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.