Taylor Swift surrounded by her ‘squad’ at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 30. Tinseltown/Shutterstock.com
The hottest new accessory on the red carpet isn’t a bag, a statement necklace or even a pair of shoes: it’s an ultra-glamorous best friend. Taylor Swift is at the helm of this accessory revolution, and as is the nature of celebrity, she’s adopted the trend in excess.
Now the poster girl for #squadgoals, Swift painstakingly and seemingly constantly surrounds herself with a gaggle of Amazonian, instantly recognizable best friends. From Cara Delevingne to Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid and Lily Aldridge, Swift has all the season’s hottest names hanging off her.
It might be touted as a revolution for women in the limelight, shifting the focus from frivolous fashion and romance to female friendship, but might represent the commodification and cynical exploitation of friendship. And a near-total whitewashing of beauty standards (black actress Serayah McNeill is also part of the clique) to maintain a dangerous status quo.
It was less than a year ago that Taylor Swift appeared to notice an untapped resource in women’s entertainment: friendship. Something that’s often demoted on the list of a women’s priorities in favor of individual success, beauty, style and romance, female friendships rarely are of note in tabloid pop culture.
Beginning her exercise in being the ultimate BFF, Swift had humble beginnings. Her Victoria’s Secret Angel doppelganger, Karlie Kloss, was one of the first friends Swift began declaring her love for on Instagram, and along with Selena Gomez, both seemed to portray genuine, mutually affectionate and supportive images of female solidarity.
Whereas successful women in the media are often represented as competitive and catty, Swift set about shifting that paradigm with her very public relationships with women.
She managed to completely shake off her public image as a “boy-crazy” serial dater and adopt a new image that has since turned her into the matriarch of one of the most noticeable all-girl cliques in pop history. She quickly adopted the quirky teenage singer Lorde, feminist and body positivity icon Lena Dunham, and hipster favorites the band Haim into her entourage.
Things were looking good for Taylor. She was the woman building bridges with other women, and what’s more, she was inclusive of a variety of women regardless of body shape or personal style.
It was a boon for Swift’s image and for the image of women in mainstream pop. It told us that yes, women can be friends. What’s more, successful women in the same industry can support each other. That friends are more important than bags or boys.
But the bubble burst quickly, as Taylor added friend after friend to her burgeoning lineup of BFFs, leaving behind her more quirky pals and replacing them with long-legged, small-waisted clones.
Indeed, after recently appearing on stage at a Taylor Swift concert with a bunch of Swift’s new, all-blonde, supermodel pals (including Lily Aldridge, Gigi Hadid and Hailee Steinfeld), Lena Dunham admitted she felt “chubby”.
“I mean, on most days, I feel really great and fine about my body,” she said, “but I don’t think standing next to, like, three supermodels or so is anything even the most confident woman needs to do.”
When Taylor Swift first started adopting friends, it appealed to her fans and her critics alike because it felt like any one of us could have easily been that friend. But now we’re left a lot like Lena Dunham, who, by her own admission, internalized the awkwardness that was stamped all over the photos of her and the models on stage that night. As the leggy, shiny haired beauties embraced, Lena stood to the side like a misfit, a baffled expression on her face as she looked up at those unattainably gorgeous creatures beside her.
So if being part of a covetable girl gang means that one must be an ideal vision of beauty, lest one be made to feel inferior, how different is Swift’s accessorizing than say, flaunting a $20,000 handbag?
If the friendship club overwhelmingly accepts only elite, homogeneously beautiful members, then how much is Swift really changing the vision of female friendship in the public eye? Moreover, how damaging is this elitism to other women and girls’ perceptions of idealized beauty and their own shortcomings in the face of perfection?
The problematic nature of Swift’s “squad” began to rear its ugly head following the release of her “Bad Blood” music video, which was rife with a bevy of thin, attractive superstars who appear in a seemingly endless succession of cameos, and continued to metastasize throughout her (continuing) 1989 world tour.
Mamamia editor Amy Stockwell wrote about the exclusivity of Swift’s girl gang as closely mirroring the bullying antics of the “popular girls,” something that many young women have been subjected to in their social and professional circles. “
Anyone who has ever been bullied by a group of girls or women has seen this behavior before. There is a group and you’re either in it, or you’re out of it. More often than not, there’s a girl at the centre who decides who is in and who is out. She decides what is fun and what is boring; what is acceptable and what is not,” Stockwell wrote.
Her argument is that any “empowerment” created by Swift’s befriending and parading of beautiful women is curtailed by the unsettling nature of the hive mind.
Whereas in the beginning it seemed that Swift was celebrating women and female bonding, it’s since become abundantly clear that Swift is celebrating her own popularity, based largely on her ability to surround herself with beautiful women.
Writer Dayna Evans, in an article for Gawker, pointed out the self-serving nature of Swift’s “feminism”. “Swift isn’t here to help women—she’s here to make bank. Seeing her on stage cavorting with World Cup winners and supermodels was not a win for feminism, but a win for Taylor Swift,” Evans argues. “Her plan—to be as famous and as rich as she can possibly be—is working, and by using other women as tools of her self-promotion, she is distilling feminism for her own benefit.”
But even with feminism inking Swift’s checks, there’s something more insidious at play. What Evans describes actually sounds like a bad trope borrowed from the masculine school of swaggering music videos, where women appear as passive adornments to enforce the status of the man at the center who seemingly facilitates their very existence.
Essentially, Swift surrounding herself with these women in this way strips them of their autonomy. Even though she is a woman herself, Swift is still benefiting from a hegemony etched out for her by patriarchal conditioning, especially if we define the patriarchy as the system that’s in place to diminish and control women.
She might not be a man, but Swift is just as guilty of perpetrating the toxic notion that being flanked by beautiful, constantly smiling women – who are seen but never heard – is a symbol of power.
Accessorizing with friends this way does nothing to serve the forward trajectory of women as team members, and is merely an example of one woman using long-held industry standards to exploit female bodies for her own gain.
Moreover, the specific “girl gang” Swift employs adheres to a narrative of white beauty. Between the Caras, Karlies, Lilys and Hadids, Swift’s crew almost in its entirety represents a damaging ideal that ignores intersectionality and promotes whiteness as the utmost echelon of beauty.
For young fans, it can be a confusing spectacle, as few who do not fit the leggy, porcelain-skinned mold are invited to sit with Swift and her girlfriends.
These generic ideals of unattainable beauty speak for themselves and unless you are a Swift clone, the tacit implication is that you are not invited to stand behind her. As Dunham noted, it may not be an explicit reckoning, but Swift’s girl gang aesthetic is one that’s designed to intimidate, and with it’s perfectly wing-tipped side eye, implicitly exclude.
Kat George is a New York-based writer covering pop culture, fashion and beauty.