“He had a handful of my ass. I know it was him.”
Taylor Swift is a pop star, one of music’s most savvy businesswomen and a $280 million brand.
And yet, she was none of those things yesterday in a Denver courtroom, where she testified against a man who she says groped her at a 2013 meet-and-greet. Swift was just another woman in a world that requires women to insist — to prove, over and over again — that their experience qualifies as truth. In a world that decides, off the bat, that women are crazy or mendacious or simply wrong. And so Swift insisted, more times than anyone should have to and in increasingly descriptive terms, that a former radio DJ had the audacity to put his hand under her skirt and violate her.
On the stand in the civil trial in Denver, Swift identified former radio DJ David Mueller as the man who grabbed her, in front of fans and cameras, when they posed for a photo at that city’s Pepsi Arena. After her camp reported the incident to his employer, he was fired. Mueller then sued her, alleging her accusation was false and unfairly cost him his job. He contends it was a jostle, that someone else did it and also that he believed his hand was on her rib. Swift has countersued, arguing that he, in fact, had assaulted her.
On Friday evening, U.S. District Judge William Martinez threw out Mueller’s case against Swift, citing insufficient evidence that she personally caused him to lose his job, according to the Associated Press. The jury will return Monday to consider Mueller’s claims that Swift’s mother and radio promotions representative got him fired; Swift’s claim of assault and battery will also go forward.
Swift was questioned for more than an hour, an hour in which Mueller’s attorney told Swift that she could have taken a break during the meet-and-greet if she was so bothered, but she did not. Her mother testified too, saying that the incident “made me, as a parent, question why I taught her to be so polite.”
This is the burden women endure — this probing and hand-wringing and point-blank disbelief and shame and self-doubt.
It’s what remains deeply unsettling about the case of Swift, a woman ensconced by bodyguards, a woman nestled in what surely must be the comfortable down pillow of superfame, a woman who also immediately reported the incident to her bodyguards and had Mueller escorted from the arena: Her testimony suggests that even she must struggle to be believed.
Swift was unbowed, lighting the courtroom ablaze: “It was a definite grab,” she would say. Once his hand found its target, she testified, it “stayed latched on to my bare ass cheek.” Again and again, she described what she says happened. The Denver Post suggested it might have been the highest recorded number of instances of the words “ass” and “cheek” in the courtroom’s history.
Before it was eventually edited, a CNN article described Swift’s testimony as “snarky.” Others described her as aggravated. We’d do better to see Swift’s testimony as what cultural critic Soraya McDonald described recently in the Undefeated as “necessary arrogance.” It’s necessary because not being believed is the baseline for women. It’s necessary, too, because the photographic evidence of the encounter was sealed by the judge and shown only to the jury in court. (It is possible to see the photo, thanks to the Internet, and perhaps you should.) And like every woman who has found herself in a similar position, all Swift has is her word.
It’s entirely possible she will be the one to prevail, but astonishingly few other women do. For example, her case has striking shades of that of Kristin Anderson. She was the California photographer who, weeks before the election last year, accused then-candidate Donald Trump of lifting her skirt and putting his hands on her vagina. She never pressed charges. (Trump’s spokeswoman called the claim “a phony allegation by someone looking to get some free publicity.”) “You’d have to be a simpleton to believe her,” a commenter on our site wrote.
And Swift’s persistence in this lawsuit should remind us, too, of Barbara Bowman, one of Bill Cosby’s accusers, who maintained her story for decades, despite, she wrote in this paper, “victim blaming.”
Swift’s sure-footedness yesterday recalls the story of Anita Hill, who, during her 1991 Senate testimony about then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, alleged that Thomas harassed her repeatedly when they worked together. (Thomas denied Hill’s allegations.) “I am not given to fantasy,” Hill said then, amid battering questions about her truthfulness. “This is not something I would have come forward with if I was not absolutely sure of what I was saying.”
There are inklings, too, of the Stanford sexual-assault-case victim, whom a jury did believe. Despite the fact that it convicted Brock Turner, her attacker, on three separate felony charges, the judge fretted publicly that punishing Turner would have a “severe impact” on the young man.
Mueller is also arguing that Swift’s accusation has wrecked his career prospects and his name; for that, he is seeking as much as $3 million from Swift. (She is seeking $1, and in court documents said she filed suit only to “serv[e] as an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts.”)
In court, asked about the fallout for Mueller, Swift retorted, “I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”
It was as if she really was speaking for every woman. And that’s profoundly sad.
This post has been updated.