Believe me when I say that I have protested to verbal and physical harassment. I have given men the finger, shouted at those who have screamed lurid “compliments” in passing cars, chased a man through a nightclub to ask him why he groped me as I walked to the bar. But after nearly five years of cat-calling, unsolicited touching and fear – I’ve begun to realise that sometimes it’s easier (and more importantly, safer) to instead strain neutrality, keep your head down, and continue walking.
This is why Taylor Swift’s court case is so important. Such behaviour is so common that those who fall victim to it almost forget that it’s illegal. Instead we sigh, rant to our female friends, and try to move on with our day in the wake of yet another verbal or physical altercation. The truth is that the frequency of this sort of behaviour means that to treat it with the severity it deserves each time (i.e. start a court case, or challenge every man who catcalls you) would mean that many women would spend a significant portion of their lives either shouting at their aggressors in the street, or in the midst of lengthy and expensive court trials. What Taylor Swift has done, despite her shortcomings as a feminist, reminds the world that such behaviour can and should be confronted.
When Swift counter-sued David Mueller, she wasn’t after money, she certainly didn’t need fame – she merely wanted justice. It was a clear declaration of female empowerment, suing for a symbolic $1 to emphasise that this was about principle, not economic gain. A reminder that women can, and should, stand up to harassment. Yet even Swift was aware of her own privilege in challenging the man who assaulted her. It’s all too easy to argue that women should call out behaviour like Mueller’s each time it happens. Often women can’t afford to do so, such as when the harassment comes from a boss who they can’t confront for fear of losing their income, and all too often we hear stories of women who lose their lives, or are victims of horrific attacks, merely for rejecting a man’s advances.
What’s striking about this case is how clearly it demonstrates the power of one woman challenging an ingrained patriarchy, and the actions which can stem from it. I think back to that New York magazine cover which showed the 35 alleged victims of Bill Cosby. When one woman spoke out, a domino effect ensued, where more were encouraged to come forward from the former’s bravery. The cover sparked an evocative discussion on sexual assault and the prevalence of shame.
One should be wary of claiming that celebrities have a moral obligation to use their fame for good. But it’s evident from stories like these that those with social influence have huge potential to cause positive change and empower others. When someone famous denounces or endorses certain behaviour, they either knowingly or unknowingly permeate the consciousness of those who respect and admire them. It’s why the music of Beyoncé has been influential through bringing feminism and intersectionality into the mainstream and empowering women of colour, but it’s also why Donald Trump’s comments about women are so troubling. He is a man who, speaking of assaulting women, claimed that “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”