Nice Girls Never Win: How Taylor Swift Got Caught in a Web We All Weave
"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive"
While researching an insignificant topic for a paper that was really assigned to practice our cursive, I became transfixed on this quote in the margins of the page of a children’s encyclopedia. I wrote it down. I recited it to myself. I fixated my fourth grade brain on what on earth that little ditty could mean. I knew that “deceive” meant something like “lie,” but I couldn’t understand why or how someone would practice to deceive. I didn’t understand then that, for many women, the very act of being nice depends on this practice of deceptive web weaving. I didn’t understand that this web that holds things together for time will only entangles the weaver.
Success and the Need to be Nice
Taylor Swift is caught in one such tangled web. After being “exposed” by Kim Kardashian she pivoted her story to accommodate the new information and keep Kanye West in the wrong. But none of the twists of this feud have been about the truth. Every turn is about personas (Swift’s, West’s, and Kardashian’s), and Taylor Swift’s is becoming unsustainable. Swift’s plight, from top-of-her-game to put-in-her-place, is an all too familiar one for a girl who wants to be known as nice.
First, a note on success: I refuse to believe that Taylor Swift is naive, stupid, or without control of her image. Like most famous artists, she has earned her success through a series of incredibly shrewd business moves and careful construction of a brand. Swift’s persona would never allow for an honest discussion of these aspects of her career, but there are there if you look past the red lipstick and instagram spam. The very brand that Swift and Co have created relies on Swift embodying the nice girl who’s defining characteristic is that she is likable.
Second, a note on being a nice: It’s not nice to say, “I got here because I worked my ass off.” Instead, nice girls say things like “I’m incredibly lucky” or “I couldn’t have done it without_____” It’s not nice to believe your work is better than others. Instead, nice girls show that they are just regular girls doing what came naturally to them. It’s not nice to keep a private, small circle of friends because it’s cliquey (read: bitchy). Instead, nice girls collect friends because everyone wants to be their friend and they’re so damn nice that they would never turn anyone away.
In this framework, Taylor could never speak specifically on what she had to do to earn an audition, a seat at the meeting, or control of her artistry. Taylor could never not like someone, unless that person was specifically and verifiably rude to her. Then, of course, not liking someone is justified. In this framework, Taylor must have a squad but can never support someone as controversial as Kanye West (even if she wanted to). To agree with Kanye when he is not being nice (i.e. calling Swift a bitch) means she may not be so nice. The web is tangled from the start because Taylor attempts to balance characteristics that are seen as mutually exclusive in our culture. You can’t be a nice girl and not be bothered by being called a bitch. You can’t be Taylor Swift and understand Kanye West. You can’t be nice and a shrewd business woman.
In short, nice girls can’t win.
Nice girls lose even at the project of being nice. If you’re unwilling to expose or identify your own flaws and risk being not-so-nice, don’t worry honey, we will do it for you. The more a young girl believes she is hot shit, the more the world is determined to show her she is not. Think about the differences between Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence. Nice girl who (understandably) downplays her flaws vs. relatable girl who revels in them. Think about every pop-princess who had to go through a “bad” phase to come out on the other side of her career. The world would never just let Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera continue to cook at their level of success forever without having some kind of break down or controversy (true or fictionalized). Without these carefully calculated persona changes, the every wave of the media’s fixation on flaws, breakdowns, and controversies would threaten the integrity of their nice girl persona.
Taylor Swift: the Unlikable Nice Girl
But Taylor Swift has been trying to do what Britney and Christina couldn’t. She has out grown the nice-girl pants but instead of ripping them off in favor of a red leather jumpsuit, she has declared that capris are in. The irony is that Taylor is trying desperately to continue to have “nice” as her defining characteristic at the expense of losing control of this persona.
We are uncomfortable with people whose one’s defining personality trait is that they are “nice.” Not long ago, some of the customers at my bar were discussing how a mutual acquaintance is just “nice.” That’s it. That’s all she was. And neither of them liked her. “If being nice is your whole thing, if that’s all that people can say about you, then there’s really not that much there.” The two couldn’t think of a single complaint about the girl but it was still apparent that they did not like her.
This judgement is one we hear often about Swift. People can’t point to a certain reason why they don’t like her except that maybe she seems disingenuous. Hell, I’ve said that exact thing myself. What is really at the heart of all these complaints is that, despite dealing pretty exclusively in being nice, she is unlikeable. But there is always a rationale for this. People are obsessed with critiquing the authenticity of her niceness. (See some write ups here, here, and here.) It’s as if when they expose her they will be justified in their dislike for Swift.
Chuck Klosterman tried to explain this conundrum in a piece for Taylor’s first GQ cover, saying:
Over the past three years, Swift has built a volunteer army of high-profile friends, many of whom appear in her videos and serve as special guests at her concerts. In almost any other circumstance, this would be seen as a likable trait; Leonardo DiCaprio behaved similarly in the ’90s, and everyone thought it was awesome. But it’s somehow different when the hub of the wheel is Swift. People get skeptical.
Taylor has worked hard to be the nicest girl in the game. People can dislike her, they can believe she’s not talented, but they can’t say she’s not nice. Taylor’s nice girl persona was inevitably going to be cracked. No one can be that nice and that successful. No one can be that nice and likable. The previous assaults on her image have gained ammo from others, the media, Kanye, Apple music, etc., but this time the caller is inside the house. She has finally been tangled in her own twisted web, but let’s not forget why someone would first practice to deceive.
Somewhere along the line it was impressed upon Swift that, above all, she needed to be nice. You don’t catch flies with vinegar. You’ll sound bitchy if you are not nice. Sometimes if you’re not nice enough, people will turn malicious. Taylor’s story is not unusual.
At the same time I was reciting “what a tangled web we weave,” I was continually praised for being nice. I didn’t fight with my parents. I didn’t complain. I didn’t seem to have an opinion on people other than, “if they will be friends with me, then I will be friends with them!” My parents’ friends praised them on what a nice daughter they’d raised. I remember “nice” being a huge part of my identity from the time I was young.
It is only recently that I’ve realized I am not so nice. I have needs, wants, and opinions and sometimes those things aren’t “nice.” Sometimes they’re just true or important or necessary. For years I have bent over backward to remain a “nice girl” in spite of the essential paradox of also being a human. It turns out that the longer you try to be nice and the higher you prioritize that label, the more you become tangled in your own web of deception. Eventually the idea of meeting the requirements of being a nice girl require you to deny essential parts of yourself. Eventually the things you denied yourself at the cost of being nice bubble up and catch you in a tricky brand of self-deception that people love to hate in young women.
Taylor Swift doesn’t need our sympathy, but her story is a cautionary tale for all the nice girls out there. If you fall for the lie that you have to be nice, be prepared for people to do everything they can to ensure that you don’t win.