On October 7, Taylor Swift abandoned her usual apolitical posture in a bombshell Instagram post and came out hard in support of two Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee, encouraging her fans to register to vote. There were hot takes aplenty, ranging from GOP dismissals of Swift’s fanbase as too young to vote, to progressives blasting Swift for taking so long to show up.
All of this probably comes with the territory of being a pop star who dares to be political, but one punch taken uniquely at Swift was a conservative meme, adapted just for her.
The original meme, first spotted in the early 90s, targeted Hillary Clinton—there are slight variations, but basically, it's a mock-up of a KFC sign, the text reading “2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, 1 left wing.” During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump made a coy (and quite possibly unintentional) nod to this meme when he was photographed eating KFC on his plane. For their part, KFC has strenuously disavowed the original iteration of the meme, telling TMZ in 2016 that the company "does not endorse any political candidate and certainly does not support offensive, derogatory portrayals of any person." And even the casual observer will notice significant differences between Hillary Clinton and Taylor Swift: Clinton is a politician, Swift is a musician, Clinton is 42 years older than Swift, and so on. But the only difference the meme registers does not have to do with profession or age; the Swift reboot is tweaked to say “2 small breasts, 2 bony thighs, 1 left wing.”
Even by the jacked-up standards our culture has for women’s bodies, there is no reasonable way to assert that Taylor Swift has fat thighs. So, the meme shifts to another extreme, and condemns the singer for having thighs that are ostensibly too skinny instead of too fat.
But this all begs the question: Too skinny or too fat for whom? The authors of these memes must imagine that there is some kind of idealized happy medium between Clinton’s body and Swift’s body, but therein they, themselves, miss the point. A butcher-like breakdown of these women's bodies, criticizing them for not conforming to some standard of conservative male desire, exists solely because these women do not adhere to conservative male political ideology. In other words: If you're not on our side, your body is up for discussion, criticism, and objectification.
But no matter where your leanings lie, if your response to this is to disagree with the meme vis a vis its assessment of Clinton or Swift’s breasts (i.e. "Her boobs are fine!"), you're also playing right into the hands of this meme. In this instance, a conversation about Clinton or Swift’s body is a conversation that distracts from Clinton or Swift’s ideas, which is the whole point.
And those bodies are reduced to parts. An imagination that so quickly moves to imagine a whole woman as items in the meat case is worth questioning. Of course, the idea that it is wrong for men to treat women like pieces of meat is a familiar concept, albeit one that bears repeating—Lady Gaga riffed on this notion when she wore a dress made out of raw beef to the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards. When women’s bodies are reduced to components in meme form, they're that much easier to be evaluated and graded according to their size, and to be held up and assessed as objects of heterosexual male desire. A meaty thigh. A disembodied nipple. Conservative political discourse in 2018, meme or otherwise, looks at women through the same frame as animal carcasses are seen in a meat-packing plant.
I teach 17th-century American literature, and one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of this field is sharing the story of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer’s allegedly monstrous births with students. The short version of this story I tell is that “the Puritans believed that if bad things came out of a woman’s mouth, bad things would come out of her vagina.” We have not reached the stage of reports of Taylor Swift giving birth to monsters—yet. However, the gambit of derailing a woman’s political speech into a conversation about her body is as popular now as it was in Puritan times.
Ironically, Taylor Swift shares a name with an iconic presence in the meatpacking industry. In his 1904 novel The Jungle, Upton Sinclair offered an insight into meatpacking plants like those that the Swift company operated. Famously, these plants used every part of the animal “except for the squeal.”
In 2018, it seems as if there are those who are willing to appropriate, commodify and package every part of a woman’s body, except for any words that body might say.