By Joe Arney

Even by her standards, Taylor Swift has had a busy couple of months.

When she wasn’t winning Grammys and dropping hints about her next album, Swift was making headlines for her appearances during NFL games, her supposed role as an elections-interference psyop and lyrics that, when decoded, suggested she is queer.

What is it about Swift that has so many people, even her fans, seeing red?

“This is something that is continually churning with me because I hadn’t taken Swift seriously as an artist—reproducing the historical practice of dismissing or devaluing women’s work,” said Jamie Skerski, who studies how narratives are shaped and mediated by institutions, audiences, and cultural norms. “I was part of the problem.”

“What is so threatening about even the speculation that Taylor might not be Miss Americana? Answer: Everything as we know it.

Jamie Skerski
Associate chair, undergraduate studies

“But it’s something very visceral, and I think Taylor taps into this sense of female empowerment, of anger, of frustration, of recognition, of systems that continue to try to take women’s rights away,” said Skerski, associate chair for undergraduate studies at the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Perhaps nowhere is the phenomenon more apparent than “Traylor”—the Travis Kelce-Swift romance that’s dominated pop culture throughout the football season. When Swift attends Chiefs games, she is typically shown on screen for less than a minute of a three-plus-hour telecast, but male football fans have furiously labeled her a distraction from the action. Skerski pointed out that other distractions, like military flyovers and cheerleaders, don’t attract nearly the same amount of outrage.

The Traylor relationship, she said, offers an opportunity to explore questions about the entertainment industry, gender and fandom—especially around the “fantasies of straight white men” whose loves of sports betting and fantasy football are validated through societal norms.

“It’s culturally acceptable when white-collar men seek escapism, entertainment and social capital in the commodification and dehumanization of mostly Black bodies for personal pleasure,” since that reflects dominant racial power relationships, Skerski said.

“But when Swift fans engage in a version of fan fiction—daring to imagine Taylor as playing for the other team—it is condemned, belittled and dismissed. This is a moment to ask, whose fantasies are allowed to exist, and why?”

The idea of Swift playing for the other team isn’t new—the so-called Gaylor community on Reddit and TikTok has been collectively analyzing her lyrics for years—but it entered the mainstream in January when a New York Times guest essay waded into the fray with a 5,000-word read of Swift’s life and lyrics, imploring readers to consider that her songwriting offers “a feast laid specifically for the close listener.”

The bigger question, it argues, is not whether Swift is gay, but the obstacles to coming out in our celebrity culture and what queer people owe one another.

“How might her industry, our culture and we, ourselves, change if we made space for Ms. Swift to burn that dollhouse to the ground?” Anna Marks, an opinion editor for the Times, wrote in the column.

The point hit home for Skerski. “If a celebrity needs to navigate cultural norms of acceptance, that’s the bigger question,” she said. The idea that Swift’s work can have multiple meanings and influence different audiences “would break everything,” she said, as it would challenge the way our culture characterizes and reinforces identity norms.

Still, a lot of angry Swifties took to online comments to vent their frustration on the singer’s behalf, lashing out at the Gray Lady for becoming a gossip girl as well as the author, who wrote a similar piece about Harry Styles in 2022. Not allowing Swift access to her own identity is at best a misguided attempt at allyship, Skerski said—and at worst, “the fan outrage reinforces a culture of protective paternalism that is invoked to control women’s bodies.”
“What is so threatening about even the speculation that Taylor might not be Miss Americana?” she said. “Answer: Everything as we know it.”