Time magazine has chosen its 2017 Person of the Year, and it’s “The Silence Breakers” — plus Taylor Swift.
That, at least, is how Swift’s harshest critics would frame the decision to include the singer on the cover celebrating the “voices that launched a movement” around sexual harassment and assault. This summer, Swift successfully faced down a lawsuit filed by a radio DJ who was fired after he groped her during a meet-and-greet. For some, that makes her a hero who has earned her spot on the front of Time. For others, it’s not enough.
There’s a bad argument against Swift’s inclusion, and there’s a better one. Suggesting that Swift’s experience wasn’t sufficiently serious for her to merit Time’s attention is offensive not just to Swift but also to victims everywhere. Sexual harassment isn’t zero-sum; measuring one person’s trauma against another’s suggests we only have so much energy to spend on caring about assault, and we should watch how we allocate it.
From Time’s perspective, what makes more sense is measuring impact. And there’s a case to be made that Swift’s trial had a big one. Swift’s symbolic $1 countersuit against her abuser sent a message to men everywhere that they couldn’t cow women into submission. It also sent a message to women that if they stood up for themselves, just maybe, someone would listen — and women heard her. After the trial, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) rape crisis hotline saw a 35 percent increase in calls throughout a single weekend. Swift also started giving to charities for assault victims. And even before that in 2016, she donated $250,000 to Kesha, who was fighting in court against a producer she accused of drugging and raping her.
So it’s wrong to say Swift’s encounter with harassment is somehow less significant than what others have suffered, and it’s wrong to say her stand against assault didn’t matter. But it does rankle to see Swift achieve this sort of PR coup in a year when, in so many other ways, she has shrugged off the “Silence Breaker” mantle. The #MeToo movement, after all, started with a black woman — and detractors have always said Swift stands mostly for white feminism, or feminism that’s convenient for her.
Swift seems most willing to be outspoken when it benefits her brand. Swift has threatened to sue a blogger who called her out for her popularity with white supremacists and suggested her music had racist undercurrents of its own. Yet she refuses to condemn the neo-Nazis who worship her as an “Aryan goddess.” This might not seem to have much to do with sexual harassment, but President Trump does. And when it comes to Trump, Swift’s habit of preserving sales above all still holds true.
Swift has stayed away from any criticism of Trump on any topic — including those infamous 16 allegations of sexual misconduct. Her defenders say she has every right to keep how she votes to herself. But there’s a disturbing dissonance between bemoaning to Time that “society has made this stuff so casual” and toeing the line around a man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals and then wrote it off as “locker-room talk.”
Writing Swift out of the story of America’s awakening to the assault epidemic would have been a mistake. But putting her at its center has problems of its own, especially when so many other women have categorically supported the cause Time has chosen to honor. Rose McGowan could have appeared on the cover. So could Gretchen Carlson. And if Time wanted a singer, why not Kesha?
As her fans are fond of saying, Taylor Swift doesn’t owe anyone her political opinions. If she wants to be a pop star and leave politics aside, that’s her prerogative. But it’s hard to see Swift as the face of a movement this important when the year was filled with far more silence to be broken, and she stayed quiet.