Fashion, Lookbook

A lot of what’s wrong with Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video has to do with clothing

Swift's overly optimistic view of LGBTQIA+ reality in her new video for "You Need To Calm Down" ultimately does more harm than good.

In her latest music video, Taylor Swift takes a rather uncharacteristic stance on LGBTQIA+ rights. After a long period of benefitting from her own silence on the matter, Swift has finally made a statement with You Need to Calm Down.” Featuring a gaggle of queer celebs, the video is undoubtedly the pop stars attempt at saying, ‘love is love’. However, one element that Swift got glaringly wrong was her depiction of hate.

Halfway through the video, a small mob sporting caps, flags, denim, and plaid are presented as the opposition. The crowd jeers. One totes an “Adam + Eve NOT Adam + Steve” poster. Another holds a sign with a crossed out rainbow. Despite this horde, Swift and friends continue sipping tea, suntanning, food-fighting and dancing, totally undisturbed. The inhabitants of Taylor’s technicolor trailer park ignore this rain cloud from the wrong side of history. It’s an admirable strategy that assumes these bigots will keep their views merely verbal and stay on their side of the picket line. It assumes the best of the worst people. In reality, things are a lot more violent.

Still from Taylor Swift's "You Need To Calm Down" music video. Swift and friends lay in a line of yellow beach chairs outside a trailer suntanning with reflectors while anti-LGBTQIA+ protesters gathers parallel to them, yelling.
[Image description: Still from Taylor Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down” music video. Swift and friends lay in a line of yellow beach chairs outside a trailer suntanning with reflectors while anti-LGBTQIA+ protesters gathers parallel to them, yelling.] Via YouTube.
Swift also makes a mistake in characterizing these bigots as solely backwoods hillbillies wearing barn clothes. None of them appear to comb or condition their hair. Their teeth are askew. Their signs are misspelled. As if only the uneducated simpletons that live cut-off from society could generate such hate. It’s a central casting view that again ignores reality. In the real world, not every bigot wears Appalachian chic.

Hate wears a dress, a suit, a religious collar, judges robes, a police uniform. It carries school books and law books. Hate comes in many forms. Yes, sometimes it appears in tattered jeans and t-shirts, but not always. Swift’s mistake exemplifies the carelessness common in depictions of the kind of hate the LGBTQIA+ community receives.

This in turn creates the expectation that if you stay out of those woods, you’re safe. Hate crimes apparently don’t happen in shiny cities, like New York or Los Angeles, where people know how to dress and groom themselves. The truth is, there’s still a lot to be done to protect members of the LGBTQIA+ community

A consequence of this wardrobe choice is that it implies that a person who dresses a certain way thinks a certain way. This is unwarranted and negligent for it isolates the parts of the queer community that exist in the country as well as those that just like flag shirts or cutting off their sleeves. It’s important to make room for other styles of dress.

Queerness too often gets coded as sleek, fashionable, cosmopolitan. Everyone but the bigots in the video is dressed impeccably. A stunning visual and an appropriate choice for Pride, but this image creates the expectation that one must disown their coveralls in order to join the club. Everyone should be able to be #proud regardless of whether they’re wearing rainbow print or John Deere. 

Still from Taylor Swift's "You Need to Calm Down" video. A red-haired man with a beard wearing a red plaid shirt over a black t-shirt takes part in an anti-LGBTQIA+ protest. Behind him, similarly dressed protesters hold signs and yell.
[Image description: Still from Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” video. A red-haired man with a beard wearing a red plaid shirt over a black t-shirt takes part in an anti-LGBTQIA+ protest. Behind him, similarly dressed protesters hold signs and yell.] Via YouTube.
Additionally, while it was exciting to see YouTubers like Hannah Hart and the guys from Queer Eye, the video simply presents Taylor’s world as one where Pride flags go unfurled and unchallenged. There are trans flags, but in the same way that they’re sold at Target: here during Pride and gone the rest of the year. 

There are a few references to Pose and drag culture, but during the one month of the year when LGBTQIA+ history gets to be celebrated, the video really does the bare minimum. Ryan Reynolds innocuously paints a picture of Stonewall, but history as well as reality are largely left out of the video. Understandably, “You Need To Calm Down” is a celebratory anthem about calling out hate, but given the boatload of cameos and all the undercurrents in the video, it is hard to believe that a more rounded portrayal wasn’t possible.

As an ally, Swift couldn’t have offered a complete retelling without coming across as uninformed as that Stonewall movie. However, the moment could’ve been used to highlight not just what happened fifty years ago, but more so what’s happening today. Cracking open a history book or at least a newspaper would’ve led Swift to realize that a more realistic bigot for the music video should’ve dressed as: 

Matthew Kacsmaryk

Judd Deere

Ivanka Trump

Caroline Farrow 

A cop

Dan Cathy

Jeff Mateer

Manny Pacquiao

James Kirchick

Grayson Fritts 

Or any of the good folks at Verizon, Pfizer, UBS, FedEx, General Electric, Home Depot, Comcast, UPS, or AT&T who donated to anti-LGBTQIA+ campaigns and causes. I don’t envy any of their outfits, but the group illustrates the breadth of hate. That is what it looks like. Hate is on the TV. It’s in office. Hate is not living in the woods. It’s voting in the upcoming elections.