I was reading a recently published study, “Good Girls: Gender, Social Class, and Slut Discourse on Campus,” by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and colleagues in Social Psychology Quarterly.
It was based on a longitudinal study of 53 women who enrolled at a Midwest university in 2004.
“Slut discourse was ubiquitous among the women we studied,” these scholars found, though interestingly they say the label was fluid, shifting around rather than attaching permanently to a particular woman or set of women.
Instead these mostly sexually experienced, typical American college women used “slut discourse” to define “their virtue against real or imagined bad girls.” I am not like one of those girls, in other words. Nonetheless, “women feared public exposure as sluts. Virtually all expressed a desire to avoid a ‘bad reputation.’”
One of the things girls and young women have to negotiate in the way we live now is the pervasiveness of raunch and the absence of rules. Nobody knows how much sex it takes to turn you into a “slut,” a state of affairs that, while it can be anxiety-provoking, also allows women to have quite a lot of it while still retaining their own self-image as good girls.
I thought of that study, and of the anxieties young women navigate, while watching the twin performances at MTV’s Video Music Awards (via YouTube, naturally) of Queen Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
These two have had a curiously entwined history, for performers so different, what with Beyoncé graciously stepping in to share her spotlight with the young Taylor Swift in 2009, after Kanye West dissed Swift for beating out Beyoncé in the best-female-video category.
Camille Paglia actually compared Swift unfavorably to Beyoncé in a 2012 column, which accused Swift’s “bleached out” persona of “ruining women.”
For a woman scarcely a quarter century in age, Swift has been a lightning rod for a remarkable amount of criticism, ranging from the Village Voice’s criticism of her “traditional femininity” to the vile Westboro pretending-to-be-Baptist church’s protests of Taylor Swift as “the whorish face of doomed America.” Her dating life somehow came to be the subject of national gossip, because, well, she would go out with a guy for a year and then break up with him and get another boyfriend, stay with him for a year and break up. She was 22 at the time these shocking accusations started rocketing through cyberspace.
Taylor Swift’s way of dealing with the raunch and the labeling is to make fun of it and herself in her new video “Shake It Off.”
The irony of trying to slut-shame Taylor Swift is that not only is she a fine songwriter and performer, she is the ultimate nice girl.
“I stay out too late, got nothing in my brain that’s what people say. I go on too many dates, but I can’t make ’em stay, at least that’s what people say. But I keep cruising, can’t stop, won’t stop moving, it’s like I got this music in my mind saying it’s going to be all right,” she sings.
“Shake it off” is not just another of Swift’s musical responses to critics. The video is an iconic exploration of just how a good girl navigates the raunch imposed on her and her generation. Taylor Swift is not too full of herself to make fun of herself, dressed up like a rapper girl, awkwardly crawling under a row of shaking behinds in tight little pants.
What’s with all that? Her bemused upward gaze asks.
In classic Swift nice-girl fashion, the video ends with Taylor Swift bringing in a posse of regular-looking people to shake it all off, together:
“The haters going to hate, hate, hate; the players going to play, play, play, I’m just going to shake, shake shake, shake, shake it off.”
To a girl who went to Bible camp, I’m guessing the Biblical echoes didn’t escape Swift either.
On the surface, the sensual sex goddess Beyoncé could not be more different from Taylor Swift, and the former’s VMA performance was an erotic conflagration that included stripper poles, smoke, fire, glitter, and a lot of flesh.
But somehow in the midst of all that Beyoncé makes it clear, this good girl has it all: The glamour, the beauty, the career success, the husband, the baby.
One of the opening songs of her medley from her next album equates getting “carried away” not with some new sexual fantasy but with a wedding: “We should get married, let’s stop holding back on this and let’s get carried away . . . ”
(Perhaps this should not be too surprising from the singer famous for the lyrics “If you like it then you better put a ring on it.”) Marriage looms surprisingly large in Beyoncé’s imagination and the imaginary world to which she invites her fans.
Beyoncé’s VMA performance grabbed the chattering classes (and my) attention with her paean to feminism, even complaining, “We teach girls they cannot be sexual beings the way boys are.”
Her performance, though, has an arc and it bends towards goodness. Good girls can and do bounce from the stripper pole to be queen, queen of the world, queen of the stage, and, as important, queen of the home. “Bow down bitches” is a strange kind of feminism, as Mollie Hemingway has pointed out, but by the end of Beyoncé’s medley, the happy ending is clear, plastered across the screen, the man of her dreams, tenderly devoted to her and to their baby Blue Ivy, who croons “mommy, mommy, mommy” while Beyoncé sings “hold onto me.”
It would be a bit too much like bragging if it were not offered to us in the spirit of hope: All that seemingly pointless eroticism can lead to real enduring love.
After Miley Cyrus’s pathetic twerking on stage last year to get attention, Beyoncé’s performance was stunning.
Conventional mores around sex may be mostly dead, but the ongoing yearning of the human heart to transform lust into love has never been more vividly on display.
— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.