“A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you”: Taylor Swift and the History of Female-Coded Emotion
I’m going to start this post in a way that I would normally mark my students off for, but its hard to call a universal truth universalizing: since the beginning of time, women have had emotions. And since the beginning of time, their emotions have not been taken seriously. While the examples from the past in this post will be drawn from Greco-Roman antiquity, as that is the area I am most familiar with, literature expressing female emotion and its critics exists from cultures all over the world and many time periods.
Let’s start with Sappho. Sappho was a poetess from ancient Greece, writing love poetry about another woman in the 7th century BCE. A New Yorker article about Sappho and the (illegally acquired) new manuscripts sums up reactions to Sappho well: “For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies—about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals.” Despite the changed and still changing atmosphere, this same juxtaposition in discussion of her and her works still exists: her poems are beautiful and should be imitated, but the emotion expressed in them is clearly just part of the genre. Even in my own graduate career, I have had professors use Sappho as examples of exquisite poetry but claim there is no way we can trust the emotion of her poems because there are no gender-markers in the corrupted manuscript of her most erotic poems (specifically in her famous poem 31).
Fast forward a few centuries, and there is the Roman poetess Sulpicia, whose six short poems have been passed down to us in the manuscript of the poet Tibullus, suggesting they were contemporaries. In these six short poems, Sulpicia details her love affair with a man named Cerinthus. In her very first poem, she celebrates this love and decides it is worth staking her reputation as a chaste young woman in order to write about it. Scholars have been incredibly critical of this honest look into the mind of a young (elite) Roman woman. Alison Keith, in her article “Critical Trends in Interpreting Sulpicia” sums up the scholarly trends well: “In contrast to the foregoing, often avowedly feminist, interpretations of Sulpicia’s corpus [by Hallett, Wyke, Flaschenriem, and Hemelrijk] stand recent assessments of her work by Tom Habinek, Niklas Holzberg, and Thomas Hubbard, all of whom ultimately efface female authorship from the Sulpician corpus altogether” (Keith 2006, 5-6). Their expression of emotion is too good to be female. And so, just like Sappho, Sulpicia is debated and criticized for its honest expression of her emotions.
Finally, we get to the reason why this blog post is about female coded emotion rather than just female emotion. Ovid’s earliest work is probably the Heroides, a collection of letters in poem form from mythological women to the men who abandoned them. Dani Bostick has written extensively about these poems on her blog. In “Ovid on the Therapists Couch,” Bostick states: “The feminine voice frees Ovid of social stigma and cultural expectations, allowing him to express emotional states that are inconsistent with his self-representation as victor and expert.” In another article, describes the fact that world has a love-hate relationship with these poems, mainly due to the fact that, in order for a poem to be considered a serious work of art, female-coded emotions, like the strong echoes of heartbreak that are found in each and every one of these authors, should be set aside. So even though he is male, Ovid too gets discredited for expressing female-coded emotions.
Therefore, there is a commonality between all of these poems: they depict “a heart-broken person.” They are “all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end: happy, free, confused, lonely, devastated, euphoric, wild, and tortured by memories past.”
And with the quoted phrases above, we get to the modern aspect of this post. In a short bonus track on her recently re-released version of her album Red, Taylor Swift uses those words to describe the composition of the album. And just like the authors above, Swift has faced incredible backlash for writing songs about her break ups, songs that speak to her emotional state. While almost every song that can be considered a ‘love’ song is emotional, Swift seems to have been especially singled out by the media for her portrayal of her love life and the emotions that come with it.
A BuzzFeed article titled “15 Times The Media Absolutely Failed Taylor Swift,” paints a very interesting picture of the way that females who express their emotions openly and unapologetically, are treated even today: from times when she was slut-shamed in public to every sexist headline and interview question. This is not to say that Swift is the only female in the spotlight who has experienced such treatment, but to highlight the fact that she seems to bear the brunt of a higher-than-normal amount of pile-ons.
While this post comes a day after Taylor Swift released Red (Taylor’s Version) and the whole album is important to the argument in many ways, my focus is going to be on the famous song ‘All Too Well’ and the new version ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault),’ as well as the 20 minute short film based on the new 10 minute version of the song. In the past 24+ hours, the world has been obsessed with this song and its visual representation. “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” has jumped to the top of Spotify’s top streamed songs, with 3.49 million listens when this Twitter post was made. The album itself broke the record not only for “the most-streamed album in a day by a female” but also “the most-streamed female in a day” in Spotify history, as per their Tweet. And the short film has 16.7 million views in its first 24 hours alone. Clearly, there is something about this album, and ‘All Too Well’ specifically that speaks to audiences.
In the prelude to her performance of ‘All Too Well’ from the recorded version of her reputation stadium tour (available on Netflis), Swift speaks about her experiences not only with the composition of the song, but the life it has taken on thanks to her fans:
“So um…ha…you know when I write a song, when I write a song its usually me just trying to get past something and understand something I’m going through by writing about it. And that was definitely the case when I wrote the next song I’m going to play. On this tour, we’ve had this really wonderful tradition that’s kinda come about where and it started with you—you were saying this online ‘I really want you to play older songs that you don’t play very often’ and so I was like ‘okay.’ And so this tradition came about and I’m really glad you told me to do that because its…its really fun, its super fun to go back through and play songs I haven’t played in forever. And so this song is a song that its weird because I feel like this song has two lives to it in my brain: in my brain, there’s the life of this song where this song was born out of catharsis and venting and trying to get over something and trying to understand it and process it. And then there’s the life where it went out into the world and you turned this song into something completely different for me. Um…you turned this song into a collage of memories of watching you scream the words to this song or seeing pictures that you post to me of you having written the words to this song in your diary or you showing me your wrist and you have a tattoo of the lyrics of this song underneath your skin and that is how you have changed the song ‘All Too Well’ for me.” [Transcription done by me, sitting in front of my tv pausing and unpausing and rewinding multiple times, so it may not be perfect].
The way that fans have embraced ‘All Too Well,’ since it was first released until today, proves that there is something universal in it, something that speaks to people in a way that matters. This song, born out of heartbreak and catharsis, has been widely embraced by millions of people across the world in a way that no other song I know of has. Rolling Stone has named it the best of Taylor’s songs, as well as places it as #69 in their ranking of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” stating that it is a “finely burnished reflection on past love, full of unforgettable imagery and detail…it has become a songwriting peak and one of the greatest breakup songs of all time.”
In the 10 minute version of ‘All Too Well,’ Swift asks “the idea you had of me, who was she?/ a never-need, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you/ not weeping in a party bathroom.” The juxtaposition between what is acceptable female behavior and what is unacceptable expression of emotion is clear in these lines. In order to be taken seriously and reflect well on their male counterparts, their emotions should neither be seen nor heard and to express is too feminine and therefore wrong. In their quest to express their emotions in an authentic way, not only Swift, but also Sappho, Sulpicia, and Ovid have broken the unspoken but universal societal standard.
But heartbreak is universal, and the expression of it should no longer be female-coded. Bostick calls “Ovid’s Feminine Voice” in the Heroides the “universal voice of heartbreak.” In her discussion of reactions to the Heroides and specifically Arthur Palmer’s statement that the Heroides deserves merit for “its insights into the female heart,” Bostick states: “I was not left with the impression that Ovid has special ‘insights into the female heart.” Ovid did not need special insights because certain experiences transcend both gender and time.”
Sappho, Sulpicia, and Ovid all speak through time, and by way of conclusion, I want to posit that Swift’s corpus represents the new ‘universal voice of heartbreak.’ Her success, and specifically the success of the emotion-filled ‘All Too Well,’ proves that heartbreak, even if still voiced by someone who identifies as female, deserves to be expressed by anyone and everyone who has ever felt it.
[edited 11/12 at 9:17pm eastern time to change info about the “new Sappho”—the poems are probably real but the way in which they were discovered and publicized was illegal and the original post expressed (wrong) information that they were fake]