There is a reason why most people want to flee high school the minute it’s over.
It’s the same reason that Sunnydale High School is the “hellmouth” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it makes perfect sense to cast a portal that unleashes cruel, evil demons on the world as a setting for the humiliations regularly visited upon adolescents and teenagers.
Even if high school is a distant memory for you, politics and pop culture tends to recycle the worst of its power dynamics more often than we’d care to admit.
Enter the proverbial high school hellmouth of 2016: a viral feud between Kim Kardashian West, Kanye West and Taylor Swift. On Sunday night, Kardashian released a series of recorded conversations with Swift that seriously undermined her persona as an innocent victim in their collective drama. Internet commenters largely cheered on Kardashian and begged for more.
It could be a classic comeuppance tale, but something about this public dispute is both manipulative and retrograde. Though there are substantial issues at its heart, including West’s sexism and the inherent tension of race as Swift clings to the narrative of victimization, the reality is that both sides need us more than we need them.
An ever-curious audience, of course, is one that can be monetized.
Worse yet, the whole mess is a reminder of the bloodsport perfected in high school, no doubt that can go down between two women when their currency is cult of personality. When women choose to trade on being relatable and popular, or feel forced to do so by a system that doesn’t reward them for original ideas alone, the result is a culture that longs to see someone like Swift revealed as fake.
Back in 2009, when West infamously interrupted Swift’s MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech, the public was on her side. The two seemed to reconcile in the past year, until West released a song with the lyrics: I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous. Swift was outwardly outraged. West insisted he had asked for and gotten her approval. His wife said she had evidence of that conversation, which was indeed friendly, though in the video West had not uttered the line about making her famous.
Following the release of those snippets Sunday night, which may not have been legal, Swift published a statement on Instagram denying she knew about the “that bitch” reference. The pop star said she’s the victim of “character assassination,” but her original claims of ignorance and betrayal seem disingenuous now. This revelation comes in the wake of highly orchestrated appearances with her new boyfriend, actor Tom Hiddleston, and accusatory tweets from her ex-boyfriend, Calvin Harris, about alleged underhanded PR attacks on him.
Both camps have used social media to make us feel like we’re part of Team Swift or Team West, but popularity is ultimately about cultivating a ruthless instinct for what will earn you the most admirers. Kardashian may personally reply to her many fans on Twitter, even setting time aside to meet with a select few in real life, but that realness is an integral part of her brand. So is Swift’s Instagram account, which is often like a Ralph Lauren ad featuring a cool, goofy girl having a good time with her squad.
But unless you’re a legit member of the clique, you’re just another nameless, faceless figure among the hordes craning your neck to get a better view of the drama. Unlike in high school, however, more bystanders means more money.
I don’t doubt that Kardashian wanted to defend her husband’s reputation, but she’s no fool and neither are Swift or West. They know that keeping controversy alive extracts loyalty from a rapt audience, enriching their multi-million dollar music and merchandising empires. That Kardashian flogged her Snapchat account before airing the clips of her husband’s conversation with Swift, and timed it around a related episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, is savvy marketing.
That’s celebrity culture in the 21st century and I don’t begrudge them for playing a game that pays handsomely. I also don’t care if the public becomes momentarily swept up in their shenanigans, making their efforts to entice us fruitful. Humans crave story; they want to see one character rise and another fall. Whether it’s Greek myth or gossip, we can’t stop the momentum of that desire, but we can tire of the storytellers. We can also call out the tropes they perpetuate.
Kardashian and Swift are much more complicated than caricatures of popular (or mean) girls. They’re smart businesswomen who create meaningful experiences for a lot of people. Somehow, though, thanks in part to their own impulses and the slights of one man, they’ve become the catfight in the quad, the bad girl taking down the prom princess, two queen bees trying to manipulate us all.
do u guys follow me on snap chat? u really should 😉
Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) July 18, 2016
Whatever the case, Kardashian and Swift could have found a way to resolve their dispute without dragging us knee deep into their muck. They’ve managed to not only eclipse their own unique contributions to pop culture by focusing on the personal, but they’ve also reinforced expectations that women, no matter how successful, will ultimately viciously turn on each other.
No one expects Kardashian and Swift to be allies simply because they’re female, but it would be gratifying if they could wage this battle with some conscious awareness of its implications for the girls and women watching it unfold. It’s also worth remembering that West bears responsibility for creating this dynamic. His relative silence on the matter is a bitter reminder that a man can be unlikable but cloak himself in genius while a woman’s fame is often unforgivably pinned to her personality.
For average teenage girls, there are few things more humiliating than being publicly targeted by a popular girl for a perceived or real transgression. There are also few things as infuriating as the beloved popular girl who you know isn’t as nice or innocent as she seems. Kardashian offered everyone on the internet the sugar rush of revenge and vindication. It may have even felt like justice.
Which is why their feud feels like a plot twist straight from adolescence. And just like in high school, it’s OK to see the drama go down, roll your eyes and walk away.
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