It is likely no accident that women across the country have found themselves defecting to more traditional family arrangements in the last 20 months. Despite their numerous adverse effects, Covid lockdowns forced many to rethink their priorities. Many women found that working 9-to-5 in a cubicle wasn’t as fulfilling as they were once told.
“Nearly 3 million U.S. women have dropped out of the labor force in the past year,” one CBS News headline reads. While many of these women may have been furloughed or laid off due to the economic devastation wrought by the lockdowns, others likely reconnected with their children and husbands while working from home and found that this was, after all, quite fulfilling, despite having been told this would turn them into hopeless tools of the patriarchy.
“Cottagecore” also took off during the pandemic lockdowns. The internet-trendy word describes an aesthetic marked by, among other things, long floral dresses reminiscent of a more simple, self-sustaining lifestyle. Cottagecore has become surprisingly popular in our feminism-steeped culture. As Elle Reynolds wrote at the Federalist earlier this year, “Worlds away from Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits or Kamala Harris’ Converse, this fashion trend runs toward feminine tropes that have been mocked as outdated.”
Taylor Swift’s albums folklore and evermore, released, respectively, in July and December of 2020, also manifested this cottagecore aesthetic. Like her fans, Swift seemed able to step away from the hustle and bustle of modern commercial life during the early days of the pandemic and reflect on what she really loved. Swift said of folklore, upon its release, “In isolation, my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness.”
And when Swift allowed her imagination to run wild, what came out was something which, surprisingly for Swift, appeared quite traditionally feminine. The back cover of the album featured Swift with her hair braided into low buns reminiscent of American girl dolls, as she donned long flowing dresses and stepped out into the woods. For Swift’s live performance of “august” at the Grammys, the singer wore a head-to-toe floral gown with hardly an inch of extra skin showing. Similarly, the artwork for evermore depicted Swift with her long hair in a loose French braid. This Taylor was a far cry from the libertine Swift we saw in the music video for “Are You Ready for It” or “Look What You Made Me Do” off her 2017 album Reputation.
Now the singer-songwriter is re-releasing improved and updated versions of her old albums, with her 2012 album Red re-released earlier this month. Swift hasn’t returned to her Reputation era dripping sexuality, at least not yet, and it’s possible the aesthetic of folklore and evermore, as well as some of her earlier albums, is here to stay. Regardless, Swift’s, and by extension her fans’s, relationship with femininity is worth exploring.
Swift’s flirtation with the softer side of femininity obviously clashes with her earned reputation as a feminist icon, but the traditional notes of her music have long been hard to miss. Long before folklore and evermore, many of Taylor’s songs were far from claiming casual sex and serial monogamy as fun, if not empowering. In “Love Story,” the song’s female protagonist cries out for “Romeo” to “save me” and the song ends with him proposing marriage to her, after asking her father’s permission.
Several of Taylor’s most gut-wrenching breakup ballads mourn the loss of innocence they represented for the often-autobiographical songwriter. This, even as Swift herself espouses an ideology that says women can, and should, have numerous sexual partners with little to no emotional involvement.
When Swift shot into fame at 17 years old, her music, lyrics, and style followed that of early 2000’s country music. Usually wearing playful dresses with golden curls grown long, Swift strummed to songs about heartbreak in small towns and high school crushes. After disastrous relationships with Hollywood stars several years her senior—famously, Jake Gyllenhaal and John Mayer, among others—Swift shifted to a more rebellious, promiscuous, and politically activist overtone, with albums such as 1989, Reputation, and Lover.
But in her two 2020 albums, Swift ditches her vengeful tell-all lyrics about past lovers for circumspect reflection on such failed relationships. Where “Blank Space” glorified female promiscuity (“Grab your passport and my hand/I can make the bad guys good for a weekend”) one song on evermore tells the story of a young woman who dreams of marrying and having ten children with her boyfriend. In contrast with “willow,” Swift’s “The Man” sounds almost forced. How could the same woman who sings, “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can/Wondering if I’d get there quicker/If I was a man,” also sing, “Wherever you stray/I follow/I’m begging for you to take my hand/Wreck my plans/That’s my man.”
While it is, of course, impossible to ascertain and erroneous to assume that Swift is at all personally “conservative,” in any meaningful sense of the word, her popularity amongst women makes her lately traditional aesthetic and lyrics worth noting.
It’s as if Swift and many of her female fans are too busy convincing themselves of a certain vision of “powerful” womanhood to have truly noticed how much they really yearn for a more traditional femininity. One can only hope that Taylor’s dalliance with tradition is here to stay, and that her female fans realize that making “the bad guys good for a weekend” pales in comparison to settling down with your own Romeo. After all, in the latter case, “You’ll never have to be alone.”
Sarah Weaveris a graduate student studying politics at Hillsdale College. She has been published at National Review, the Federalist, and the American Spectator. Follow her on Twitter @SarahHopeWeaver.