AFTER THE 2013 Grammys, a cozy photo of bosom friends Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham circulated the internet. Their arms encircled each other’s waists, with Dunham’s head nestled in the curve of Swift’s neck — a tender, seemingly love-imbued entanglement.
Nearly a year later, Swift flounced down the catwalk at the 2014 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, hand in hand with yet another bestie: supermodel Karlie Kloss. Maybe you’ve seen those photos too: Kloss bears an uncanny resemblance to Swift, and the two are a dazzling black lace clad duo, all legs and cheekbones. Swift beams a beatific smile as her bosom pal and occasional live-in houseguest vamps for their enthralled audience.
These photos offer different fantasies, and one important quality of Swift’s celebrity is that she knows her fans want them both. The photo with Kloss extends an ideal that’s obviously appealing: colossal fame, porcelain beauty, and the thrill of performing arm in arm with your dearest companion, flush with love for one another, and the adoration of your fans. But what about the photo with Girls’s Lena Dunham? For me, the fantasy here isn’t to be Swift. Instead it’s a fantasy in which a take-no-shit, unapologetic feminist like Lena — the sort of woman many of us strive to be — reconciles her caustic worldview with Taylor’s glittery paradise.
It seems that I want it all. I admire how Girls lays bare the fissures in female intimacy within a feminist context. And yet, when I think of Taylor’s friendships, her well-publicized group jaunts with intimate friends, I am incapable of imagining them as anything other than blissful gatherings, eternally brightened with the soft glow of an Instagram filter. Never could they disintegrate into a venomous imbroglio akin to the ones constantly entangling Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna. I dream of being another Lena to Taylor: enjoying access to Hollywood glitz when it suits me while ultimately knowing better. And yet I feel the goose bumps bud across my arms when Taylor and Karlie slay on the catwalk, basking in a friendship that seems larger than life by virtue of their fame and beauty.
These desires reveal a vexed moment in presentations and idealizations of female friendship, a moment where the feminist impulse to interrogate troubled intimacy uncomfortably coexists with an unshakable attraction towards idealized female friendships between celebrities like Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss. And Swift, it seems, permits these semi-contradicting interests to coexist without philosophical implosion. She presents herself as unattainably glamorous, yes, but also as a genuinely good egg who found feminism when she welcomed Lena into her orbit. She perpetuates the fantasy that true romance between female friends can exist without the sullying influence of petty self-involvement and jealousy — two ubiquitous elements of the relationships on Girls.
In the era of the Bechdel test, we’re hungry for representations of female friendships that exist on their own terms, relationships that are totally untethered to the love of dudes. Taylor’s friendships in particular perpetuate a fantasy of a world apart from men. Headlines marvel at her turn from Joe Jonas and Jake Gyllenhaal to Lena, Karlie, and a host of other famous women. But increasingly, the media has been fascinated with the way friendship can veer into an intense emotional register usually imagined as the realm of the couple. Last December, the website Autostraddle.com implicitly revered Taylor’s friendship with Karlie as romantic by indulging in a sexy shipping exercise. And just this April, New York Magazine launched “Friends Forever Week” and, accordingly, published a range of articles contemplating different facets of female friendship. In their compilation of famous women’s views on female intimacy, celebrities draw on terms like “romance” and “love affair” as they muse upon the knotted affections bonding women to one another.
We’ve all but said it, and fundamentally, we understand: female friendship, in its charged and intimate iterations and with its sundry and sacrosanct rituals, often thwarts the boundary between romantic and platonic love, laying bare its porousness. Think about how Swift summons the iconography of the couple in her February Vogue photo spread with Kloss: the photo gallery offers up a manicured fairy tale of a honey-kissed holiday for two. Those relationships dwelling in that murky middle between eros and agape often, especially in academic circles, bear the title “romantic” — an increasingly handy signifier as shows like Girls and Broad City reshape dominant portrayals of female intimacy.
But until the media’s recent preoccupation with the subject, close female friendships like the ones seemingly shared by Taylor, Lena, and Karlie have been curiously underdiscussed. And these relationships, to be sure, are by no means a 21st century phenomenon. A discernable culture of romanticized female friendship extends from 19th century Great Britain and America, with literature of the period reflecting idealizations of charged intimacy between women and girls. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, our beloved heroine tucks herself into bed with her dying companion, Helen Burns, so that the lonely children may keep each other close as they say farewell. (Oh, my heart.) Brontë’s Villette, for that matter, chronicles a more mature, fraught intimacy between protagonist Lucy Snowe and the preening Ginevra Fanshawe, a couple attached and physically familiar (if not especially friendly).
And perhaps you’ve come across Christina Rossetti’s orgiastic and utterly bonkers poem Goblin Market, where two sisters confront temptation; one succumbs; and, well, let’s just say that, a century later, in 1973, Playboy could still titillate its readers with an illustrated — and explicitly pornographic — version. I frequently teach Goblin Market to undergraduates, and it consistently raises the same question: “How can two sisters express such ardent intimacy without actually having sex?”
But what counts as having sex? And how do we know Victorian women weren’t having it? Some Victorian women were physically intimate exclusively with one another; still others cultivated passionate friendships that sometimes existed alongside heterosexual marriage. In 1975, historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg produced a slew of diary entries and letters from 19th century American women and girls, their prose overflowing with expressions of devotion and, if they were separated, intense longing.
Some make the case that because men and women inhabited such separate spaces in the world — women together in the home, men commingling in offices and clubs — that it encouraged these passionate bonds. But as literary critic Sharon Marcus points out, women and men did not coexist so separately as we once thought. Across history, circumstance, and context, women have loved other women in ways that defy heteronormative understandings of friendship. My own relationships with women have taught me that the most passionate affection can follow different trajectories than towards sexual desire. But what if that was the destination? Our own sexualities are never static; how could the contours of our friendships be so?
Despite fervent shipping, there’s no evidence that any of Swift’s relationships have forayed into the erotic fantasias imagined. And yet, just as many Victorian female friendships replicated traditional courtship practices, so has Taylor engaged the tools available to her generation (i.e., Twitter and Tumblr) to forge bonds — and even to ever so delicately envelope her fans into the fold. “Swiftmas,” Swift’s mission to surprise a lucky coterie of fans with Christmas presents, evokes, in its grandiosity, the clichéd narrative of the high school quarterback turning up unannounced with flowers, chocolate, and concert tickets. Of course, Swiftmas did not reshape the dynamic between Swift and the recipients of holiday bounty, but the gesture was a romantic one all the same.
Her friendship with Lena Dunham — that is, what we know of it — hearkens a more conventional engagement of female romance. The two women formed an allegiance after exchanging messages on Twitter that were an eruption of shared admiration. Swift’s account of these beginnings — purported agitation that perhaps Dunham didn’t actually love her music the way she loved Girls, Dunham’s eagerness to “lavish [her] with praise in person” — perhaps fall under the umbrella of what we lately refer to as “fangirling.” But to “fangirl” implies a uniquely feminized mode of idolizing — and romanticizing — a person you admire.
Or we might draw on that vague term “girl crush” — it’s not a synonym of “fangirl,” exactly, but a near neighbor implying greater familiarity that, despite the chastening effect of “girl,” belies a charged attachment in tension with the term’s devil-may-care usage. The galloping trajectory of Dunham and Swift’s relationship from mutual fangirls to mutually enamored best friends suggests a version of zero-to-sixty romantic female friendship that simultaneously reduces the gap between Dunham and mainstream culture and awards Taylor legitimacy as a feminist icon. It’s as if Swift’s early representations of romance like the sweet Cinderella-Shakespeare mélange of her “Love Story” video has been tucked aside. Instead, she takes scissors to men’s Brooks Brothers basics and refashions herself as a woman nurturing herself through devoted intimacies with women.
And it is that — the keen awareness of her self-fashioning, of self-fashioning as inherent to anyone’s life — which gives me pause when I marvel at her embraces with Dunham or her dreamy jaunt to Big Sur, California, with Kloss. Hurtling headlong into intimacies with famous women while nimbly balancing the wave of pop stardom and a girl power sensibility — it’s not simply appealing but resonant. Even as Swift embodies privileged, untouchable fame — the variety of fame available to a dollfaced, white songstress — she is always trying so damned hard. Swift has never concealed her desire to be loved; it underpins her oeuvre. But of course she wants us to love her too, and that yearning seeps into her Instagram and Twitter accounts, rinsing her words and likeness in a mild, fetching solicitude: “I’m doing this right, aren’t I? Aren’t we having fun?”
Perhaps I’m projecting my own vulnerabilities onto Swift, but she has nonetheless provided the ideal canvas for my self-centered interpretation. And of course, others are as repelled as I am endeared. She’s a Pinterest board made flesh, a poor little rich girl purporting to speak for the unwashed masses. She’s utterly bogus and endlessly calculating. So she is, my more skeptical self agrees. Yet in her posturing, Swift belies an effort that above all registers as a young woman who loves her stardom and her friends — and who is terrified of the slightest misstep. Swift seduces me into girlish dreams of fame where genuine feminist friendship and larger than life glamour share equal footing. She commands my empathy, however misplaced, through a choreographed public life implying a barely submerged, authentic anxiety. She seems piercingly aware that everything could crumple underneath her perfect feet.
But “celebrity” and “authenticity” interplay in vexed ways, and Swift’s emotional vulnerability has always been fundamental to her appeal. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen writes often on celebrity image manipulation, and in a deep dive into Swift’s Instagram account, she refers to the pop star’s “Strategic Girlfriend Collecting,” contending that “the friends Swift chooses to present to the world serve to support crucial, carefully crafted components of Swift’s image.” It’s true — Dunham and Kloss alone foster different dimensions of Taylor’s public image, a spectrum that’s rounded out with Lorde, the Haim sisters, and a coterie of other high profile, white women. And whether or not these friendships are as rich and fulfilling as Swift broadcasts, her presentation of romantic female friendship seems to grant them legitimacy. We all fall in love with our dearest girlfriends — so does Swift.
What happens, though, when “blood runs cold” as Swift belts in her recent pop pandemic, “Bad Blood”? The video collects her usual suspects — with lingering attention to both Dunham and Kloss — and fashions them into a nunchaku-wielding, cat suit sporting apocalyptic girl gang. Yet the video’s narrative intimates trouble in paradise. At its beginning, Swift, casting herself as “Catastrophe,” and Arsyn, portrayed by Selena Gomez, brawl with an entourage of blindfolded suits, only for Arsyn to betray her partner in white-collar ass-kicking by pushing her out of the glass-encased high-rise. Catastrophe must then enlist Dunham, rendered mafia queen Lucky Fiori, and her team of crime fighters in order to settle the score. Celebrity gossip pounced on the video as an archetypal blazoning of Taylor Swift’s feud with Katy Perry, and this interpretation, if not fully corroborated, has not been denied.
The video imagines a patent leather world of female intimacy vastly divergent from Vogue’s gossamer sunbeams — whetted blades, wound-red lipstick, nimble high kicks — but it’s no less idealized. Publicized animosity towards another woman sullies Swift’s fantasy of idyllic squad-dom; it lays bare her own vulnerability to rivalries with obscure or frivolous origins. “Bad Blood” engages a loose plot culminating in two women prepared to come to blows — not, perhaps, circumstances we prefer to romanticize — but its allusions to the cinematic likes of Kill Bill and Sin City beseech us to understand: this is no petty feud; this is justice propelled by heinous betrayal. If we are to interpret Selena Gomez as a proxy for Katy Perry, we should understand that Swift’s own venom is deployed entirely as self-defense.
After all, the lyrics to “Bad Blood” may as well chronicle a vicious romantic breakup: “Did you have to hit me where I’m weak? Baby, I couldn’t breathe / And rub it in so deep — salt in the wound like you’re laughing right at me.” Adopting conventionally heterosexualized tropes of betrayal and heartbreak distinguishes Swift’s female target as an exploiter of her love. Theirs is a romance gone irrevocably sour, and whatever the extent of her portrait’s accuracy, Swift understands that the death of a bosom female friendship can rip at our hearts like any love affair. By casting Dunham and Kloss, Swift emphasizes her emotional reliance upon them both, and places herself in the center of a womancentric universe where bitches will love as fiercely as they battle.
But female romance exceeds its most classic signifiers. The passionate epistles traded between Victorian housewives, however steeped in courtly prose, must have necessarily accompanied the tensions, jealousies, and squabbles so often endemic to our relationships with those who know our most muddy selves. It goes without saying that Taylor’s Sierra-filtered getaways involve something more than blissed out traipses on the beach and earnest nighttime sing-alongs. So we turn to our Daria DVDs for the fierce, conflicted love tethering the titular character and her best friend Jane. We contemplate Hannah and Marnie on Girls, as they co-bathe, dance wildly to Robyn, and — when they tumble into rabbit holes of self-absorption — take each other for granted. We marvel, cautiously, at Swift’s feminist selfie palace; gulp between belly laughs as Girls shows us the hilarious, wretched crimes we commit against the women we love most; and seek to find ourselves somewhere in that wide berth in between.
Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs. 1.1 (1975): 1-29.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer living in Washington, DC. She is the creator of the Fake Friends series at Jezebel.