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It’s Me. I’m the Problem.

Taylor Swift, female leadership & Biblical role models

My daughter Cecilia and I feverishly await new Taylor Swift albums, and our excitement for Midnights, which dropped a few weeks ago, was highest of all. We were comparing notes about the album over text a few days later and shared simultaneously that the song that both of us had on repeat was “Anti-Hero”. The deceptively simple words to the chorus frame the song’s sentiment: It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me. It’s one of Swift’s catchiest, but certainly not her only, ode to wrestling with her own enormous ego and dramatic tendencies. She admits to narcissism, to driving away the people she loves most, to pettiness and calculation, to being trapped and isolated by her own giant success. It is funny. It is self-deprecating. It is relatable. Cecilia and I were both hooked.

This is interesting to me in a number of ways. Taylor Swift is the epitome of a trend that I have been observing for a number of years now, and this latest pop anthem sums it up: as a culture, we’ve become obsessed with the female anti-hero. I started to notice it in the beach read thrillers I would tear through on vacation, giving me a mostly unbroken stream of unreliable female narrators. Women who were too drunk, brokenhearted or just generally confused to know what was really going on came to dominate the whodunnit and what’s-next page-turners of the bestseller lists. Whether it was Woman on a Train, Woman in Cabin 10, or The Woman in the Window, we found a collective and voracious appetite for reading about women falling apart in consequential ways.

I noticed a similar trend in hit television shows, movies and our biggest pop stars. When Lady Gaga was at the height of her popularity and powers, she leaned in to her brand of being an outsider and weirdo, taking us behind the scenes in revealing documentaries about the chronic pain she lives with and the other difficulties she navigates. Taylor Swift comes by it honestly in adopting a brand of insecurity and self-curated ugliness — despite arguably being the most famous, lauded and materially-successful singer-songwriter of our time.

I wonder not only why this archetype is so popular, but also why successful women feel such a gravitational pull toward it. I wonder why Cecilia and I, both women with goals and intelligence, who value achievement and want to contribute meaningfully to the world around us, are so taken with a song that names all of the cracks in the façade of our most prominent example of female empowerment and success.

There’s a way of reading this as a victory for the patriarchy. It is easy to argue that female heroes are only palatable to us when ridden with flaws. Taylor Swift is an exceptionally powerful and accomplished woman. But maybe we can only accept that power when taken with a spoonful of the sugar she herself doles out in reminding us that she’s really a mess on the inside.

A few years ago, when I was settling into the various mantles of leadership that I had come to wear, a female colleague took me aside one evening at a gathering of clergy and told me that my so-called success was intimidating and that I would need to work very hard in the coming years to present myself as vulnerable in order to allay the insecurity that I caused in others. I reeled with spiritual vertigo. Never have I received advice that feels so at odds with my own experience of myself. I had spent the previous fifteen years trying to prove that I deserved, as a young woman in ministry, to be at whatever tables I found myself populating — often with the sneaking suspicion that maybe I had been invited in order to fill some gender-based quota. Furthermore, I’ve rarely left an insecurity unexpressed. I wrote a book about struggling with an eating disorder and another about skating on the thin ice of professional burnout. Whether in sermons, blogs or books, I have consistently mined my own flaws in a very public way for whatever wisdom and learning they might hold.

It is quite possible that, whether we’re talking about Taylor Swift, or about my daughter and I, we are easier for our audience to swallow when we do the labour of reassuring others that we’re not so great after all.

While this may be true, it’s not the whole truth. There is another way of reading Taylor Swift’s “I’m the problem” prowess—as well as the connection that Cecilia, myself and millions of fans the world over, feel about this song and this model of female empowerment. In a very real way, we embrace our female anti-heroes as a means of carving out space for ourselves, and carving that space apart from the roles that have traditionally been assigned to us. Christianity has been widely criticized for slotting women into one of three categories, two accepted, one not: Virgin, Mother, Whore. Feminists have railed for generations against a religion that claims Mary as the ultimate female icon — setting a standard to which we can literally never measure up since she’s the only woman who has managed to be both a virgin and a mother simultaneously.

I have become a Taylor Swift fan, despite her dominant popularity and my general apathy toward music that is too “pop,” because I can’t help but feel grateful for, and connected to, her relentless insistence that her power is three-dimensional, her leadership is nuanced, and her feelings include heartbreak, egomania, strategy, ambition, self-love, fragility and regret. She’s not a virgin, she’s not a whore. She is silent on the matter of whether she one day hopes to have children. She (and many others like her) carve out a different model of leadership, an alternate brand of success, and the in-your-face demand that women be listened to — not as the world may wish we would speak, but with the voices we actually have, giving expression to our refusal to be interpreted through the nice, neat categories that have so long been assigned to us.

Ironically, this brand of anti-hero leadership provides a lens for seeing our Biblical witness more clearly too — despite how Scripture has been used to support patriarchal categories assigned to women, men and the non-binary for millennia. Mary herself leaps off the pages of Scripture, not merely as a Virgin Mother, but as a woman who is, by turns, rebellious, demanding, visionary, heartbroken, courageous, scared, obedient, loving, grumpy, ignorant and prayerful. She is representative of the characters of all genders who dot the pages of Scripture, not with their unblemished heroics of faithfulness, but with their flaws and foibles, their limited perspectives, squabbles, immaturities and second thoughts. Even Jesus, in whose feet we are meant to follow, the model of how we are to live and be, gets to have the occasional bad mood and limited understanding. I love him even more for those moments.

These less-than-perfect characters make it easier for me to love and know God too. The Bible’s collection of anti-heroes frees God from the realm of saccharine sentimentality and allows me to see how holiness really works: not in some perfected other world, but in this world, in these people, and maybe in me too.

Ultimately, I blast Taylor Swift’s brilliant new song in my car or kitchen on an almost daily basis, and I tune in to the stories of Scripture most days too. I consider my own battles with my ego, the ways in which I am obviously much too much; I intentionally opt for a front row seat on seeing and analyzing all of my own shortcomings. And I see a way through my many flaws, not to guilt, shame or inadequacy, but to freedom, grace and truth.



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Martha Tatarnic

Martha serves as priest at George's in St. Catharines. Her new book, “Why Gather?” is now available to order