Monday, February 22, 2010

Attack of the 50 Foot Ingenue

Over the weekend a dear friend of mine linked this article about Taylor Swift, along with a vague concern that he wasn't sure how to feel that his daughter is really into her right now. It always interests me as a parent and a media analyst what disturbs this particular person, who is extremely well versed in storytelling and media perception; who can enjoy an episode of Wizards of Waverly Place for its own qualities and discuss it as thoroughly as Let the Right One In or The Big Sleep.

To begin, my friend's daughter is one of the coolest customers I've ever met, and is a popular, energetic 5-9 year old who likes to dress up like a princess on occasion but is equally willing to put on a Frankenstein mask and play the dragon attacking the ball when then mood takes her. I've witnessed her go through many phases, and while others that have prompted discussion are Bratz and the explicit sexuality of pop stars like Britney Spears or the vapidity of Barbie DVD narratives (yes Barbie, you have a lot to answer for) and there's a lot of low hanging fruit there, why is my friend concerned about his baby girl's new interest in a pretty blonde singing about classic cliches of teenage love and chaste girlish affections?

My ready response to my friend is usually, "is she still interested in other things as well?" and the answer is invariably yes, "then you're probably lucky she's going through this phase at 7 not 17 and when she's out in the world, she'll see this stuff as somewhat childish." That's still my suspicion, that by playing with whorish dolls and fairy tale ideals of high school romance at a young age, she (and my daughter who looks up to this little girl as a goddess incarnate) will have enough of a broad view by the time she hits puberty to be prepared for whatever life throws at her. As a parent isn't preparing your daughter to deal with life the goal?

The answer to that question is, in my opinion, why Taylor Swift grates on some people.

Taylor Swift's iconic image is that of the ingenue, a delicate blonde, ringletted creature, an eternal child who manages to embody a purity of feminine virtue that craves protection, is delicate as a soap bubble and too sensitive to be left to the slings and arrows of society's whims. Like many of those who don't zealously follow the pop music scene I learned of Ms. Swift's existence through the Kanye Interruptus incident at the VMAs, one that cemented Ms. Swift as a sweet young thing and also, the victim of a consummate jackass.

For a pop musician, one's public persona is as important to their success as the content or quality of their music, plenty of times, more important. The narrative interplay between lyrics and the events of their life drive fandom and to be a celebrity, one must manage that narrative as carefully as a sand-garden if one plans on being successful. Just as Kanye has always been an inflammatory braggart,
Ms. Swift couldn't have asked for a better opportunity to blush and be horrified. Everything about the situation, from the white dress and ringlets to the slavering, arrogant, drunken rap star picking on her, to the images of her competitors for the award she received served to drive home the message that "the innocent one won and the sexualized monsters attacked her."

The lyrics and presentation of Ms. Swift's songs also serve to portray the pure ingenue image, as the article linked up top presents artfully.

The rush to exalt Swift is (I believe) a desperate attempt to infuse our allegedly apocalypse-bound country with a palatable conservative ideology in the form of a complacent, repressed feminine ideal. It’s working ’cause Swift writes good songs and America is terrified that its children have been scarred by Britney Spears’s psychotic vagina and Miley Cyrus’s obnoxious adolescence.

Rather than choosing an established/evolved talent (Beyoncé) or a revolutionary (Lady Gaga), the Grammys chose someone who, according to her lyrics, has spent her entire life waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets.
Though the debate over her performance skills is a well-beaten horse at this point, her unequivocal worthiness as a role model for girls has been accepted complacently; at least within my limited purview.
The desire to return to a nostalgically simple view of femininity is one that appeals to many, and frankly, I have no problem with fairy tales. In the 90s when Brittney, Christina and Mandy Moore were having their music videos directed by a famed porn director, Jewel was on the scene providing a more wholesome alternative to the heavily manufactured over-sexed "virgins" of the turn of the Millennium in pop music. Similar to Ms. Swift, Jewel won numerous VMA awards and Grammys at the time. I'm not going to compare the two women's musicality or music composition, there are others far more qualified to do so, but I will suggest that they both inhabit the same archetypal space, that of a sweet, more-simple ingenue whose songs are often about unrequited love, and who play off images of pastoral beauty and a sense that despite the fact that their purity (either because of high-school outsiderishness or virtuous poverty) they are somehow excluded from the sexual dirty world around them, giving them greater perspective. As a flower grows from manure, the impetus to protect or cherish these gentle blossoms is a heart string puller as old as storytelling. I do not mean to suggest that either woman's image is totally false, I simply wish to state that this is what they represent and their images are both built in the mold of the ingenue.

The article's author also takes up an alarmist stance about the affect that fandom of Taylor Swift that is both panicky and woefully unrealistic:
Listen up; if I ever get my life together enough to reproduce other life forms, they will not be joining Taylor Nation – they will be brave, creative, inventive, envelope-pushing little monsters who will find a pretty, skinny white blonde girl in a white peasant shirt strolling through nature-themed screensaver-esque fantasylands singing about how “when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe themnot only sappy, but also insulting to their inevitable brilliance.
Kids will like things that their parents don't, many little girls LIKE horses, stories of unrequited high school romance and nature-themed screensaver-esque fantastylands. Honestly, I like those things too, it doesn't mean that it's my entire life or the entirety of my internal life and there lies the rub. As a parent, giving your child licence to enjoy these things isn't a bad thing, trying to force your child to conform to a specific and limiting set of ideological rules that limit their ability to react effectively to outside situations moral, ethical or physical is when fantasy becomes dangerous.

Just as
I suggest that young audiences should be be scared by stories occasionally so they learn how to cope with the concepts of fear and mortality in a safe environment; young girls will want an opportunity to play the ingenue, and most girls lives are complicated enough that the simplicity of belting about teardrops, guitars, ponies and Pygmalion fantasies where walking into the dance the handsome prince dumping his long-term prom queen girlfriend is an escape from real life and they're smart enough to know it.

These Pygmalion stories are appealing, they take the pressure off their main character for the most part and place it on the perceptions of others rather than the actions of the character to present themselves or actively pursue their dreams.

The ingenue appears in many other storylines, always delicate and inspiring others to protect her, she often times has to prove herself through action to be taken seriously by her protector and often, proves to be the strongest, most courageous and cleverest character in the bunch despite the perception of those around her that she is delicate, callow, or stupid based purely on her looks.
The development of an ingenue can be compelling and make everyone, characters and audience, feel sheepish that they misjudged her or reveal a stronger, slightly older and wiser heroine at the end of a particular story, but the danger of the ingenue is that she'll buy into her own hype that she must be protected that she must be dependent on others or that she truly will not have what it takes to step up and take agency of her own life when it is essential (see: slasher films where the pretty ones are slaughtered when they run up the stairs not out the door or in life or death fights can't bring themselves to hurt someone out to kill them).
Swift’s lyrical message to teenage girls is clear: BOYS. That’s it. Just boys. Crying over boys and feeling broken and/or completed by boys.

In fact, Swift loves boys at the exclusion of just about everything else, including other girls. Other girls are obstacles; undeserving enemies who steal Taylor’s soulmates with their bewitching good looks and sexual availability. Unfortunately for these mute yet effortlessly hunky jungle-eyed boys, by choosing the “beautiful” girls over Taylor (who is, suspiciously… also beautiful…), they’re missing out on Taylor’s unique understanding of their heart/inner fireball/angelic rainshower/sweet glory of Jesus. “All those other girls are beautiful,” Taylor pines, “But would they write a song for you?”

This is perhaps her music’s most grating sin: the sex-shaming girl-bashing passed off as outsider insecurity. Boys are angels lit from within with cool hair, fast cars, and eyes that often resemble light sources (stars, sunbeams, etc). These boys never grow beyond metaphor into humanity. If they did, we might have to confront the very idea that Taylor Swift’s entire career is designed to destroy: that teenagers want to have sex. And that wanting is confusing.
Frankly, if there's a narrative bone to pick with Taylor Swift it's that she's not innovative but rarely does one find a pop star with deeply original lyrics or messages to share with the world: Brittney Spears talked a lot about abstinence, Miley Cyrus and Jesus are BFFs, Taylor Swift seems to be rehashing the golden cliches of teenage innocence to wide success. Those golden, saleable cliches often establish an us/them relationship between the virgin and the whore, and the whore is usually one who actively flaunts her sexuality, openly going for what she wants with the ingenue is passive, staring wistfully at the object of her affection across the room rather than making the effort to speak up.

The ingenue story is often tied to sexuality, and the ingenue is usually the love interest for the Juvenile (the young male lead, a tenor to her soprano in musical theatre conventions) their storylines is usually romantic and tied to that of the protagonist in some way, but usually has to do with star-crossed love and pure desire that they can only express to one another through song (as opposed to sex, which is the subtext) :

So let's go back to the article and talk about sex:
Certainly, she’s among a handful of teenage pop stars who truly practices what she preaches. Taylor’s behavior & imagery is just as wholesome as the apple pie her fans dream of baking for their own Jonas Brother-esque boyfriend. She doesn’t peddle paradoxical mixed messages about sex like the previous generation of teenaged pop stars.
I mean, she’s pretty clear in “Fifteen” — really the only song where Taylor has an actual female friend — that “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy, who changed his mind, and we both cried.”
I’ll spare you the time of listening to the song and give it to you straight: Abigail had sex with a boy, and later they broke up.
That’s right. No marriage. She gave him all she had.
That’s right. All Abigail had was her hymen.
This idea isn't new, the idea that losing one's virginity or innocence somehow condemns them (again, look to slasher movies and the virgin always being the one that survives) it is a very classic theme that doesn't necessarily jive with a teenager's reality. Of course, it never really has jived with reality, if there were ever actually a time in which teenage chastity were an easy thing to maintain I cannot find it in a history book. Stories like the one above happen all the time, teenage sexuality is confusing, one may find one's first time hopelessly disappointing or with their heart broken regardless of abstinence.
Not every teenager chooses sex, in fact, despite the idea that teenagers and teenage girls especially are being more pressured to become vapid harlots than ever before, there are also more opportunities to find like-minded peers who don't want to have sex than ever before. The zealous protectiveness of abstinence by culture at large is a reaction to the idea that having sex young is somehow shameful, but also, a reaction to the idea that all the cool sex-having kids will shame the abstinant kids for not having sex.

Taylor Swift represents a virginal ideal, and while she exclaims loudly her physical purity, cries with her friend whose heart was broken, she herself is not a sexual being. The trap that is dangerous is that the ingenue, the virgin, somehow does not have the same desires as the prom queen/whore. That merely by having unchaste desires or being more interested in exploring them, there is something "less than" about the person with desires. The key thing to remember is that that is a perception of the meaning of lyrics, Taylor may not be judging her friend that way, but there seems to be an attached context of shamefulness "giving all she had" that is re-enforced by purity balls and abstinance pledges that could be dangerous for some.

The danger, for someone who gets too involved in a fairy tale fantasy life or an ingenue in a fairy tale is that ignorance offers no protection. If important information about a topic is kept from an ingenue, or a teenager, they are vulnerable to the consequences regardless. Just as many teen parents seem baffled by how they got pregnant or had no idea how to use a condom, a villain is likely to take advantage of a fictional ingenue who naievely trusts them because they have no idea they might wish to do them harm.

If you're worried about your little girl idolizing ingenues, talk to her about what she likes about them start a dialogue. Generations of girls have been brought up on fairy tales with ingenue princessess who get tricked by villains because they didn't think to suspect them- Snow White and the apple, Cinderella and the spinning wheel- these archetypes are object lessons that are to be learned from. Even the most basic fairy tales show the consequences of an ingenue's ignorance, these consequences are the important thing to draw attention to with a child to allay a parent's concerns, Snow White and Cinderlla survive by the skin of their teeth, and have no skills with which to save themselves. Make sure your daughter knows that her actions will have consequences she might not anticipate and try to give her the tools to make informed choice, then you can chill out about teenage crushes and ponies.


  1. Excellent commentary on the Swift deconstruction, Caitlin. I'm actually somewhat comforted by the fact that my girl does recognize that the ponies and twinkly stars are kid cliches, and that Taylor didn't exactly make any of this stuff up to begin with. But she also recognizes a catchy song when she hears it, and, as you say, can enjoy the fantasy without getting lost in it.

  2. Wow -- what a fascinating unpacking of Swift's image and its potential pitfalls. I agree that the key for parents with any "teen idol" is to keep the lines of communication open; not to just say, "You shouldn't like this celebrity," but ask, "What about her fascinates you?" This post goes a long way toward starting that thought-provoking discussion.