In New Documentary 'Miss Americana,' Taylor Swift Shows Girls How to Break Free

Taylor Swift attends the 2019 American Music Awards in Los Angeles.  (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for dcp)

Miss Americana, the Taylor Swift documentary that premieres on Netflix today, is, on the face of it, about a child star growing up in the public eye and finally finding a voice for herself beyond the world of music. At its heart, though, Miss Americana is really a film about young women, double standards and the damage wrought by old-fashioned gender roles.

You might not notice it at first, if only because of the surreality that accompanies Swift's level of mega-stardom. We see her coping with fame-related isolation, fear, and bruises to her ego. We also witness her getting dragged into strangers' marriage proposals, being bullied by Fox News anchors, and casually talking about strangers breaking into her home.

But the truth of the matter is that many of the problems Swift faces over the course of the documentary aren't related to the trappings of fame; they're related to simply being born female. Swift may deal with these issues on a massively magnified scale because of her particular situation, but many of her struggles are supremely relatable to women across America—especially young women.

We see Swift coping with slut-shaming, cyber-bullying and imposter syndrome—all common problems for young people in the age of the internet. "When you are living for the approval of strangers," she notes at one point, "and that is where you derive all of your joy and fulfillment, one bad thing can cause everything to crumble." She's talking about record and ticket sales and award nominations, but the predicament is the same for every aspiring internet influencer in the country. Hell, all teens are beholden to "likes" these days.

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That Swift talks in depth about picking a female archetype in childhood ("the main thing that I always tried to be was just, like, a good girl"), and clinging to it desperately as a means of survival is perhaps the most relatable thing of all. The idea that the world can be separated into good girls and bad girls is both ancient and persistent. (To this day, it's how women are most commonly pitted against one other.) In Miss Americana we can see, via Swift's example, how that dichotomy is used almost exclusively as a means to control women.

We see the abject fear built into her over time that being anything less than an agreeable, nice girl will be the end of her. We see her struggling to figure out how to have a voice and still somehow follow the rules. ("A nice girl doesn't force their opinions on people; a nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you; a nice girl doesn't make people feel uncomfortable with her views.") And then, remarkably, we see her realize how those things kept her silent after she was sexually assaulted. We see her wake up to the long con, and it is powerful.

In a similar vein, confessing to her own struggle with disordered eating, Swift realizes: "There's always some standard of beauty that you're not meeting. Because if you're thin enough, you don't have that ass that everybody wants. But if you're eating enough to allow you to have an ass, then your stomach isn't flat enough. It's all just f-cking impossible."

By the end of Miss Americana, Swift is calling bullshit on many of the things she once used to hold herself up. She admits she's "trying to deprogram the misogyny in [her] own brain," sitting with the revelation that: "There is no such thing as a slut, there is no such thing as a bitch, there is no such thing as someone who's bossy—there's just a boss. We don't want to be condemned for being multi-faceted."

Remove the fact that Miss Americana happens to be about one of the most famous women on Earth, and this is a story that generations of women can relate to. Especially those that, like Swift, bought into an idea of femininity that meant being kind and agreeable at all costs; a world in which women should never rock the boat, even if it's directly in front of them with a predator sitting in it.

In a New York Times piece, Many Ways to Be a Girl, But One Way to Be a Boy: The New Gender Rules, Claire Cain Miller writes that “About three-quarters of girls 14 to 19 in the survey said they felt judged as a sexual object or unsafe as a girl. By far, they said society considered physical attractiveness to be the most important female trait—a view that adult women share, surveys have found. Girls were also more likely than boys to say they felt a lot of pressure to put others’ feelings before their own.”

When Swift tells the film's audience, "I feel really good about not being muzzled anymore—and it was my own doing," she's not just offering up a new, outspoken version of herself to the world. She's telling other young women that it's okay to do the same thing.