At the MTV Video Music Awards last month, Taylor Swift made quite a splash when she used her acceptance speech for her Video of the Year award to announce the release date of her new album, Midnights. Swifties had been expecting another one of her re-records, so they were delighted at the news that Swift would release a brand-new, original album next month.
The last time Swift made headlines of this magnitude at the VMAs was 13 years ago, against her will, when Kanye West infamously stole the microphone from her in the middle of her acceptance speech in order to argue that someone else deserved to win. As she revealed later in her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, that moment was devastating – a “foundational trauma” – for the then-19-year-old Swift.
But this year, wearing a dress that purposefully evoked her 2009 look, Swift used her speech to gracefully assert her triumph over this traumatic moment from her past. She celebrated her victory for “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” and recognized the fact that an historic four of the nominated films were directed by women. She graciously thanked her fans, coyly announced the new album, and planted one of her signature “Easter eggs,” a hint that the world would learn more about the then-unnamed album “at midnight.” I would guess that Swift said exactly what she wanted to say in her speech this year.
So I was surprised when I opened up the women-run news podcast Betches Sup the next day to find that it was titled, “Where Is Taylor Swift’s Roe Activism?” Rather than celebrating Swift’s success, her poise, and her decision to highlight female filmmakers, the hosts criticized Swift for not using her short two-minute speech to make a public statement on abortion rights.
But here’s the thing: Taylor Swift doesn’t owe us her opinion on abortion.
Feminism is Meant to Celebrate and Uplift Women
An award acceptance speech is meant to honor and celebrate an artist’s hard work, giving them an opportunity to share the recognition with their team and loved ones. Swift went above and beyond the expectation, joyously announcing a new album. It was a happy, celebratory occasion.
Whether you consider abortion a tragedy or the fall of Roe an affront to human rights, I think we can agree that abortion is not a happy topic to discuss. By pressuring Swift to make a political statement, the Betches hosts in a way tried to swipe the microphone from Swift like Kanye did, commandeering her spotlight to fit their own agenda.
I find it ironic that a group of pro-choice feminists elected not to respect Swift’s choice to use her moment to celebrate her own impressive career accomplishments.
Women are Entitled to Choose Which Issues They Speak About
Taylor Swift doesn’t owe anyone her opinion on abortion, at the VMAs or otherwise.
The Betches hosts criticized Swift for making a documentary about her journey to becoming politically active and failing at this opportunity to do just that. While it’s true that much of Miss Americana revolved around Swift’s decision to become politically active, not once did Swift mention abortion in the film. Rather, it covered Swift’s turmoil as she pushed back against a team that wanted her to remain apolitical when she wanted to make a public statement because she felt strongly about the 2018 Tennessee Senate race.
However, Swift got involved in that race not because of abortion, but because of other feminist and human rights issues close to her heart. Namely, she was outraged by Marsha Blackburn’s vote against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. She was also concerned about Blackburn’s stances on equal pay for women and discrimination against gay people. Swift said, “Those aren’t Tennessee Christian values! I live in Tennessee. I am a Christian. That’s not what we stand for.” In the end, she made an Instagram post encouraging young people to register to vote. As a result, registration numbers spiked (though not enough to influence the outcome of the election).
Crucially, Swift made that public statement because it was something she cared about deeply, enough to stake her career on. It’s not the only time she’s done so: She made a risky career move to make a point about artists’ rights to own their own work; she spoke in her film about her struggles with disordered eating and body image; and she pursued a painful and public sexual assault trial for just $1 in damages because she wanted to make a point about the dignity of victims.
Swift has demonstrated that she is willing to go to bat for things that are important to her. And for reasons unknown to us, she chose not to speak out against Roe in her VMAs speech. She made her choice, and pro-choice folks ought to respect that. (For what it’s worth, she did tweet about her disappointment in the Roe ruling after it came out.)
Nuanced Issues Like Abortion Shouldn’t Be Boiled Down to a Soundbite
It’s bonkers to ask any person to express their opinions on abortion amid everything else they need to cram into a two-minute acceptance speech. Abortion is a complex issue, and nearly all of us feel at least somewhat ambivalent about the role of the state in that issue.
Maybe Swift is personally pro-life but supports the right to abortion. Maybe she’s in favor of abortion bans after a certain number of weeks or with certain exceptions. We don’t know.
But to expect her to have a simple, black-and-white rallying cry she can spout off amid her list of thank you’s is to discredit Swift’s complexity as a human being. Like all of us, I imagine she has nuanced opinions – and she has the right to choose whether to share them, and how.
Taylor Swift Doesn’t Owe Us Her Opinions, and Neither Do You
I didn't write this whole think piece to reflect on a soon-to-be-forgotten speech and a sooner-to-be-forgotten podcast. It’s about more than just Taylor Swift and her opinions. It’s about you and your opinions.
You don’t owe anyone your opinion on abortion – not at all, and especially not in an Instagram story.
We live in an age of performative activism: When something happens, everyone is expected to have a neat, shareable, one-slide commentary on it. You don’t have to do that.
I’m all for talking about politics. In fact, I’m a huge fan of it. Heck, I majored in Religion and Politics in college because I love having these messy conversations. But they’re supposed to be just that: conversations. Real, vulnerable, nuanced conversations, not tweets or Insta stories or a line shouted above the music cutting you off at the end of a whirlwind speech.
A culture that pressures you to have a pithy soundbite to share on issues that can’t and shouldn’t be distilled down is a culture that scorns nuance. The problem is that nuance is where we meet real people. A culture of simplistic rhetoric is a culture that erases real people from the conversation – and it’s through encountering real people that we find common ground and make real progress.
Let’s draw our conversations about abortion away from social media and celebrity circles, and instead bring them into our real lives. Let’s have thoughtful, well-intentioned conversations with friends and family. Let’s take opportunities to listen to people’s lived experiences of pregnancy, discernment, abortion, and parenthood.
Because it’s only through these types of conversation that we have any chance of moving forward as a nation on this issue.