The Right to the Story: Taylor Swift and the Sexual Politics of Memory
I have another subscriber-only post coming later this week, focusing on the obsession with Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s fashion choices.
For today, Taylor Swift, age gaps love, and the “right to memory.”
Mama, you know who Taylor Swift is, but you don’t listen to her. A few of my readers are in that same category. Briefly, Taylor has released an updated, rerecorded version of her 2012 album, Red. It features several new songs, including a sprawling, moving, and instantly affecting ten-minute version of what many fans and critics already considered her masterpiece, All Too Well. Swift performed the song this past weekend on Saturday Night Live.
As you may know, it’s widely considered to be a song about Swift’s brief relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal was 29, and Swift 20, when they started dating in 2010 — and the extended version of the track, and the accompanying short film, are filled with references to that age gap:
You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine
And that made me want to die.
In the short film, the actress playing Taylor’s part is 19 — and the actor playing Jake’s is 30. A presumably deliberate casting choice, the age gap gets play in an argument the couple have in the middle third of the movie, when Sadie Sink yells at Dylan O’Brien, “Your friends are all older than me, I feel so out of place!”
The bottom line is that the popular response to the song and the movie has been to assume that Swift herself is recognizing, belatedly, that she was in some sense as much victim as participant in this relationship. The classic trope about younger women who date older men — particularly when those younger women are barely legal adults — is that they wildly overestimate their own maturity and agency. It is only in retrospect, often when they reach the same age the older man was when he started dating their younger self, that they realize how little power they really had.
Think of Monica Lewinsky, who regularly described herself as an enthusiastic participant in her affair with Bill Clinton — until #MeToo brought a radical reassessment of age gaps, power and sexuality.
In a 2018 article for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky wrote she now realizes that her relationship with Clinton "constituted a gross abuse of power." This is a profound shift from the position she took in a June 2014 piece for the same magazine.
"Sure my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship," Lewinsky wrote in 2014. "Any 'abuse' came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position."
Lewinsky says she now sees that her relationship with Clinton was full of "inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege."
As you might guess, I live in constant terror (that is not hyperbole) that someday, a student with whom I slept will step forward with a similar declaration of a shift in how she remembers our relationship. The students whom I slept with with whom I am still in touch have told me, over and over and over again, that they had agency when they took me into their beds. They tell me they don’t regret their choices, nor do they consider me an abuser. I wonder obsessively if they tell me that out of respect for my own emotional fragility; they may worry that I am not stable enough to handle a harsher truth. Perhaps they have reassessed and found our relationships less equal than they once imagined, but out of protectiveness towards a broken old man, they keep their silence. If and when they ever speak, the story will be theirs to tell — and their recollections, not mine, will be the right ones.
Monica revised her understanding of her affair with Bill in response to a cultural shift, and she’s surely not the only one. Though Taylor may be doing the same thing in her new version of “All Too Well,” I cling to the interpretation that she remains untroubled by her age gap with Gyllenhaal. She implies he used the age gap as an excuse to break up with her; the age gap, she seems to say, was less of a real problem than a pretext to explain his inability to commit. I like that reading, as it sidesteps the question of whether there’s an inherent problem in age gap romances; the problem seems to have been Gyllenhaal’s personal hang-up, not something built-in to the distance between 20 and 29.
I’ve beaten the age gap issue nearly to death. The larger issue that haunts me today isn’t age, but the question of who has the right to remember. In some sense, the song is a simple, impassioned declaration that each of us is entitled to our memories. In the aftermath of any significant conflict or divorce, there’s often an ongoing struggle to frame the story of “what really happened.” Couples fight and break up on this particular battlefield, as each person claims to have the better recollection of what happened. When there’s a different memory, the temptation is to declare that the other person is deliberately being dishonest about what happened. We want the other person to recall what we recall, and to concede that our memory is theirs too.
Taylor does this in the final lines of the song. She shifts from singing “I remember it all too well,” to repeating, like a mantra, “You remember it.” It’s a plea, and perhaps an indictment: if you claim not to remember as I remember, you’re a liar.
We live in a culture that presumes women are better equipped than men to recall most things. A standard trope of both romantic dramas and sitcoms is a heterosexual couple fighting, and depending on the format, we either laugh or wince at the man’s invariable inability to keep up with the woman’s far greater accuracy in remembering what was said or done. When a woman says, “I remember it all too well,” the wise man concedes at once — thanks to biology or socialization, he is ill-equipped to contest her claim.
Imagine Jake Gyllenhaal making his own short film, offering his own perspective on his brief romance with Taylor Swift. He’d be pilloried for gaslighting her by attempting to offer a different interpretation of their romance. When a woman recalls what happened, and is emphatic in her description of what she remembers, what she says stands. The wise man makes a self-deprecating joke, pleads no contest, and above all, does not offer an alternative narrative, lest he be accused of defending the indefensible. She — whoever she is — has already said she remembers “all too well,” and more to the point, she’s said you (yes, you, buddy) remember too, if you’re honest with yourself. Hang your head, stuff down any anger you feel, and admit your fault and her rightness.
Just between us, did the love affair maim you all too well?
Just between us, do you remember it all too well?
In the final lines of this extraordinary song, Taylor poses a question that has only one ethical answer. This incredibly gifted songwriter isn’t just telling her story of a doomed love affair that wounded her, she’s pleading for a confession. She’s asking Jake to accept her version as the definitive one. Hers are the extraordinary literary gifts; hers is the exquisite memory for smell and touch and conversation; she is the arbiter of what happened. Say yes, Jake, or say nothing. How can you decently do otherwise?
No one wants to hear Jake’s side of the story if it contradicts Taylor’s, as it’s already decided that it will be an outrage, a pathetic self-justification soaked in lies. In the same way, if anyone writes the story of a professor who lost so much because of his love affairs, it must be the women with whom he slept. Predators can only be remembered through the stories of those they harmed. In the modern age, only those who “hurt more” hold the right to remember.
When I listen to Taylor’s song, I think about Lily. She was 18 and my student when we had an affair. I was 31. She was the initiator and the aggressor; I fell in love, she didn’t. She broke up with me after three months, disgusted by my neuroses and jealousies. I was heartbroken; she was nonchalant. As she told me a few weeks after she left me, “The sex was great, the conversations were interesting, but it wasn’t worth it. Older men are just better at hiding their insecurities.”
When you read those words, perhaps you think including her praise of our sex life and our talks is just sad self-aggrandizing. You perhaps don’t trust my memory, presuming — not wrongly, maybe — that it’s filtered by time and drugs and illness. If you wanted to know more, you’d probably ask to hear Lily’s side of things, and you’d place far more credence in her version of events. Perhaps you’d be right. Lily and I are still friends, she remembers our relationship relatively fondly, and she ain’t interested in writing about it.
I love Taylor Swift, I can’t stop listening to this song, and I can’t help thinking that the right to remember has never been given equally to all. Too many women have been silenced, too many stories have been untold, or told from the grossly unreliable perspective of a self-involved and self-regarding white man. Things have shifted, perhaps for the better, and some of us whose voices would once have been welcomed would do well to fall silent.
Off to sling groceries. You know what I’ll be listening to.