We should celebrate Taylor Swift's feminist anthem against the exploitation of young women

Share this Post:
Photo by Wade Payne / AP
Photo by Wade Payne / AP

Editor's note: The author of this piece has requested that it be accompanied by a content warning. Be advised that this op-ed contains discussion of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
-A.V. Eichenbaum, SGN Managing Editor

"Girls mature faster than boys."

It's an adage we've all heard, whether we grew up getting off the hook because of it, or were expected to know everything before we turned double digits. It's why 18-year-old males are still boys, but 16-year-old females are considered women. Due to the wide acceptance of ageist sexism, most girls who fall victim to it normalize it and view related experiences as "coming of age" challenges unique to the female experience. However, as feminist conversations continue to evolve, some are now bringing the discrepancy into the spotlight.

For women in the public eye, ageism waits around the corner like an expiration date. In a capitalist system built by men, industries love to take all they can from the young, impressionable, and pure, and once they see no use for these women, they discard them like last year's Christmas tree.

For Taylor Swift, once the music industry's darling, this experience has happened time and time again. Her naivety has been taken advantage of by the men she has worked with, slept with, and trusted the most. Now, she's speaking out about it the only way she knows how: through song.

Double standards
At 18, we decide that children of all genders magically turn into adults, but for girls and those assigned female at birth, the experience is drastically different than it is for boys.

We've all seen it in popular media: pervy older men just counting down the days until a girl turns 18 and magically becomes fuckable. Why is it that after a girl's 18th birthday that she becomes a woman? What experience takes place overnight that transforms an innocent child into a fully consenting adult? And why don't we see men of the same age treated this way?

There is no scientific evidence that girls undergo a metamorphosis into womanhood upon their 18th birthday. Yet, for centuries men have used this date as an excuse to legally prey on young women, while all 18-year-old men encounter is newfound respect from society.

It is disgusting, unforgivable, and considered rape if an adult man sleeps with a teenage girl — unless she is 18 or 19 (or in some cases a bit younger). We identify coercion when it occurs with "girls." However, as long as "young women" are old enough to vote, we don't bat an eye when they enter into relationships with massive age gaps or find themselves questioning whether or not last night's activities were fully consensual. Why is this?

We allow men to stay children far past the age of 18. Kyle Rittenhouse murdered three people with no consequences, because the jury saw the 18-year-old as a "kid" and didn't want to throw away his future. Yet, 18-year-old girls get raped every day, and the legal system fails to protect them because they are adults in the eyes of the law. We expect victims to know better when they're women.

Brett Kavanaugh was able to intoxicate and rape a young woman when he was in college. His defenders argue that holding him accountable would ruin his future. They fail to acknowledge how his actions had already cost a woman his same age hers.

Taylor Swift examines this double standard women face in her newly re-released album Red (Taylor's version), finding common ground with many other women who experienced the injustice of a world that expects them to grow up while allowing the men in their lives to remain in Neverland.

Photo by Evan Agostini AP  

The normalization of toxic age gaps
In her ten-minute version of "All Too Well," Swift analyzes a relationship she had with Jake Gyllenhaal, who is eight years older than her. The song documents the loss of innocence and the heartbreak Swift felt, as she was still young and naive and thought the relationship meant more than it did to Gyllenhaal.

Swift was 20 when the relationship started, and nobody saw the age gap as a red flag. Instead, they figured she was old enough and smart enough to know what she was getting into. A relationship between a woman in her early twenties and a man nearing 30 could not possibly be coercive, right?

Jake Gyllanhaal — Photo by Mark Blinch / Reuters  

But Gyllenhaal, like all men on the inside of these relationships, knew the truth. He understood the innocence he was taking advantage of, entering into a relationship with a young and inexperienced woman.

After hearing Swift's version in the song, men and women alike were still fast to demonize her, criticizing her for bringing up past drama and saying she should have known better at 20. But the fact is we never tell 20-year-old men they should have known better, even when they sometimes do. Men aren't dumb. Our patriarchy gives them power over women — and immense power over young and naive women. The imbalance of a relationship between a young and inexperienced woman and an older man who has been able to play the field, learn from his own mistakes, and figure himself out, is dangerous. Especially when the world expects the younger woman to be the mature one.

The commodification of women in the industry
Swift evokes the same sentiments of feminist theorist Luce Irigaray, who came up with "phallocentrism" (the idea that women only exist in patriarchies as marketable commodities). In her song "Nothing New," Swift notes that women's ages determine their value, not only in Hollywood but in relationships, and all other institutions.

Swift asks, "What will happen to me once I lose my novelty?," hinting that youth is the only power women can hold. A young woman is desirable because she doesn't yet know better; she can be taken advantage of. She's a fresh canvas, blank and ready to be whatever the rest of the world wants her to be.

That's who Swift was to Gyllenhaal: a young novelty. That's why women in their early twenties feel so much pressure to achieve, to climb the ladder, to find the guy, to do it all. Once we're old, we're old news.

Novelty is where our power and desirability come from, and once we become self-aware, we lose it. Then the world moves on to a younger girl to prey on, one who hasn't yet learned she's being taken advantage of.

In "Nothing New," Swift also asks, "How can a person know everything at 18 and nothing at 22?" Again, she references the fact that young girls are praised for their maturity. It is impressive for an 18-year-old to enter the industry, to achieve, to date a twentysomething man. We don't acknowledge what everyone already knows: that this 18-year-old is not as mature as we tell her she is and expect her to be. This 18-year-old is a teenager who still needs to learn her lessons, have some guidance, and figure herself out. But when the world is telling you who you are and praising you for what they're trying to mold you into, you think you know everything.

It's easy to mistake the appeal of novelty for the gratification of a prodigy. The patriarchy tells us we're special, because it knows how to take advantage of us, and we believe it because we are still too immature to understand any better.

This is how teenage girls end up in coercive relationships with the Jake Gyllenhaals of the world. We normalize girls who have just passed this "age of consent" spending time with adult men who have seen the world because, for whatever reason, we discredit the extra years those men have. "Men mature slower," which means that all the women he's slept with, all the jobs he's worked, all the places he's been add up to the same as that young girl who just graduated high school.

Women engulfed in patriarchy: victims blaming victims
When we do nothing to change the system, we enable it. Normalizing the "men mature slower" narrative allows women to be commodified. We normalize the abuse we receive and, in turn, watch our daughters, sisters, and friends receive the same treatment, taken in by the appeal of a system that tells them they're special, only to drain them of their innocence and leave them the shell of a once-promising young woman.

Swift again references this cycle and acknowledges how the system will continue to lead to the downfall of more young women: "I know someday I'm gonna meet her / it's a fever dream / the kind of radiance you only have at 17 / She'll know the way and say she got the map from me / I'll say I'm happy for her, then I'll cry myself to sleep."

She acknowledges that by not speaking out sooner, she has contributed to this system. Once the golden girl, the innocent one, the musical prodigy, she inspired other girls to seek out what she had, and now they too will fall into the trap of industries and men who seek to prey on and take advantage of their naivety.

She is also aware that age is a way to commodify women in all areas of life. At 18, a girl is fresh and new. Like a brand new car, her worth is immediately diminished once she's driven off the lot. At 22, she starts to realize that her worth, to this society, is diminishing with each passing year and each passing man.

Men remain influential and important regardless of their age. Just look at Keanu Reeves, 57, starring in another Matrix movie this year. Bill Murray is 71 and evoked cheers when he returned to the Ghostbusters screen. For a woman over 35, such a spotlight is nearly unthinkable. Yeah, there's Meryl Streep, but even her career is nothing compared to the men of the same age.

Women, historically, were never allowed to be heroes of their own stories. We can only exist as love interests, mothers, and innocent creatures. The former two give women the chance to gain power only when a man is willing to give it to them. Eventually, age makes this type of novelty hard to come by. Pure innocence is the most alluring, but only effective until once again the world has taken advantage of and drained it from them.

So, what can we learn from Taylor Swift? She's spinning the narrative, showing that there are people out there who not only want to listen to but can relate to her music. That 18, 19, and 20 don't mean a girl is magically able to understand the world around her and handle herself, especially when taken under the oppressive wing of an older man seeking to gain something from her.

She is giving a warning, not to the young girls who think they're special but to the older ones who know the truth, who have had the innocence beaten out of them, and who refuse to look out for the next generation of "prodigies." Swift is calling on other victims of the system to protect the young girls. She doesn't want to let the world tell them they're older than they are, expect more from them than they would from men of the same age. She doesn't want us to let them buy into the narrative that their worth is determined by their novelty and their importance to men.

We need to call the Jake Gyllanhaals of the world what they are: predators. It doesn't matter if the girl they're preying on is 15 or 22; taking advantage of someone's innocence doesn't become okay just because they pass the magical threshold of 18. The message to all women is: We need to separate our worth from what the patriarchy tells us it is. We need to acknowledge that the patriarchy has a hold on us. It has ever since the first time we were victims to the system that values us based on our worth to men, and we need to separate it from the way we treat ourselves and others.

Swift's re-released album is a message of sisterhood. It's about reclaiming one's narrative and using it to amplify and lift the next generation of women. She is calling on us to look out for each other, and start holding men accountable.