The Taylor Swift and Kimye beef isn't only about who said what, but about larger issues of race and privilege in America.
Over the past week or so, the internet has been losing its shit over the latest in the never-ending saga between Taylor Swift and Kimye. This latest beef stems from the fall-out over West's song "Famous," released in February, in which he raps: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous."
Since then, Swift has feigned the kind of innocence her career has been built on: claiming that Kanye failed to share the lyric referencing her on "Famous" ahead of time and that she had cautioned him against the misogynistic message. But in a dramatic plot twist, Kardashian West pulled back the veil, releasing a recording of a call between her husband and Swift in which West clearly asks if the singer is OK with the lyric, and Swift gives her blessing, all without once mentioning misogyny.
Despite being a white woman herself, Mrs. West has built her own career on something Swift has viewed as dangerous to hers: overexposure. After all, the Ray J sex tape from 2007 was the reality star's original claim to fame. Since then she has monetized every aspect of her person, openly sexualizing and objectifying herself, from her art book of selfies to her own series of emojis to wrapping paper featuring her thonged butt, all of which, needless to say, are diametrically opposed to Swift's brand of innocence.
The reality TV star has also positioned herself relative to blackness, through her husband and her cultural and aesthetic appropriations, such that she is able to consume and regurgitate black culture without most black people taking offense. (This despite the fact that it took having a baby with a black man for her to realize racism was a material reality.)
Swift's positioning to blackness, specifically black men, couldn't be more different. Over and over again, the pop singer has played the victim, tapping into racial anxieties and expectations around black men and young white women. Despite wanting "to be excluded from this narrative," she was the one who wrote and performed the song "Innocence" at the VMAs in 2010, and the lyrics were widely interpreted as a shot at Kanye. This was after Kanye's public apology. The very title of the song positions her as a victim and West as a racialized bully. Because of choices like these, because of stories about her petting the Weeknd like he was a zoo animal and entire music videos that glamorize white colonial rule in Africa, Taylor Swift has done a remarkable job of alienating women of color and black women in particular.
Drunk or not, on that fateful night in 2009, Kanye started a feud of epic proportions. Ye lives in what New York critic Frank Guan names as a cycle of "assumption, confession, and paying back of enormous debts," but, to his credit, he's never lied about it. When Kanye rushed the stage, he expressed a frustration with the greater structures that privilege people like Swift over Beyoncé. Of course, Swift wasn't responsible for these structures in their entirety; however, she's also clearly never forgiven his making her into a symbol.
With this latest battle in what has surely become a war, Kim Kardashian West came for Taylor Swift with the high drama of an act-three bed trick. There was the build-up, considerable foreshadowing, and several narrative teases (the GQ profile must have been a warning shot, in retrospect). Blac Chyna could never have come for Swift in that way without racism and misogyny coming into play, marking her out as an angry black woman. It couldn't have been Ye, either. He is a black man, and whatever his actions are toward young, thin, attractive white women, he is seen, as Sharon Osbourne has insisted, as "a bully." So it had to be Kim. Each of these celebrities is trapped within the expectations of their brands, but of their bodies, too—race and gender matter. Kim Kardashian West, PR genius that she is, has orchestrated a coup on white women's manufactured innocence that is, simultaneously, completely on brand.
At this point, West's calling Swift "that bitch" is no longer what galls her. Getting upset over this comes across as low-hanging fruit on the tree of offensiveness. To portray herself as the victim of misogyny is one thing, but Swift plays on racial anxieties and paints him inaccurately in this situation. Among queer and black people, the word "bitch" is not something that impacts your feminist credentials. Even Beyoncé, the woman West said deserved the Video Music Award when he charged the stage in 2009, calls herself "that bitch" on "Formation"—a song that can only be understood as a black feminist anthem.
Kardashian West has perhaps carved out a new sort of white femininity, one that keeps receipts and doesn't back down in defense of blackness.
There's a difference between calling yourself a bitch and someone else calling you one, certainly, but it is the claim that West made her famous, that Swift cannot stand on her own merits, that is more troubling from the feminist perspective. This is clearly what she took issue with on the leaked call. In the recording she says, "You gotta tell the story the way that it happened to you and the way you experienced it. Like you obviously didn't know who I was before that. It doesn't matter if I sold 7 million of that album before that, which is what happened." Her awareness seems to indicate that West related the gist of the lyric, even if he didn't explicitly ask about calling her "that bitch."
This feud, like anything mega-celebrities do, has already become another avenue for monetizing relationships in the age of social-media spectacle. It is, in short, entertainment. With each Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter post, we should all remember that celebrity feuds are, in actuality, very low stakes: They're filthy rich and will be fine. Still, West's actions toward Swift and her impulse toward playing the victim (while, at the same time, taking potshots) makes you want to keep score. And, if we're being honest, it matters how white women treat black men on such a visible stage. It's a question of representation. Kardashian West, for her part, has perhaps carved out a new sort of white femininity, one that keeps receipts and doesn't back down in defense of blackness.
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