MTV’s 2009 Best Female Video, performed by Girl-Wonder Taylor Swift, revisits a classic plot: Nerd-Girl overcomes Slut-Bomb to win Boy-With-Emo-Hair’s heart. We’re all familiar with the clichés, to the point that we don’t even stop to look at them anymore — but something jumped out at me from this particular incarnation of an old classic that made me go “huh.”
As you watch the video, you might notice that the villainess is indeed Taylor herself, made over as a sleek brunette: instead of a fully distinct character, she is rather a doppelganger… It is as if these two entities have been split from the same raw attractiveness, and then distilled with different personality traits, from which develop two alternate methods of conveying feminine worth. One seeks to bolster the potential mate by appreciating his qualities, a kind of passive positive reflection; the other seeks to attract by projecting an image of personal magnetism — an active, self-focused approach that is ultimately given a negative reward by the video’s ideology.
The final word on which type of girl is better, of course, is determined by Boy-With-Emo-Hair, at the high school dance. In a sort of euphoric sequence where he sees Nerd-Taylor all dolled up, blonde and white and virginal, he magically comes to the realization she is in fact the girl he wants. This is of course reminiscent of a dozen other insipid movies — She’s All That, A Walk to Remember — in which the wallflower takes off her glasses, and is suddenly transformed into someone more desirable. Jezebel says it best:
“After pining over the hunk for most of the video, she finally shows him that he does, in fact, belong with her, by—-wait for it—taking off her glasses and revealing that she’s actually a total babe at the school dance. Because everyone knows that the difference between hot and not is a pair of specs, no?”
The contrast between Wallflower-Taylor and Vamp-Taylor is marked, even at the end of the video when they are both traditionally “hot” — the latter is tricked out in red, her body language possessive, controlling. As an antithesis, she is almost completely dehumanized, and given no aspect of emotional sensitivity — the scene where she is probably crying in the bathroom, after Emo-Hair decides to dump her for someone less “bitchy,” is left out.
Of course, the question is never posed… Why is Emo-Hair dating Slut-Bomb in the first place? Are we supposed to assume that it’s natural for a man to be “tricked” by the smoldering sexually of a femme fatale’s look, that his shallowness is pardonable? Thematically, there seems to be no consequences for a man who fails to recognize the girl who truly cares for him, and even when he does — it is dependent upon a physical transformation, so it is ambiguous as to what he’s really recognizing, anyway.
Here is the crux of the problem I have with this video: it seems to perpetuate and glorify the notion of being assessed and assigned feminine worth, by a man, in the context of negative comparison with other women. Not only does it promote the shifting of self-esteem to a source that is externally controlled, but it requires the relative cutting down of others. Perhaps that is why the song is so popular: embodied in those two notions is the bulk of adolescent-girl misery, being ignored by guys and being criticized by other girls.
These visions get planted in the psyche, of someone pulling back the veil of “nerdiness” to reveal one’s true worth. The notion that if only a girl could look beautiful — that person in her life would understand, and see the true beauty that is inside her — is pervasive, if ridiculous. Perpetuating the idea that physical beauty and the marginalizing of other women into pigeonholes is necessary for this — it’s just a destructive lie. The fantasy, played over and over again in the media, becomes ingrained into the collective female consciousness; it lays the groundwork for dysfunctional schemas that will haunt girls well into adulthood.
If you like Taylor Swift, I’d recommend the much more amusing “Picture To Burn,” which involves backwash being spit into her ex’s listerine… But she still sucks.