During a scene in her Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” Taylor Swift ruminates on her impact on a generation of fans.
“There is an element to my fanbase that feels like we grew up together,” she says.
I have an inkling that I’m one of those fans she’s referring to. I’m not going to kid myself that Taylor Swift and I grew up together. She’s 10 years older than me; the two of us have always been in different stages of our lives. But as I watched “Miss Americana,” I couldn’t help but think that the two of us did go through a lot of similar things around the same time, and that the documentary — which focused on her experiences as an ambitious woman in a male-dominated world, struggling to find her voice — helped me understand not just her, but myself.
“Miss Americana” has obvious appeal for Swift fans, interspersing lots of concert footage as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the composition of her new album “Lover.” But the thing that sets it apart from a traditional concert film-slash-documentary is that it also speaks to those very same fans Swift references in the beginning, the girls who fell in love with her tales of young romance but are no longer so naïve. How do you navigate life as a good girl grown up, as a woman unsure what to do with her ambition?
That’s the question Swift answers in “Miss Americana.” The documentary focuses less on the development on Swift as an artist and more on her development as a person, making it simultaneously a fascinating look at a celebrity who has long been known for openness, a commentary on the state of ambitious women in American society and a roadmap for those very same fans who grew up with her.
In the beginning of the documentary, Swift shows us the journals she had as a kid. The scenery is very feminine; lots of pink and glitter. She tells us how she always wanted to be thought of as a good girl and always wanted to make people happy. Praise was the thing that drove her; as long as people liked her work, she had everything she needed. That worked when she was still a 20-year-old country darling, but as the documentary progresses, we see footage of her ongoing feud with Kanye West, a bout with disordered eating and media criticism — all while Swift felt like she had no one to turn to.
Like Swift, I approached my work in a male-dominated field — in this case, sports writing — as trying to please people. I glowed every time someone praised my work. I picked up extra work shifts when someone needed a person to cover. I did everything I thought people wanted, but it eventually backfired. I put so much pressure on myself to do everything right, and when things didn’t go my way, I did a lot of things I wasn’t proud of. There came a point in my life, just as there did in Swift’s, that I realized my reputation didn’t at all reflect the person I wanted to be.
The second part of the documentary explained how Swift powered through and took control of their own identity. I remember reading all the criticism of Swift as a “snake” when I was in high school and thinking that some of the criticism was valid. But I’d been a fan of hers longer than I had of anyone else, and I didn’t want to abandon that, either. In “Miss Americana,” Swift doesn’t shy from the criticism. She shows what she learned.
In one scene, Swift discusses her struggle with disordered eating — something I, too, struggled with in high school — and says she realized she’d rather be called fat than look sick. She takes us through the process of deciding to finally speak up about politics. As a woman in country music, she was told to avoid becoming like the Dixie Chicks. It wasn’t until 2018 that she realized that more important than her reputation was speaking out for the things she believed was right. She wasn’t the “good girl” anymore, and in a way, she was never going to be that. So why not use her platform for things she believed in? It was “frilly and spineless,” she said, to wish people happy pride month at her concerts but not speak out any further.
Swift also discusses her sexual assault trial and the dehumanizing feeling of the whole process. The documentary shows footage from one of Swift’s concerts, where she gets candid about what happened to her and acknowledges that she was one of the lucky ones, and that many others who didn’t have pictures and witnesses aren’t believed. She begins to use her platform to not just create her own image, but to speak out for others in similar situations, too.
“There’s this thing people say about celebrities, that they get frozen at the age they got famous, and that’s kinda what happened to me,” Swift says at the end of her documentary. Finally, she’s able to say that she’s not perfect and never was, that she knows there were times she was wrong. But the way she got through it was by allowing herself to grow up and learning to use her voice for good.
As I struggled to get past my own rough patch in my life, I thought about a lot of the same things. How do I acknowledge that I hurt people and moved on, even if they hurt me too? How do I use my voice correctly? How do I come to define my own identity as something more than just a woman in a male-dominated space. Watching “Miss Americana,” I saw someone else struggling with those same questions, and after I finished, I felt closer to being able to find the answers myself.
The experience of ambitious women in male-dominated fields is oft-discussed, but rarely shown so intimately as it is in “Miss Americana.” Going into the documentary, I expected a behind-the-scenes film that would be fun to watch as a fan, but what I got out of it was so much deeper.