Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cats, Taylor Swift and Girl Hate in Pop Culture

In my last review, I mentioned that there are certain narrative tropes in books that are inescapable. Broken boy falls for a broken girl. Nice girl falls for bad boy. Hot cheerleader falls for a trouble maker. A rock falls for gravity. Things like that.

But why are these tropes so prevalent, not only in books, but in pop culture in general? Well, today I decided I would do that by looking not a book, but a song. In particular, Taylor Swift’s 2009 single “You Belong With Me”.


Here’s a confession: I love “you Belong With Me”. I don’t think I’ve heard a song that is so sincere and so unironically psychotic as this one. And, as an added bonus, it’s also tells a story we’ve seen in nearly every teen sitcom ever made: a girl pining for a boy, but the boy is in a relationship with another girl, and so the first girl comes up with all the reasons why she’s a much better choice.

It’s a narrative that’s especially appealing to teenage girls, since it so clearly casts them as the underdog in this situation. When dealing with raging hormones and stuff, pining for someone can be especially taxing, and you want to toss the blame on someone. Not on your perfect crush, obviously, but the next best thing - his girlfriend. However, once you listen more carefully, things seem less… clear-cut.

Let’s look at the lyrics, shall we?

You're on the phone with your girlfriend, She's upset
She's going off about something that you said
She doesn’t get your humour like
I do

(Emphasis mine, although I’m trying to copy the tone that Taylor takes when she sings.)
Easily the most obvious thing here is how Taylor passively-aggressively asserts her better understanding of her crush’s mind. Better get used to it, because she’s certain she’s got Edward Cullen levels of insight, and it doesn’t get better as the song progresses.

The next thing I notice is this fight she’s talking about. I’m curious as to what kind of joke did the guy tell to make his girlfriend go off. Did Taylor overhear it? Did she learn about it from listening in on her crush on the phone? How can she tell the joke was innocent, to imply that the girlfriend is in the wrong? For all we know, he was revealing intimate details about their sex life to his friends, and is now trying to weasel out by claiming it was a joke. Remember, abusers are very good at escaping blame by lying about the intent of their “joke”, thus making the victim seem hysterical.

I'm in the room, its a typical Tuesday night
I'm listening to the kind of music she doesn’t like
And she'll never know your story like I do

What does music have to do with her understanding of her boyfriend? Does it have some kind of link to his dark and tortured past?

Who knows. Maybe his father is a musician. Maybe he destroyed himself in the pursuit of glory, or brought forth some great family drama. After all, musicians have more infidelities than any other profession. #truefax

But she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts

Goodness, does she go around topless? My, I guess that explains why you haven’t got a chance with him, Taylor. After all, she’s a one-woman-Girls-Gone-Wild-Video.

I mean, what else can it be? She can’t possibly be criticising the fact that she’s showing off her legs. After all, according to this verse, Taylor herself is going around school without any pants on.

If you could see that I'm the one who understands you
Been here all along so why can't you see?
You belong with me, you belong with me

I fail to see how being there for someone all the time means that you should be together forever. Actually, it sounds awfully close to the “Nice Guy” logic which is brought up so often when discussing friend-zoning: that, if you’re there for someone for a certain amount of time, and put the necessary efforts and emotional investment towards a relationship, it must happen.

Secondly, I hate it when the idea that she and only she understands him makes her the only possible option. Understanding someone doesn’t necessarily mean you will work well as a couple. In fact, from what we’ve learnt about this guy so far, a relationship would be the last thing he needs.

Walkin’ the streets with you in your worn out jeans
I cant help thinking this is how it ought to be
Laughing on the park bench, thinkin’ to myself
Hey isn’t this easy?

*sigh* Okay, I get that the implicit statement is that she loves him for who he is and that she would never ask him to change, but I can’t help but look at this sentence and wonder if his jeans are somehow walking separately from him, held up by their own willpower.

On the other hand, she does make a compelling case as to why they would make a good couple here. They clearly have some good times together, and they can bond over their mutual love for going around pant-less. Mutual interests are important, after all.

And you've got a smile that could light up this whole town
I haven’t seen it in awhile, since she brought you down
You say you’re fine, I know you better than that
Hey, Whatcha doing with a girl like that?

Yeah, Nameless Dude, what are you doing with a girl like that? I mean, she clearly makes you unhappy, and all the signs are pointing to you not getting laid, so why are you sticking with her when you’ve got a girl ready to shag you… errr, understand you, right there!

Actually, I’m curious as to what makes Taylor so certain it’s the girlfriend who has brought him down, and not his musician father using the food money to get a new guitar.

She wears high heels, I wear sneakers
She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers

Aaaand here were have the bitchy cheerleader. You may know her from any YA book you’ve ever read, Mean Girls, or just your local sitcom. The pretty, popular girl that is just so rotten inside, and who will eventually get her comeuppance. It’s such an appealing fantasy to girls, to bash another girl just because she’s got the privilege of money and looks.

Look, I know I’m supposed to root for the underdog here, but this cheerleader doesn’t sound that bad, aside from the fact that she doesn’t understand her boyfriend. And wears skirts.

Oh I remember you driving to my house in the middle of the night
I'm the one who makes you laugh when you know you're about to cry
I know your favourite songs and you tell me about your dreams
I think I know where you belong. I think I know it's with me.

At this point, I’d really like to tear Taylor a new one for presuming so much about other people’s relationships, but I’m not gonna. Because this guy sounds like a tool.

I mean, think about it: he obviously has some inner demons, but rather than talk to his girlfriend about them, he expects her to divine his needs by listening to music she doesn’t like and can easily misinterpret (imagine he makes her listen to Linkin Park. The horror.) And then, when she doesn’t get it (or tries to get him help for the wrong issue), he goes to cry on Taylor’s shoulder (IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT!) milking every drop of sympathy from a nice girl who wants to be more than friends. Doesn’t that sound like a douche thing to do? Both of these girls are victims as far as I’m concerned.

Can't you see that I'm the one who understands you?
Been here all along so why can't you see?
You belong with me


Maybe. Or maybe he belongs to himself. But that’s not the fantasy we’re selling to teenage girls.

And I think what we’ve learnt here is that… girls like hating on other girls. They like casting themselves in the role of the underdog and raging against unfair hotness and popularity. They like to flaunt their understanding of their crush as evidence that they’re totally meant to be together, even if the guy is a total dick.

Authors? Can we please make this trend die out? Pretty please?

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