Put simply, Taylor Swift’s new documentary, Miss Americana, is about one thing: cats. Totally kidding, but there is a smattering of cat propaganda, and I would’ve liked some answers about her role in the movie Cats. This is not that movie (luckily).
Miss Americana is a coming-of-age story. By now, we all know the tale of Taylor Swift: country star from Pennsylvania, pop disrupter who reformed the music industry, etc. In her revealing documentary, released Friday on Netflix, Swift retells her story from behind the scenes — and not in the fun, backstage glimpse into celebrity type of way. Rather, Taylor pulls back the curtain on the emotional toll that Becoming Taylor Swift has taken on her own perception of self.
In many ways the Swifties do know her story; most of it is right there in the pages of her CD jackets. But if Miss Americana is about anything, it’s about being a woman in your 20s. Though her “narrative” of overcoming a public brawl with Kanye West is wholly unrelatable, the rest of Miss Americana absolutely is. Here’s everything you need to know about what went down in Taylor’s 20s (and probably yours, too).
A heartbreaking moment in Miss Americana is when Taylor recaps the moment after she won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2016 — her “mountaintop,” as she calls it — when she’d achieved everything she’d ever dreamed of, and all she could think was, Shouldn’t I have someone that I should call right now?
Swift is honest about how much she used to value the public’s approval; her self-worth was quantified by her ability to be liked. In the documentary, she says everything changed when her mom, Andrea, was diagnosed with cancer. Taylor asked herself, “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today if your mom’s sick from chemo?” It forced her to grapple with what she really values in her life.
Taylor doesn’t talk too much about Joe Alwyn, her boyfriend-slash-human-oat-milk latte-slash-possibly her fiancé (she’s wearing a ring in this scene), and he never really appears. But she does talk about him significantly more than she has previously. She reveals that she’d been falling in love with Alwyn while writing Reputation, which was confusing to me, because I’ve accepted Reputation as lesbian canon for years now, hypothesizing that the album was written about Karlie Kloss, a female oat-milk latte. Regardless, I find comfort in knowing that the 2017 album was written about AN oat-milk latte.
Speaking of love and life, it’s worth noting that Swift talks about having kids twice in this movie: first, in saying she’s nowhere near ready to baby-make, and again over dinner with childhood bestie, Abigail, who offers, “I think you’d be an excellent mother,” to which Taylor says, “Thank you.” As a person who has grown up with her music and experiences life through parallel experiences to Taylor Swift albums, can I just say: We’re not ready to have kids, Taylor. Please don’t do this to us.
“The reason that the backlash hurt so much was because that used to be all I had,” Swift says of the public turning on her in 2016. One of the most meaningful themes in Miss Americana is the crucial lesson of learning to discard the idea that approval is valuable. Taylor has always been meticulously criticized, arguably more so than her contemporaries. In one scene, we’re shown a supercut of said backlash, with on-camera personalities calling her annoying, too skinny, opportunistic, “going through guys like a train,” and it’s doubly angering that most of the criticism came from other women.
Likely the most naked moment of Miss Americana comes when Taylor is riding in a black SUV and talks about her relationship with her own body. “You don’t ever say to yourself, ‘I have an eating disorder,’ but you know you’re making a list of everything that you put in your mouth that day and you know that’s probably not right, but then again there’s so many diet blogs that tell you that’s what you should do.”
A huge chunk of the Swiftie population has grown up with Taylor, and is close in age; many, at some point, have similarly had to come to terms with being a woman who exists in a body. That ugly truth and all the deadly social pressures that accompany it was magnified for Taylor, she says, growing up on a world stage. She admits she used to starve herself and had to unlearn associating pant-size with self-worth. “There’s always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting,” she says. “It’s all just fucking impossible.”
*screams in woman*
In 2013, former radio host David Mueller groped Swift while taking a photo with her. He was fired, then sued the singer-songwriter, and she countersued him and won in 2017. Taylor recounts the experience: “The first thing they say to you in court is: Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you react quicker? Why didn’t you stand farther away from him?”
After that, Taylor recalled being furious on behalf of other women. “I was angry that I had to be there. I was angry that this happens to women. I was angry that people are paid to antagonize victims. I was angry that all the details had been twisted.” In Swift’s case, she had seven witnesses and a photo of the groping, which helped her. She added, “The process is so dehumanizing. This is with seven witnesses and a photo. What happens when you get raped and it’s your word against his?”
One year later, we see Taylor seated at her grand piano onstage at the Reputation Stadium Tour, speaking to the crowd about her win. “This day a year ago was the day that the jury sided in my favor and said that they believed me,” she says with an uncharacteristic shake in her voice. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry to anyone who ever wasn’t believed, because I don’t know what turn my life would’ve taken if people didn’t believe me when I said that something had happened to me.”
In 2018, Swift inspired 65,000 Tennesseans to register to vote after she spoke out against Republican Tennessee senatorial candidate Marsha Blackburn. Since then, she’s been a loud and proud advocate for LGBTQ rights, and has been open about her political views. The reason Swift wanted to make Miss Americana, to share such personal details about her life in a way she never has before, was this: She found her voice and learned how to speak up. “A nice girl doesn’t force her opinion on other people,” she recalls being told toward the beginning of her career. “A nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.”
Miss Americana chronicles some of the most common and harrowing experiences a 20-something woman goes through: having your body violated by a man. Learning to accept — or even love — your human form. Falling in love. Being criticized. Finding your worth. Moving forward. One of my favorite quotes from the movie — besides the moment when Swift desperately tries not to spill food on her sweatshirt and says, “This is a Rihanna shirt!!” — is when she says she’s trying to “deprogram the misogyny” in her own brain. Most of Miss Americana is about actively unlearning the things we (specifically women) were taught growing up.
Sitting on a couch and talking to a camera, likely to director Lana Wilson, the pop star makes powerful feminist statements like, “There is no such thing as a slut,” or a “bitch,” then apologizes at the end of her speech for getting so worked up. She adds, “Why did I say sorry? Sorry I was loud in my house. That I bought. With the songs that I wrote about my life.”
Although I extremely don’t want to have to have children yet, which as we know under Swift Law would be mandated, I still feel very much on the same page as thee pop star. “There is an element to my fan base that feels like we grew up together … like they’re reading my diary,” Swift says. It’s a relatable coming-of-age tale. But I have to say, this is what I related to most — in talking with Brendon Urie about the concept for the “ME!” music video, she says she wants to be surrounded by everything that makes her her: “Dancers, cats, gay pride.” Literally same.