[Editor’s Note: Taylor Swift says that she intended this video to be a satire of the way in which she is normally portrayed by the media. This article analyzes the story as it’s told, offering a theological critique of that media characterization alongside Taylor’s own. It should be read with a sort of Taylor-Poet, Taylor-Pilgrim distinction. ]
Taylor Swift’s new music video for “Blank Space” shows us the implosion of a romantic relationship; but this time, the woman involved claims to enjoy the thrills of doomed, utilitarian love. “You can tell me when it’s over,” she invites, “if the high was worth the pain.” Instead of aiming for an ideal romance, the Taylor Swift of the video conforms to the idea of love “as an area for manipulation and exploitation,” as John Paul II described it in his “Letter to Families.” The video shows us how dysfunctional relationships twist emotions and desire, ultimately dehumanizing people. John Paul II would call this love “disordered,” like a body with a disease. By enslaving people to their desires, disordered love amounts to little more than mutual exploitation.
The title of the music video foreshadows the transience of disordered love. “Blank Space” ostensibly refers to the slot available for a new suitor in Taylor’s life. “I got a blank space, baby,” she offers, “and I’ll write your name.” She gives the image physical expression by carving their names into a heart on a tree trunk. This cliché ritual represents commitment and permanence, but Taylor dispatches the carving with an axe after her lover betrays her. Driven by pain and loss, her disordered love cuts the man out of her life as readily as she included him. The blank space ultimately signifies the emptiness of all Taylor Swift’s romantic gestures.
The “Blank Space” music video shows us the culture’s solution to exploitative love: Be the exploiter. Taylor Swift wants viewers to perceive her as master of her and her lover’s fate. Early in the video, she shouts, “I love the players, and you—love—the game!” Unable to escape the players, she tries to defeat them by becoming the best player of all.
The video’s confused romantic imagery reveals how Taylor’s approach to romance is marked by distorted love. In her castle-like home, she and her suitor waltz in formal attire, ride white horses together, and picnic in the park. The settings range from Gothic romances to Disney Princess movies. The man appears to be the Prince Charming you might expect, but she acts more like an evil queen than a princess. When the suitor arrives, Taylor leans down from her window to greet him like an enchantress in her tower. The wall of paintings where she hangs his portrait recalls the Snow Queen’s macabre garden, or a hunter mounting his kills. Taylor’s disordered love transforms her from a fairy tale princess into a witch.
Taylor further corrupts the fairy tale by commercializing her romance. Her love interest’s defining characteristics are his “new money, suit and tie.” She swears she can “read [him] like a magazine”— the flimsy, disposable icon of marketing. His plastic face and impeccable clothes make him look more like a mannequin in a store window than a human being. To engage his interest, Taylor offers her material treasures. She and her new conquest enjoy a romantic dinner together, across a table laden with things. The low camera angle frames them both in their possessions, so they must peer around the elaborate centerpiece to see each other’s faces. The next suitor easily replaces him, as they are nearly indistinguishable from each other.
Linking commercialism and love encourages people to think of each other as objects of use. When two human beings agree to use each other, their relationship remains fundamentally unstable. John Paul II describes this situation as a “union of egoisms” that will dissolve “the moment they cease to match and to be of advantage to each other” (LR 39). Utilitarian relationships cannot endure disagreements and difficulties. Just as the idealized romantic sentiments fail to deliver a happy ending, so Taylor’s wealth cannot buy commitment.The relationship ends by making both partners less than human. Once Taylor’s lover betrays her, her disordered desire for the flesh becomes desire to destroy the flesh. She vandalizes his property and attacks the man himself, hurling a vase at him and seizing his face in hands flexed like claws. In their final embrace, she preys on her suitor, crouching over his prone form and biting his lips as if she were a vulture. When Taylor responds to the man’s infidelity by attacking his body, she attacks the physical representation of her need for another human person. John Paul II teaches that the body reveals man as made to give himself to another, because procreation requires the union of two sexes (TOB 104). The body’s incompleteness means that man cannot be self-sufficient. In her violent outbursts, Taylor Swift rejects that intrinsic part of her human nature.
Despite the terrible consequences, Taylor portrays this love as her triumph over men. She represents her dominance with a red apple. When she clenches the apple, her lover seizes his head, as if pained. She rolls her hands, and he rolls his head. When she encloses the fruit in her fingers, he mimics the gesture. The apple becomes a symbol of her control over men. Just as she combines the princess with the witch, here she combines Eve and the snake by tempting men into choosing their own demise.
The proper love, expressed by Adam and Eve, revolves around gift-giving. John Paul II argues that Adam and Eve embody the act of giving, in their relationships with God and each other. Man received his existence from God. God then presented Adam with the further gift of Eve. Adam admires Eve as “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone,” paralleling the moment when God “looked [at His creation] and saw it was good.” Adam received Eve with open arms, and she willingly gave herself to him (TOB 183). According to this reading of Genesis, gift-giving permeates mankind’s relationships with God and each other (TOB 29).
When our culture rejects selfless giving, it surrenders to what John Paul II calls “perennial attraction.” Seeking sexual satisfaction leaves all human beings wanting more. Like fire, lust consumes and yet it wants finality (TOB 287). This unrelenting desire afflicted humanity when God cursed Eve, saying, “Your desire will be for your husband; he will rule over you.” Since Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, romantic relationships have suffered from imbalances that can only be remedied by the sacrificial love found in Christ.
The Taylor Swift of “Blank Space” attempts to overcome Eve’s curse by conquering men, but that disordered love instead makes her the slave of men and their unhealthy desires. When she plays with the apple, she intends to demonstrate her dominance over men and their submission to her exploitation. “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” she intones. While she is inflicting torture on her lovers, however, she suffers along with them. If men only want torturous love, then women who desire their love must give it to them. Men continue to dictate the terms of these relationships, thus fulfilling the curse. Taylor’s triumph over men is empty—a blank space—because she remains a prisoner of desire.
Katherine Helmick will graduate from Hillsdale College in May 2015 with a B.A. in Art and a minor in Spanish.
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