Taylor Swift is a shrewd businesswoman. The reality of a pop musician’s lifecycle is that it is necessary to periodically relaunch the brand. Swift’s new “Look What You Made Me Do” video and associated publicity efforts (deleting her accumulated social media presence in order to emphasize “the old Taylor is dead”) are in part just an entertainer’s effort to grab the public’s attention in a fresh way. But for Christians trying to spread the Gospel, there’s something else much more important to know about the video, and the trajectory of Swift’s career: It is the story of nearly every woman you know.
Over and again, young female stars follow a timeworn path: A young tween or teen girl makes her debut as the clean-cut “girl next door.” At some point in her late teens or early twenties, she then moves away from the innocent-young-thing persona by relaunching the “grown-up” sexy-adult version of herself. I’m not a little kid anymore is the message.
For adult female entertainers, sexiness is part of the job.
This is a distortion of authentic femininity. It is true that women are not little girls. We are indeed meant to mature sexually. But what does sexual maturity mean? It doesn’t mean sexual availability and promiscuity. It means the ability to enter into a lifelong, faithful, freely chosen marriage, in which sexual intercourse is the exquisitely intimate expression of love between husband and wife, and which is ordered toward the fruitfulness of welcoming children into the family. Not every woman marries, and not every married woman is able to have children; but our sexuality is oriented toward loving and being loved, whether physically or in a strictly spiritual way – not toward making ourselves the intentional objects of men’s lust.
Turn that inside out: Not every woman is “hot.” Not every woman turns heads with her cleavage and her figure and her provocative dance moves. Not every woman could hope to bed hundreds of droolingly eager male admirers. Some women do that, but many women never will. Do you say to yourself: But I was made for that! That’s what womanhood is! Even if my body isn’t sexy, my soul is a wild string of spiritual lust! I was made to use and be used! I hope you do not. I hope you do not feel deep within yourself that femininity is ordered toward such a goal.
What many women today do feel, though, is that in order to satisfy their longings for companionship, admiration and intimacy, we must be “hot.” Arousing men isn’t so much the end goal as the (poorly chosen) means to an end. Taylor Swift’s sexy-adult persona isn’t an abandoning of the girl-next-door image: The girl next door to you probably feels that’s exactly what she’s supposed to do, too.
And that leads us to Reputation, “Look What You Made Me Do,” and “The old Taylor is dead.”
What does a girl gain when she takes on the sexy-adult lifestyle? STD’s, mostly. (Look here for the rising rates of oral and anal HPV cancers due to the popularity of oral and anal sex as ways to avoid pregnancy.) Sometimes abortion or single parenthood. Always, a string of empty, depressingly fleeting relationships.
Marriage as an ideal sometimes disappoints: We try for wedded bliss and, for whatever reason, don’t achieve it. Promiscuity, in contrast, always disappoints. We wish for wedded bliss, but we act in ways that guarantee we won’t have it. Sexiness kills.
Which is how Taylor Swift ended up in the tomb on her latest video. Even when a young woman is not physically harmed by extramarital sex, she pays a tremendous emotional and social toll. Sooner or later she realizes her image of herself as an innocent person is dead.
So what does she do? She could despair.
Another option, a survivor’s option, is to reinvent herself as someone who is beyond caring. That girl everyone thought was so sweet? So pure? She’s dead. Gone. In her place is a world-wise, jaded, hard-as-nails woman who doesn’t give a rip what you think. She scorns your antiquated ideals of virginity, fidelity and lifelong love. She rejects your notions of guilt and innocence, sin and virtue. What do you know? You haven’t seen the hell that she’s seen.
This woman attends your parish, or avoids it like the plague. She looks for joy, friendship, and intimacy the same as anyone else, because we are made to want those things. But she has been offered the false choice among perfect purity, condemnation or a hardened heart. She failed at purity, she knows better than to want condemnation, and so a hardened heart it will have to be.
She needs to know there’s yet another way. We don’t have to settle for the survivor’s option. We can open ourselves up to the Redeemer’s Option.
Our job as Christians is to help the girl next door, or the woman at our door, to find that infinitely better way.
Author’s note: I’m writing about women, but the same could be said of men. Men long for fidelity, intimacy and lifelong joyful companionship. Men are encouraged by our society to indulge in unbridled lust, and they suffer from loneliness, disease, and despair as a result. Men, too, need to be shown there’s a better way.