The recent article from a “men’s rights advocate” calling for people to boycott Mad Max: Fury Road got more attention than it should have, probably. Writing at Return of Kings, Aaron Clarey suspected an ideological tint to George Miller’s reboot of the 80s post-apocalyptic franchise, saying, “if [men] sheepishly attend and Fury Road is a blockbuster, then you, me, and all the other men (and real women) in the world will never be able to see a real action movie ever again that doesn’t contain some damn political lecture or moray [sic] about feminism, SJW-ing, and socialism.” This was just a rant from some guy who hadn’t seen the film, but the post went viral, in large part because it seemed hilariously unhinged. The main complaint: “Charlize Theron sure talked a lot during the trailers.”
The existence of someone who finds the notion of a woman as action-film hero threatening or offensive helps go a long way to explaining what the heck is happening in Taylor Swift’s video for “Bad Blood.” Before premiering Sunday night at the Billboard Music Awards, it had a real claim to being the most pre-hyped music video of all time, due to the fact that Swift had spent days teasing the Internet about its horde of celebrity cameos. Lena Dunham, Cindy Crawford, Jessica Alba, and more than a dozen others got poster treatment, announcing them as futuristic-crimefighter characters with names like “Slay-Z,” “Knockout,” and “The Crimson Curse.” The video lives up to its advertising, offering a hodgepodge of tropes from spy, superhero, and sci-fi movies featuring a bevy of famous women—plus Kendrick Lamar, rapping newly penned verses for the remix—toting bazookas, nunchaku, and in one case, a throwing star disguised as a compact.
As a work of audiovisual filmmaking, it’s kind of a flop. With so many co-stars, the editing becomes so hectic that even the barest bones story here is indiscernible and you’re never quite sure who’s doing what. But the point of the video was already made with those posters. This is a fun imagining of an action-movie universe where women rule, a corrective to the Smurfette syndrome that, for example, forces Black Widow into being defined almost entirely by her entire gender while the men of The Avengers enjoy a diverse set of storylines. All the “Bad Blood” women have their own signature powers, gear, and personas—imagine that!
The song “Bad Blood” has widely been interpreted as a middle finger to Katy Perry, the pop singer who Swift often seems to clash with in the press. This interpretation may or may not be true, but in either case it feeds into old stereotypes about women as inherently catty, and into the limiting idea that females must necessarily compete for the top spot in arenas from music to dating. Swift’s been countering that narrative lately by playing up her same-sex friendships in social media, making her Instagram feed into a real-life demonstration of what the point of the Bechdel test is. The video extends that mission to epic levels. But it also features women betraying each other and facing off, as if to say, “We’re humans. Some of us are going to get along, some of us aren’t.” Again, that shouldn’t be a point that needs to be made—except for the fact that society keeps showing that is is.
With its near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating, anyone whose experience of Fury Road is ruined by the fact that it has a strong female lead and villainizes the slavery of women has something wrong with them. But if the “Bad Blood” video sounds like exactly the message-first, entertainment-second mentality decried by folks who talk dismissively of “SJWs” (“social justice warriors”), well: Who cares? Though the clip will likely succeed at pushing up song streams and promoting her album, Swift would probably be the first to admit she’s on a bigger mission. The latest issue of Maxim names her No. 1 on its “hot list,” and she used the opportunity to be quoted in the magazine saying things like “misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born.” If you want, you can slow the video down and admire the creativity that went into the art direction, the pastiche of influences from Kill Bill to X-Men, and the cool costumes and weapons. Or you can also just let it wash over you, and cheer the symbolism as Swift leaves a trail of explosions behind her.