Last week, Taylor Swift dropped her video for “The Man,” a song from her latest album, Lover. On first watch, the video—unlike many of her videos—doesn’t appear to feature Swift at all. “The Man” follows a day in the life of a hypermasculine man with a beard, suit, and tie. We see him exhibit toxic male behaviors and be rewarded for them (or, at the very least, not bothered at all): manspreading, dumping cigar ash into someone’s purse, peeing in public, shouting at a waiter, and catcalling women at a strip club. At the end, however, there’s a reveal. The Man, is in fact, Swift in drag. “The Man,” in the video and in lyrics, discusses the experience of marginalization and double standard of white, cisgender men being able to “do whatever they want”—in sharp contrast to women. She sings, “‘Cause if I was a man/ Then I’d be the man.”
The video references The Wolf of Wall Street and spoofs both the film’s star, Leonardo DiCaprio (known for his much-younger model girlfriends and yacht excursions) and tennis player John McEnroe (known for his on-court tantrums). There’s also a yearning from Swift, with the help of special effects makeup and prosthetics, to (or at the very least, have the choice to) embody traits that she equates to modern masculinity: promiscuity, power, wealth, respect, and the freedom to be mad and rude. “I’m so sick of running/ As fast as I can/ Wondering if I’d get there quicker/ If I was a man,” Swift sings. It’s also about her relationship to her own fame, and how she believes she’d be viewed if she had male privilege: “Every conquest I had made/ Would make me more of a boss to you.”
To a queer viewer (and someone who regularly listens to Swift), this video and her performance struck me as inexplicitly queer-coded with drag references: She performs a certain kind of exaggerated masculinity in her mannerisms and clothes, visibly “packs” with phallic genitalia, and uses a pseudonym (Tyler Swift). References like these are very much linked to queer and drag communities. We can look to the long, queer history of “male impersonators,” like minstrel performer Annie Hindle, blues singer Gladys Bentley, and Stonewall veteran Stormé DeLarverie, for example. Swift appears to mimic them, as well as modern drag kings. It’s important to note, of course, that “kinging” is not always just merely costuming as a man, and the notion of a modern drag king is constantly expanding and evolving. In a recent roundtable in GQ, several drag performers (some kings, but none traditional queens) speak about curating a persona in their performances, and discuss the way their gender presentation can be along the spectrum.
Likewise, I spoke to a dozen drag kings about “The Man,” and several noted that Swift’s performance, while queer-coded, differed from modern kinging, largely due to the special-effects makeup that allows her to pass as a cis man. “Drag kings are not necessarily trying to pass as cisgender men. When we put on our drag attire, we are a whole different persona,” says Rik E, the coproducer of Pretty Boi Drag, a QPOC-centered, D.C.-based drag king production. But others argued that Swift’s performance satirizes toxic masculinity and plays with gender presentation, which they define as a core theme of kinging. “What Taylor does in this video is exactly what drag kinging aims to do—she critiques toxic masculinity and calls attention to the large double standards that exist within the gender binary,” says Brooklyn-based drag king Maxxx Pleasure.
Others said that Swift’s performance could aid in the visibility of kings, who have not had the same representation and economy as their drag-queen counterparts, many of whom have benefited from the success of pop-culture phenomena like RuPaul’s Drag Race. “[Swift’s video] already has more than 22 million views. That’s visibility!” says longtime drag king Murray Hill. “I want more mainstream voices [like Swift] that preach equality.” Still, it all feels complicated. Would most straight audiences even realize that Swift is, at the very least, channeling a drag king? In interviews with the drag community, the verdict was split. Swift herself has not spoken about any possible influence.
Lover is Swift’s recent effort at making an album with, as she says, “political undertones,” following criticism for her silence about political issues, something she addresses in her 2020 Netflix documentary, Miss Americana (where, she explains her upbringing: (“A nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you. A nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.”) In the documentary, Swift talks about how she wants to have more of a political voice in her Lover era. Until now, her work has mostly focused on herself. “There is an element to my fan base that feels like we grew up together…like they’re reading my diary,” she said in Miss Americana. She doesn’t often grapple with larger political contexts, because she hasn’t had to. But now, with “The Man” and Lover as a whole, she’s stepping into political territory and playing with identity. So she has to think bigger.
As Swift tries to widen the scope of her work, she faces criticism. Swift has also been accused of “queerbaiting” (i.e. giving a wink-wink to queer fans by employing queer imagery, while deftly avoiding any narrative she might be queer). Also see: #Gaylor. “The Man” appears to be continuing that trend, and can’t be separated from her past of mischaracterizing identity, most notably in “You Need to Calm Down,” where she attempted to delve into queer politics but slipped into classism in the process. While Swift succeeds in pointing out sexist double standards in this video—regardless of intention—she misses the mark by not acknowledging the queer culture she’s seemingly borrowing from. Instead, it comes across more as a marketing ploy, sanitized and heterosexualized for a mainstream audience. When you don’t acknowledge inspiration like this, it does a disservice to the existing art and context: in this case, a marginalized community.
It’s less useful to jury whether the song and the video is “good” or “bad”—or whether Swift was intentional in employing or co-opting cues from queerness and drag kings—than it is to consider the video’s potential to create greater visibility for drag kings. Papi Churro, a Two-Spirit drag king, appreciates that Swift is working through some of her personal encounters with toxic masculinity, but notes that “The Man” misses an opportunity to uplift real folks in queer and drag communities. “It would have been sweeter had she actually branched out to the drag-king community for this one,” they said. “I feel like every time a member of the mainstream media does not reach out to our community, it only continues the erasure of our voices and everything we’re trying to accomplish as performers, queer activists, and even the trans community.
“The Man,” in the video and in lyrics, discusses the experience of marginalization and double standard of white, cisgender men being able to “do whatever they want”—in sharp contrast to women.
“The conversation [in “The Man”] is all about feminism, and the voices that are the loudest in this area of activism are white women. She’s using her privilege to speak on things that all white women center their movements on,” says D.C.-based, nonbinary drag king Majic Dyke. “Of all the things that Taylor could have brought to the limelight, using the billions of dollars and resources she has, is manspreading, peeing on walls, and things we already know…to make a profit.” Ultimately, it’s worthwhile to ask what standard we want to hold mainstream artists to, and what resources can superstars like Swift use to better uplift the queer community—even if it’s only within the confines of a music video.
Swift’s platform is expansive: She’s active on social media, and she regularly does interviews and AMAs. She has countless opportunities to speak directly to her fans and use her platform on behalf of other marginalized communities. Other pop stars have shown us what this can look like. For example, take Homecoming, Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella that channeled the experience of an HBCU: Though Beyoncé doesn’t have firsthand connections with HBCUs, the performances centered and highlighted actual folks from that community, making it clear they were her inspiration, but also artists in their own right. Other performers have taken similar approaches: Icona Pop, for example, does this beautifully in their video for “All Night” by remaining more in the background and offering up center stage.
Christina Aguilera centered the experience of being queer and trans in her music video for “Beautiful.” And though it could be argued that Madonna co-opted drag ball culture for “Vogue,” the video was monumental for bringing visibility to New York City’s drag scene during a time when few knew anything like it existed. Progress is possible, but it requires self-awareness from Swift and from others. Swift herself has acknowledged this in some ways: “A lot about how my privilege allowed me to not have to learn about white privilege. I didn’t know about it as a kid, and that is privilege itself, you know? And that’s something that I’m still trying to educate myself on every day. How can I see where people are coming from, and understand the pain that comes with the history of our world?” It’s not impossible for Swift to get this right, and she does appear to be trying. Rike E offers this advice: “As a white woman with many, many privileges, there are a ton of standards we should be holding her to, including that she stop co-opting the cultures of others. If she wants to represent these cultures, she should create a platform for them. Not try to imitate them.”