No one likes a mad woman: What Taylor Swift tells us about gaslighting and manipulation

Alessandra Rey

No one likes a mad woman, You made her like that
And you’ll poke that bear ’til her claws come out
And you find something to wrap your noose around
And there’s nothin’ like a mad woman

Taylor swift

An oscillating, light and composed piano tingle underpinned by a gentle, temperate strum of strings introduces Taylor Swift’s mad woman. 2020 saw the release of Swift’s Folklore and I gravitated to, and instantly treasured, the ingenuity of mad woman. Upon watching Swift’s Long Pond Studio Sessions, in which she performs her folklore tracks live and shares her own thoughts and feelings behind the songs, Swift spoke of mad woman in a way that amplified the song’s meaning to me even more. Swift describes how the ‘most rage-provoking element’ of the female experience is the phenomenon of which, after centuries of ‘silent absorption’ of ‘gaslighting’ or any awful behaviour that is ‘absolutely out of line’, the defensive response to that behaviour is seen as the ‘offence itself’. After so many years in which women have been expected to silently ‘absorb’ harmful behaviour, without any resistance and without advocating for themselves, when those women do defend themselves or advocate for themselves, that in and of itself is seen as the unpardonable or unforgivable wrongdoing. When Swift spoke of that phenomenon she had identified, it really resonated with me – not only as I feel like it has personally happened to me, but because I have also seen it happen to my friends, and in the media.

I first of all want to make clear that I don’t think this phenomenon is subject to a male-female dynamic. I have experienced and observed that regardless of gender, when defending yourself, asserting boundaries, or contending awful treatment,   both men and women might dub this defence inexcusable.  As Swift writes in the song, ‘women like hunting witches too’. I think what we’re talking about is a phenomenon of people, rather than something subject to gender. The pattern that I have observed is that when you try to live your life as someone considerate to others, or someone that tends not to assert boundaries or your voice, the moment that you do, it is seen as a crime. It is somewhat inextricable from constantly trying to please others; the moment that you do stand up for yourself against poor treatment, it is often viewed by others as even worse, because you haven’t necessarily had to assert your boundaries prior. This idea calls back to Swift positing the expectation of ‘silent absorption’, emphasising that when you are not silent to poor treatment, that is offensive in and of itself. Furthermore, as this phenomenon plays out, I have often noticed a twisting or manipulation of facts. When there is initial maltreatment, and that is responded to, the victim’s response is consistently fixated upon and twisted, with disregard to context and the initial offence. 

Taylor Swift’s mad woman, performed for the Long Pond Studio Sessions

Swift fans deduced that the song is alluding to what occurred with Swift concerning her masters: to summarise, her masters were sold without her consent to someone that she states bullied her ‘incessantly’, despite her persistent vocalisation of her desire to own her own masters. It appears most likely that Swift was speaking of this in the Long Pond Studio sessions. Something unjust happened to her, her response was seen as the offence itself, and Swift’s part in the situation was twisted to make her seem unreasonable or awful. Refraining to comment on all of this explicitly, Swift’s remarks in the Long Pond Studio Session were extraordinarily apt and echo what happens to so many, both on a small and large scale. I feel as though this has happened to me several times, and I’ve witnessed it happen to my friends. I can’t speak for everyone, but it can feel so deeply unjust, isolating, and agonising. The result can be traumatic and damaging. Swift’s use of the word ‘gaslighting’ is pertinent as well, because what often occurs in these sort of situations is a manipulation of what really happened, by leading the person who responded to the manipulator’s treatment or offence to feel like the offender.

What I still can never comprehend is how, when the victim vocalises their feelings that they have been treated poorly, the manipulator’s response to that vocalisation is often primarily anger or indignation, rather than concern or care for the victim’s feelings.. It feels like an utter disregard for empathy or understanding, and often feels extremely self-centred. I don’t understand why, having hurt another human being, some people forgo respect, calm and composure, kindness, empathy, consideration, and  mutual understanding.

“Women have been expected to silently ‘absorb’ harmful behaviour […] when those women do defend themselves or advocate for themselves, that in and of itself is seen as the unpardonable or unforgivable wrongdoing.”

To highlight and analyse some of Swift’s lyrics in her song that I appreciate: The lines that resonate with me most are: ‘And you’ll poke that bear ’til her claws come out / And you find something to wrap your noose around / And there’s nothing like a mad woman’. These lines are so poignant as they utterly describe the suffocating and manipulative nature of this phenomenon. That someone can be taunted or treated poorly for an extended period of time, ‘pok[ing] that bear’, and the victim responds to the ill-treatment ‘til her claws come out’, and that response is then throttled by the manipulator, who persecutes and torments that response. As I have outlined, whilst I believe in greeting even the most out-of-line behaviour with respect, composure, and dignity, the fact that the context of the initial offence is so often completely disregarded or contorted as soon as the victim’s ‘claws come out’ infuriates me as flagrantly unjust. 

Another line that is poignant to me is: ‘Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy / What about that? /And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry’. This identifies the manipulator’s tendency to respond to legitimate feelings or defence in a completely de-legitimizing or invalidating way, disregarding the victim’s  part. The line ‘it’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together’ is a very astute reflection, that oftentimes, this phenomenon can lead to group cruelty, pitting others against someone; getting carried away with anger or hatred towards someone can provide a semblance of ‘closeness’. Finally, the line ‘you took everything from me’ resonates deeply, and perfectly conveys how scarring and painful this phenomenon can feel to be on the receiving end of.

“You cannot control how people will treat you or talk about you, but you can always control who you let into your life.”

There isn’t much you can do if a person is going to be unkind and unreasonable and see the world from a self-absorbed perspective that results in unjust cruelty towards you. It happens time and time again. It’s known that you can try and do everything right, you can try and do the best you can do, and try to be as fair and considerate as you can, but people can dislike you and still perceive things the way that they will, and this results in unkindness towards you. You can’t reason with the unreasonable, nor can you force someone to be kind or empathetic. I have, and continue to find this, incredibly, almost impossibly, difficult to accept. I consistently try to remind myself that I am not obligated to be friends with anyone, nor am I obligated to accept anyone who mistreats me. It can be quite hard to accept the idea of kindness coexisting with defending yourself, and feeling obligated to be friends with everyone, or letting yourself be treated poorly. I can’t comprehend the idea of having someone in my life that isn’t kind or considerate, and so I tell myself that it’s okay to not be friends with someone who doesn’t treat me or others kindly. It’s okay if someone doesn’t like you, as long as you feel that you have done the best you can in conducting yourself considerately and respectfully towards them. You cannot control how people will treat you or talk about you, but you can always control who you let into your life, and who your friends are, and that’s truly what matters. 

Feature image credit: @PopBase on Twitter

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