Taylor Swift, Wominimizing, and the Opposite of (White) Mansplaining

Taylor Swift’s single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” has been all over Charlotte radio for quite a while now. Every time I hear it, though, I wonder about why she chose to go up an octave in the second syllable of the “We-EEEE” in the chorus’s key hook, “We are never getting back together.” While the octave jump/almost gliss up to “eeee” is the most exaggerated version of this move, it happens throughout the chorus: there’s also the “ooooh-wo-o-o-ooh-oh”s, for example. Musically, the vocals are very sing-songy and light, but verbally they’re very sarcastic, bitter, and firm.
Think about it: this sing-songy character is really inconsistent with the imma-put-my-foot-down tone of the rest of the song.  There’s the sarcasm and self-awareness in lines like “some indie record much cooler than mine.” There’s the resolve in lines like “We are never, ever, ever/getting back together. Like, never.”
Swift’s song uses the musical aspects of singing to do what patriarchy requires all white women to do when they make assertions, criticisms, or posit any sort of claim, really: they have to qualify and couch it, making it appropriately nice, polite, toothless. In other words, they have to make their speech act performatively feminine, using feminized rhetorical gestures. My female students who are white or pass for white do this all the time. They say things like:
  • “Well, I may be wrong and I may have misunderstood, BUT, X seems wrong for this reason.”

  • “I don’t want to sound mean or anything, and I really like your overall point, but I have you thought of [brilliant and fundamental criticism that points out a significant flaw in interlocutor’s claim].”

  • “I don’t know, but, XYZ. I’m probably wrong, or maybe it’s just me, but XYZ seems true.”
Put simply, femme white women must rhetorically perform in ways that undermine the authority of any claim they make. (I want to emphasize that this is a racially-specific, and gender-presentation-specific claim). Feminization—care, empathy, self-doubt, etc.—happens at the rhetorical level, mirroring and reinforcing the feminization (read: dismissal) of their epistemic authority in patriarchy. The flip side of a culture that supports and encourages mansplaining (the overestimation of men’s epistemic authority) is femme-quivocating (as christian.ryan suggested), or femme-doubt, or wo-minimizing.
Swift’s song is a perfect example of wominimizing. As strong as the verbal content of her lyrics are, the musical performance of them undermines their authoritativeness. Or, perhaps rather: Swift intentionally performs wominimizing rhetoric so that she won’t be dismissed as bitchy, irrational, angry, etc. Strong sarcasm isn’t something we often hear in vocals by white female pop stars, though, as Angela Davis has noted, it’s a longstanding convention in black women’s blues-based vocal performance traditions. So, there might also be some need to raciallyqualify the sarcasm (which could be coded black) with appropriate forms of white femininity in the chorus’s vocal delivery.
Finally, a few things about the video: (1) Note the infantile imagery of the animal/furry backup band. Swift’s character breaks up with her boyfriend and retreats to the safety of her bedroom and stuffed animals (paging Angela McRobbie’s 20-year-old analysis of teenybop, gender, and the domestic). So, the video uses images of immature femininity to further wominimize Swift’s sarcasm. (2) The hipster glasses. Over on Rogueish, Voyu has written about the presence of the hipster glasses in this video. One thing we need to pay close attention to is their removal in the bridge. This is the one sincere, unsarcastic moment in the lyrics. Hipsterism relies on irony and sarcasm, making glasses that are otherwise nerdy uebercool. The glasses are a hint for us at the beginning of the song that we’re supposed to hear Swift’s vocals as sarcastic double-speak. This is reinforced in the end by Swift’s wink (3:14 in the video).