The movie opens by conjuring the sense of intimacy familiar to fans who follow Swift on social media. Clad in overalls and a light-pink sweater, the star noodles on a piano as her kitten, Benjamin Button, creeps across the keys, or she sits next to a windowsill and pages through her teenage diaries. The images projected are cozy, cutesy, creative—but Swift’s out to question one of the fundamental ideas underlying Pinterest-ready perfection. “My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” she says. “It was all I wrote about. It was all I wanted.”
What does good mean here? Miss Americana goes on to unpack the term as not an authentic reference to morality, but rather a container for the dictates of supposedly meritocratic capitalist patriarchy (did I just write Swift’s next album title?!). On one hand, achievement fervor—the need for praise, awards, and material success—motivated her songwriting. On the other, rules of femininity shaped how she behaved in public. Eventually, her smile-and-wave, gown-clad, teenage-prodigy self turned into caricature, seen most clearly when she arrived at the 2009 VMAs in Cinderella’s horse-drawn carriage.
The film does a nice job of revisiting one of the most overdiscussed events in recent pop history: Kanye West grabbing the mic from Swift and saying Beyoncé deserved the Moonman instead of her. Wilson makes clear how the ambush presented an existential challenge to Swift’s polite and demure (one newscaster called her “angelic”) persona. But the filmmaker, intriguingly, underlines that the media backlash fell on West rather than on Swift. There’s also a hint that Swift’s trauma from the event was due, in some part, to a misunderstanding. Because the venue was so “echoey,” Swift says she thought the crowd was heckling her for winning the award rather than jeering West for trying to take it away. But perception is reality: “For someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you,” Swift tells the camera in the present day, “the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience.”
Here is the engine of Swift’s narrative: Swift’s desire to be liked colliding with people not liking her. It’s the ultimate celebrity problem, but the doc is smart about injecting it with social meaning by making the case that it stems from gender. Swift has been trained to be a people pleaser in a way that men rarely are, and she has been judged by standards that only women are held to. The story she’s telling now is about recently “deprogramming” destructive scripts that, among other things, pushed her into an eating disorder (the revelation of which darkly recontextualizes the no-burritos-till-2017 chitchat).
Swift’s awakening, she says, was a painful one. Tensions with West boiled over with the infamous 2016 episode in which Kim Kardashian accused Swift of lying about not granting West permission to rap about her. The escapade linked up with other growing sources of public tension: the ubiquity of her cheerful 2014 album, 1989, a few intra-feminist tiffs, and Swift’s silence about the bruising 2016 presidential campaign. Snake emojis rained down; Swift was definitively, to many in the public, no longer good. In response, she disappeared from the spotlight for a year. Miss Americana’s cameras began rolling as she returned from that hibernation, and Swift likely set out to portray herself as bouncing back on more rebellious terms than before.