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Is Taylor Swift a “Silence Breaker”? The case for and against her place on Time’s cover.

Taylor Swift on the 2017 Time Person of the Year cover Time
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Wednesday morning, Time magazine unveiled its annual Person of the Year issue, inspiring much acclaim and one nagging question: Why is Taylor Swift on the cover?

Time’s Person of the Year is a collective group in 2017: the “Silence Breakers,” the group of men and women (mostly women) who have stepped forward this year to speak out about the powerful men who’ve committed acts of sexual violence against them — from the president to Harvey Weinstein, and all points in between.

And there is Taylor Swift on the cover, next to Ashley Judd — the first high-profile Weinstein accuser — and Susan Fowler, who spoke out against harassment at Uber.

Swift does have grounds to appear on the cover: She was at the center of a sexual assault trial this summer that in retrospect seems like a precursor to our current post-Weinstein moment. But that was several news cycles ago. And given the fact that the most recent Taylor Swift news cycle was devoted to furiously debating whether her new album Reputation represented an effective switch to pop culture villainy on her part, some were confused: What makes Swift a Silence Breaker? What’s she doing there?

Others suspected exactly why Swift was there, and were not impressed, suggesting that her slot should have been given to someone else entirely.

As is so often the case with Swift, her appearance on the cover has kicked up a broader conversation that’s contextualized within her personal history, celebrity image, and reputation. Here are the arguments for and against Swift’s appearance on Time’s Person of the Year cover.

For: Taylor Swift is a victim of assault who successfully countersued her attacker

In 2013, Taylor Swift was groped by radio DJ David Mueller, who grabbed her butt during a meet-and-greet photo session. Swift told Mueller’s boss, who fired him following an investigation.

Mueller then filed a defamation suit against Swift, saying that he never touched her and that she ruined his reputation and cost him his job. So Swift filed a countersuit, claiming assault. She sought — and won — an award of just $1, saying through her lawyer that she wanted to “serve as an example to other women who may resist publicly reliving similar outrageous and humiliating acts."

Swift’s case went to court in August, before the New York Times published its first Harvey Weinstein exposé and before the #MeToo movement really took off. And as a major pop star, she had more social power and wealth than the man who assaulted her did — although it’s worth noting that Swift was just 23 and Mueller had been working in radio for 20 years when he groped her, meaning that he was a much older industry vet assaulting a very young woman.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Swift was bound to win, though: Plenty of famous women have had, for instance, naked photos of themselves distributed without their consent by less powerful men and still been expected to apologize, as though they were the ones at fault. But it does mean that Swift’s victory was likely a little less hard-won than that of the women going up against Harvey “I hire Israeli ex-military operatives to discredit my enemies” Weinstein.

So Swift’s trial doesn’t quite feel as though it’s part of the cultural moment that has brought wave after wave of powerful men to their knees as their histories of sexual harassment and assault are uncovered. It’s more of a precursor, in which a man of middling power was punished for assaulting a very powerful woman.

But none of that changes the fact that Swift was a victim of assault who was then sued by her attacker, and that in order to get justice for her case, she had to sit through a humiliating, intrusive, and public line of questioning. And she handled those questions with aplomb, delivering endlessly quotable testimony that made it very clear that Mueller, and Mueller alone, was responsible for making the choice to assault her, and which doubles as a guidebook to deflecting the sort of shaming tactics that are used to discredit women. Here’s a sampling I collected when covering the trial back in August:

  • When Mueller’s lawyer suggested that Swift should be critical of her bodyguard for failing to protect her from being groped: “I'm critical of your client sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass."
  • When asked for her reaction on learning that Mueller was fired: “I'm not going to allow you or your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault, because it isn’t. … I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”
  • When Mueller’s lawyer suggested that if she was so traumatized by the incident, she could have ended the meet-and-greet: “And your client could have taken a normal photo with me."
  • Responding to Mueller’s description of her as “cold”: “I have an uncanny ability to elicit new criticism.”
  • And in conclusion: “Gabe [Mueller’s attorney], this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass. You can ask me a million questions — I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.”

Swift did have to break a long history of silence during her trial. And while that may have been easier for her to do than it was for other women who have come forward in the past few months, that does not mean that it was easy. We still live in a culture that treats women who have been sexually assaulted as though they are responsible for what has been done to them, and Swift had to actively fight against that idea in her testimony.

Against: Swift’s silence breaking was an anomaly at odds with her personal history

Taylor Swift has a well-documented history of trying to silence people who say things about her that she does not like, which makes calling her a “Silence Breaker” an iffy move.

In November, Swift threatened to sue writer Meghan Herning, who writes for and edits the online magazine PopFront and had criticized Swift for failing to condemn the white supremacists who hold her up as a “pure Aryan goddess.” Swift’s lawyer demanded an immediate retraction and deletion, calling the article “defamatory,” and it wasn’t until the American Civil Liberties Union got involved that the threats appeared to vanish.

Multiple journalists have said that they received similar letters from Swift’s camp, for everything from criticizing her “political apathy” to gently mocking her relationship with Tom Hiddleston.

Swift seems more than willing to silence other people when it suits her — which makes calling her a “Silence Breaker” and slapping her on the cover of Time magazine just a little, well, ironic.

Swift’s appearance also raises the specter of those not included on the Time cover who were arguably more central to the #MeToo moment. Rose McGowan, who led the charge against Harvey Weinstein and his associates, is relegated to the interior, as is Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement more than a decade ago. The women who have spoken out against R. Kelly’s alleged abuse do not appear. Kesha, who has become the face of the music industry’s abuse of women, is only acknowledged via a quote from Swift, who donated money to Kesha’s legal battles.

Swift’s appearance — and the notable absence of those women — therefore invites the question: Just why is she there? Maybe it’s because readers are more willing to empathize with a blue-eyed, blonde white girl than with a woman of color. Maybe it’s because she’s the most famous person Time interviewed for this edition and they wanted her on the cover to move magazines (although as of 2013, Swift was remarkably bad at moving magazines). Maybe Swift told Time that she would only participate in the story if she got the cover slot.

But regardless of the reason, Swift’s appearance on the cover reads as an attempt to place her at the center of a story when she has previously only been on the outskirts. And that’s why people are reacting with outrage and resentment: because Swift is now one of the faces of the #MeToo story, and other women were pushed aside to put her there.

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