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October 11, 2018

Did she really?

Fostering Community

Oh, yes she did! Last Sunday, Taylor Swift tweeted out her intention to vote democrat, urging her 112 million followers – yes, you read that number right – to register to vote in the upcoming U.S. midterm election. In the 24-hour period following that tweet, more than 65,000 young Americans (ages 18 to 29) had signed up. That number jumped to 102,000 by the following day, and it’s still growing. Who knows if the surge in registration is a result of Swift’s tweet, but it’s a pretty remarkable thing to consider.

It seems fitting on this day, the International Day of the Girl, to recognize the importance of Swift’s actions and to consider what the responses to her tweet say about how she and, by extension, other young women are regarded by some segments of society. When asked about the tweet, Donald Trump smiled and assured the media that Swift “doesn’t know anything” about politics. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, weighing in for the white, Republican, male, over-sixty club tweeted: “So @taylorswift13 has every right to be political but it won’t impact election unless we allow 13 yr old girls to vote.” (Note to reader: Those young fans who bought Swift’s first album are now all eligible to vote. Huckabee and his ilk forget this at their peril.)

A response to Huckabee’s tweet by singer Hayley Williams represented what a lot of millennials were likely thinking: “[Here] we have a man in power mocking a woman’s value and impact out of what I can only assume is fear, not fear of an election result but fear of a powerful woman [whose] power he now realizes he cannot benefit from.” Williams followed up by adding: “…and who in their right mind underestimates a 13 year old girl anyway?!! Who publicly mocks a woman’s political standings by dubbing an entire generation powerless?”

As someone who spends a great deal of time in school surrounded by 13-year-old girls, I can safely say that no one should ever underestimate the power or passion of an adolescent girl with a purpose. It’s downright patronizing to assert that young girls aren’t capable of independent thought and can’t hold informed opinions regarding issues that affect them. In fact, it’s my experience that girls care deeply about the world around them and think deeply about what they see. They have a natural inclination to explore issues of social equity and become rightly indignant at perceived acts of cruelty or unfairness. These girls are not vapid young things, merely taking on the opinions of the wise adults surrounding them. Far from it. The girls I know are eager to ponder the big questions of life, keen to contribute to the larger conversation, and are wanting to learn how to use their voice for the greater good.

I’d like our students to take away a few simple lessons from what Taylor Swift did on Sunday, and you to share these with your daughter. So here we go.

First and foremost, don’t let others define you. Define yourself.

Many people assumed they knew who Swift was and what she stood for. The alt-right claimed her as their own Aryan goddess, believing she was a secret confederate-flag loving redneck at heart. Many millennial cultural critics, having delighted in the long-running Kanye West versus Taylor Swift saga, regarded Swift as a calculating Disney princess with musical talent but no real substance. Swift upended both camps with her message, causing @eclecticbrotha to humourously tweet out to his 40,000 followers: “Taylor Swift cares more about black people than Kanye West and now I need to lay down because I got a headache just from tweeting that.”

Second lesson to be learned: Be true to who you are. Speak your own truth.

It’s easy to be a follower, to parrot what others say, and to default to the loudest voice in the room. And that’s particularly true for adolescent girls when they aren’t given opportunities to engage critically or to have their thinking challenged. Parents and teachers have an important role to play, not only in encouraging independent thinking, but in providing the time and space for our girls to have meaningful conversations together. Discuss current events. Ask questions. Wonder why.

Final lesson (and perhaps the toughest one of all): Brace yourself for the backlash.

Taking a stand in any arena can be tough. Not everyone is going to like what we have to say, and even close friends may feel uncomfortable having conversations that reveal unforeseen differences of opinion. Learning to shut out the dissenting noise and reminding oneself of why our personal beliefs are important is a life lesson that even adults can benefit from. Supporting our girls through these trying moments, and reminding them that their resilience and resolve are like muscles that will strengthen with use, can be helpful.

I suspect that Taylor Swift and other cultural icons will provide both food for thought and fodder for debate for many blogs to come. My hope is that I never become so far removed in my own thinking that I can’t relate to the experience of our girls or forget how to bridge the gap between the passion of their youth and the experience of my (old) age. Learning what’s important and relevant to them, listening to their emerging opinions, and helping them grapple with big ideas will, I hope, stave off my eventual irrelevance for at least a few more years. By that time, I suspect these girls will be ready to take on the world and strong enough to stay the course they choose.

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