lot of people that would rush to her defense, claiming she’s really satirizing herself, but I find it hard to see a clear difference between this video and Miley Cyrus’ 2013 VMA performance, which also sparked a lot of controversy concerning her use of hyper-sexualized black women as dancers.

I appreciate that Taylor is making so many feminist statements, but I can’t get behind her when she is exploiting women to make those statements. White female musicians have been successful at picking out aspects of black culture that they like (like twerking), mass producing it and living without the consequences that African American women would face if they were to do the same thing.

“They profit from the ‘coolness’ and imagined ‘street cred’ of being The Other, safe in the knowledge that their Whiteness protects them from the racism, hyper sexism, social stigma and additional violence that women of colour live with,” Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos of Swinburne University said in a blog post.

The fetishization of African American women is not new. This is something that has persisted throughout history and we continue to see again and again in mainstream media. We saw it in November 2014 when Kim Kardashian did the nude Paper Magazine shoot. Although there was an obvious shock factor to the photos, there were deeper racial implications at play. Jean-Paul Goude, the photographer who shot Kardashian, is infamous for a 1982 book of his work titled “Jungle Fever.” The cover of the book featured his wife, Grace Jones, posing nude in a cage surrounded by meat with a nearby sign that reads “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL.”

One of the images from Kim’s 2014 shoot was a direct recreate of an older work of Goude’s. “Carolina Beaumont” or “Champagne Innocent” (1976) was originally depicted with a nude African American model balancing a champagne glass on her behind and shooting a stream of champagne into the glass. Many critics believed that Goude’s photography displayed blatant fetishization of black women and people were offended and outraged that he would use such distasteful imagery of the women to make a profit.

“That a non-black woman would be able to kind of recreate the imagery that was so painful for us for so many years – somewhat flippantly – is, I think, why so many black women are taking this issue to heart and have a lot to say about it,” said Kierna Mayo, vice president of digital content for Ebony in a Washington Post article.

I almost feel like I’m at odds here. On one end, I think that a woman should be at full agency to use her body however she feels is appropriate. Women are now able to utilize their bodies in a way that they have not been able to in the past. Artists like Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Rihanna and Lady Gaga all use their sexuality as one of the driving forces in making their art. In sharp contrast to female performers of the past, they are also some of the richest women in the industry. But, on the other hand, I think we should beg the question of whether or not that agency truly exists.


4 thoughts on “Appropriation Nation: Why I’m Falling Out of Love with Taylor Swift

  1. Is the use of black female bodies and black culture in the mainstream media harmless, or does it pose a threat by dangerously over-sexualizing women to the point of exploitation?

    The first thing I think that should be pointed out is the wording of your question. While I cannot say I had many issues with the rest of your post, and I understand what you are trying to convey, the question at the end did thoroughly bother me. I hope you do not take the following in any way to be a personal attack, as it was not meant that way.Thank you for the post and the ability to comment.

    1. By black I will assume you mean afro-descendant American, specifically from the U.S.A. However, it should be noted that “black culture” is really only a narrow umbrella term for the various cultures and subcultures composed by people who identify racially as black according to the cultural and biological definitions of race that encompass American and non-American racial identity standards across the globe. Hence, the bodies you are referring to may in fact refer to a far larger or a much smaller group of people, even only within the U.S., based on how they choose to identify. Thus black female bodies may not in fact be “black” female bodies and the definitions and interpretations of them not quite so accurate. In addition, by being understood as “black,” whether implicitly or explicitly, these bodies, are being automatically made part of a mainstream to which they may not belong, or completely, or in ways in which they may not belong.

    2. The wording of the question assumes that the use of black female bodies in the mainstream media is always and/or necessarily negative and harmful, which is offensive. While you may be implying that use of those bodies is not harmful in the non-mainstream media, though it can be both positive or negative here as much as it can be positive or negative in the mainstream media, this is something you’d have to be more explicit about. Also, it makes it seem like the only negative or harmful way to present black bodies in the media, female or otherwise, is by over-sexualizing them. As Viola Davis hinted at in her recent speech after winning the SAG award, many times a black woman is undersexualized by the mainstream. However, the sexualization of black bodies, regardless of form or degree, is not always what may be causing them harm, and that harm, regardless of form or degree, is up for interpretation. Hopefully those who most identify with those bodies are giving the interpretations being respected and listened to most.

    3.Is the use of black culture in the mainstream media harmless? This again offensively assumes that the use of black culture in general in the media is negative or harmful or potentially negative or harmful. It also equates black culture and its uses with the oversexualization of black female bodies. Black American cultures are as vast and complex as any other cultures in the world and should not be confined to sexploiting the women who identify with them. Also, MANY other cultures oversexualize or “mis-sexualize” black female bodies, not only or necessarily black cultures, of which I’m sure you are aware. I would also add that black cultures and their uses may provide certain outlets to black women (and other women) that other cultures do not to express their sexuality in the ways these women deem most adequate, and in many cases with less fear of social ostracization. On the other hand, other cultures may also provide other outlets that black cultures do not, so that the use of black female bodies by these cultures may also be liberating for black women.

    4. Consider how you might feel about this question: Is the use of female bodies of any other race (such as yours if you do not identify as black) and any other culture (refer to first parentheses) in the mainstream media harmless? Does it pose a threat by dangerously over-sexualizing women to the point of exploitation?


    1. Thank you for your comment. It was not my intention to be offensive in any way, so I will go back into the post and remove the question. What I was trying to ask was basically whether or not the readers view this as an issue. I was just looking for their take on the subject I was writing about.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope that you don’t remove the question, just that you rephrase it. I thought it was very smart and democratic to encourage discussion on this topic.


  2. Nice post, Abby! I’ve heard you discuss similar themes before, and I think you always do a great and thorough job of explaining the “othering” and hypersexualization of black women’s bodies in the media. Boo Taylor Swift!


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