Fey & Poehler: The Taylor Swift Saga

Fey & Poehler, Globes

The following post is a response to this Huffington Post article.

For the record: I don’t think Gallagher’s hypothetical parallel between ragging on Taylor Swift and ragging on Poehler’s divorce or Fey’s short husband is truly comparable. It’s one thing to make fun of someone’s misguided but controllable behavior – it’s another to take swipes at conditions that are neither inherently wrong nor visibly within our control. Poehler has not publicized her divorce for our perverse pageantry. It is ethically off-limits to make fun of it because divorce isn’t inherently laughable/wrong, nor is it in this case (as far we can know) well within Poehler’s control. That Fey’s husband is short is also neither inherently wrong nor visibly within anyone’s control. Again, off-limits.

Taylor Swift doesn’t have to write songs about her countless boyfriends. That’s inherently unethical, and it is certainly well within her control to stop doing it. We see her dirty laundry because she wants us to see it, enjoys the fame and fortune she receives from deliberately turning her personal life into a commodity. This isn’t a case of paparazzi chasing her down, of someone stealing her cell phone or otherwise hacking into her personal life against her will. Taylor Swift has explicitly beckoned us into her bedroom to gawk at her spoils. Poking fun at this aspect of her life is not unethical.

But I want to be careful with my defense. Because there was a Globes joke lobbed at Kathryn Bigelow (“When it comes torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron”) that – though raucously funny – fails to meet my criteria for an ethical joke. So I’m not saying that Fey and Poehler behaved impeccably. They did not. But, with regard to Taylor Swift, they did no wrong.

I also want to be careful about how much culpability I assign Taylor Swift, because I sense that – as an audience – we tend to find no fault in ourselves. Yet, she couldn’t possibly sell records or sell her personal life without a critical mass of people willing to purchase. And just because something is for sale doesn’t mean it’s ethically fair game. We are culpable, too.

If Taylor Swift fascinates us because we in part enjoy the voyeurism, we are no less at fault just because she welcomes it. We are not guilty of knowing those things about her private life that she chooses to air in public. But if we like it, and if we take that inch to ask for a mile – to delve even deeper beyond what she has willfully shared – then we are still voyeurs, and we are still invasive. We are not excused. Unless she explicitly asks for the precise category and degree of attention we give her, we do not get to say, “She asked for it.” And even if she does explicitly ask for the precise category and degree of attention we give her, we are not cleared of the culpable autonomy we each possess. Just because perversion is available and allowable doesn’t mean we have to act on that perversion.

P.S. I never thought I could string together more than 140 characters worth of things to say about Taylor Swift, but there you have it: Never say never.

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9 thoughts on “Fey & Poehler: The Taylor Swift Saga

  1. Interesting that she found the jab about James Cameron so hilarious but found jabs at Taylor’s expense so tasteless. I find people to be either very protective of Swift or else very blah about her. Weird.

  2. I agree with Noel A Leon. I think Taylor Swift is viewed as somewhat a sweetheart in so many ways, and it makes people a little bit irrational when it comes down to acknowledging anything that’s related to her. I personally enjoy some of her songs, although I think as a person she’s not all that great. But I guess that’s just me.

  3. I must say, I don’t really understand arguments about what is and what isn’t ethical to joke about that aren’t based on empathy, but some sort of moral about how people should live their lives (and if they don’t, they deserve to be made fun of).

    Also, I’d like to point out how badly “This isn’t a case of paparazzi chasing her down, of someone stealing her cell phone or otherwise hacking into her personal life against her will. Taylor Swift has explicitly beckoned us into her bedroom to gawk at her spoils.” and “Unless she explicitly asks for the precise category and degree of attention we give her, we do not get to say, ‘She asked for it.'” fit together in the same blog post…

    (Btw, why is it unethical to write songs about your “countless boyfriends”?)

    • Flo, thanks for your response. I don’t see morality and empathy as being inherently incompatible. In Taylor Swift’s case, she hasn’t merely chosen to live her life a certain way – she has also thrust her relationships into the limelight, and along with them the men she dated. She made choices that impacted not only herself, but also collaterally damaged those men. It’s one thing to speak of your personal life, but if that personal life involves other people who have an image to groom and a career to grow, then your choice directly infringes upon their choice in the matter. It is not unethical to be autonomous, but it is unethical to exercise autonomy to the extent that it prevents someone else from exercising theirs.

      But the real irony is that somehow this can’t be commented on, can’t be made the premise for humor. Why? If Taylor Swift’s men can be the butt of her songs, why can’t Taylor Swift’s songs be the butt of a joke? Doesn’t humor exist to comment on such absurdities?

      Still, I wanted the ethical boundaries to be (at least somewhat) clear. It’s perfectly fine to make fun of something that, by its very nature and design, is fair game. Taylor Swift’s dating life is fair game because she constructed it that way. Not everyone’s dating life – no matter how seemingly bizarre or atrocious – may be fair game. But if you air your own dirty laundry, then we do have a right to comment on that “precise category and degree” of attention you are seeking. That doesn’t mean we have a right to YOU – and that’s why I mentioned a stipulation for “precise category and degree”. Because we don’t own people, and we don’t own their lives. But we do own the things they force into our hands.

      • I agree morality and empathy aren’t incompatible.

        I just don’t see how joking about Swift getting together with anyone a reasonable age is the same as making fun of all her songs about her exes.

      • Flo, I suppose it’s a matter of interpretation. To me (and I’m sure many others), warning (jokingly) Taylor Swift to stay away from Fox’s son was a reference to how she tends to sing about all her relationships when they end. It was to say, “Don’t date him, because we know how it ends.”

        It was light ribbing, at most. Maybe you didn’t find it funny–all jokes are subjective and acquired tastes. But not finding it funny is worlds apart from deeming it mean or wrong. And I believe (based on stated reasons above), that neither Tina and Amy were in the wrong here. I believe the joke was congruous and fair game.

        And our original points of contention were A) whether morality/ethics are an appropriate lens through which to assess humor, and B) whether it’s contradictory to appropriate some degree or limit to how we discuss Taylor Swift’s personal life even while defending this particular joke. In both cases, I believe Yes (for, again, reasons stated above).

      • I don’t think it was a horrible joke – I just thought it was unnecessary (and no, not very funny, especially for Fey and Poehler). It just sounds more like a joke on Swift’s “crazy” dating life than her habit of writing songs about it. But maybe I got it wrong.

  4. @Flo: I meant to reply awhile back, so apologies for the delay.

    Again, humor is subjective. I thought it was funny AND unnecessary (how often are jokes necessary? seems like a strange qualifier) – both assessments are somewhat beside the point. The question is – funny or not, necessary or not – whether the joke was wrong. And when people make claims about rights and wrongs, we have to uncover some of the normative (moral) claims underlying these concerns. Having uncovered them, I simply can’t find anything WRONG with Fey and Poehler’s joke.

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