Taylor Swift’s music video for Wildest Dreams has been lambasted for its portrayal of a white-washed, Americanized Africa. Was that the intent of the video? Or was it poorly-done parody?
Taylor Swift’s music video for Blank Space was well-received by both critics and fans alike. In the video, Swift portrays a clear agenda against traditional gender roles. For the most part, men are imagined to be cool, calm, and collected (or rational) people while women are definitely out of control, hormonal creatures. Swift also embodies femininity when she cites her love of “suit and ties”, a callback to Justin Timberlake. Masculinity is defined as the collection of things, symbols of wealth; in this video, Swift is both an emotional woman but she is the one who “has” things. Her role in this video is a liminal stage wherein she has both feminine and masculine properties. The man is also displayed in a liminal state: he is always in control of his emotions, even when his property is destroyed (his car or his shirts, both symbols of affluence). Though he is rational, he never exerts any control over the situation, which goes against cultural ideas that men should be in control of any situation where a woman is present.
Liminal Swift controls the man in the video, taking power away from the traditionally masculine. He comes to her house to meet with her, and when they first see each other, Swift controls much higher ground that he does. They start to share equal ground as they both sit at the head of the table, and chase each other with bikes reminiscent of vintage clothing ads. In an obvious parody of Titanic, Swift is painting the man, another role reversal. When the two walk, the man leads; on horses, Swift leads.
She is in control of the gaze, which means that we see the events of the video through her eyes. It is only through the woman that we have the power to “see” the situation. Though she is forced into awkward angles and poses for a woman, her clothes are never revealing. Swift controls the syntax of the story: though we would normally be turned off by a woman who describes herself as a “perfect storm”, she makes herself the hero in our eyes (because our eyes are her eyes). Because we see things through her eyes, we never find out who Sean is texting, but we are led to assume that it is another woman. Swift is then justified in her outrage because, for all we know, it is another woman. At one point in the video, she kills him! The murder is shown after she is shown with an apple: Swift is a new Eve, damning a man with a fruit.
Seeing the events through Swift’s eyes changes our perspectives of the gender roles as they are presented. Are women justified in their emotional outbreaks? Are they random? Or are they caused by men? The overt sexism in the video, wherein Swift and Sean easily fall into traditional gender roles, is subtly subverted by the inverted power structures of the liminal gender space.
So, that’s why I’m suggesting that Wildest Dreams is also a parody. At the beginning of the song, the relationship is new and fresh. Both parties are interested, but Swift sees the end is already on the horizon (Nothing lasts forever//but this is going to take me down). Swift tells her ex to promise to remember her, even if he only thinks of her in his wildest dreams. He is not only to remember her as a girlfriend, but she paints an idealized picture of her with a red lips (from Style) and rosy cheeks. Swift begs her ex to remember an ideal version of the relationship, not just the relationship. The familiarity of the relationship can’t drown out the inevitability of the end of the relationship. The idealized picture of Swift eventually tortures the ex.
So, we get to the video. Swift and the man are shooting a video in Africa. There are no African cities, only the white cast of the film and crew. Lighting and fans are necessary to create the perfect Africa: from the beginning of the video, we know the terrain is not what Swift’s director wants. Artificiality surrounds the whole video. The large waterfall, the wildlife surrounding them, the long, billowy dress to match the grains of Africa are all out of the ordinary, dream-like qualities reflected in the relationship between the two. Swift’s attitude as the second verse comes around changes: maybe the reason the relationship is so short is because Swift has lost interest. We don’t know if the man did anything.
At the end of the video, the camera pans back to reveal that Swift and the man are now in a studio filming in front of a screen. Does this suggest that Africa was a dream? Were they ever over in Africa? Were they ever in love or were they always idealizing their relationship? Swift leaves the movie premiere in a hurry, so fast that her co-star can’t catch up. She literally sees him in hindsight in the rearview mirror, her ideal boyfriend now a thing of the past.
PS Mag criticizes the video for it’s role in idealizing a nostalgia for white supremacy. The Atlantic is a bit less harsh, pointing out that Swift can help us exist in a comfortable state and start to be okay with colonialism. Mic talks about the evils that Europeans inflicted upon Africans, and how Swift’s video perpetuated those stereotypes. NPR shows a different angle, from which Africa is shown as one giant homogeneous country.
The Mary Sue is the most gracious, and it makes the best point. Artists have a responsibility. They have a responsibility to show the world around them in an accurate way, and they have a responsibility to take control of the images they produce, and a responsibility to be creative and take old tropes and transform them into something positive.
Blank Space is a clear parody of gender roles. Wildest Dreams tried its best to parody an idealized Africa, but it doesn’t communicate that parody for a few reasons.
For one, Wildest Dreams criticizes white idealism without changing the language. It engages the material it tries to criticize on the exact same terms. The Master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house. It never subverts the language and it never subverts racial terms and themes. The language is never transformed, just copied and pasted from the racist, idealized colonial narrative already in place.
A second problem is that parody can only work as far as the artist is willing to engage on the issues. Swift, a noted feminist, is also an example of second wave, white feminism. Her feminism is not intersectional, meaning that it doesn’t account for the intersections of oppression that occur to people of color, people of different genders, or socio-economic classes. In her tweets to Nicki Minaj after the rapper criticized the MTV Awards for snubbing Anaconda, a celebration of black sexuality, Swift thinks Minaj is calling Swift out. Swift replies with the typical, “can’t all women just get along?” tagline (that is notoriously contradicted by her video for Bad Blood). If the artist doesn’t have an issue in mind when creating art, they cannot criticize what they aren’t thinking about.
Parody can only go as far as the artist is willing to bring it. Though Swift is cognizant of gender stereotypes and works to undo and subvert them, she shows only a limited understanding of racial issues. Swift cannot critically engage with the problem of racial inequality and colonial history because she has a shallow understanding of the language. Because she doesn’t know the language of racial issues, she can’t critically engage in the conversation in any new or meaningful way. She is trapped in the common discourse without any option of creating an antithetical reality. Intent does not mean much when parody fails, and parody fails when the artist is not able to critically parody the subject matter with new language.