When I was 17, I was hired to work in a customer service position for the minor league baseball team in my city. It was my first “real” job and it was kind of a big deal because they’d never hired someone as young as me for the position. Basically, I was like a hostess for minor league baseball fans, so it wasn’t exactly high-stakes, but it felt important to me. I was interested in broadcast journalism and I loved sports, so I thought it would be a good entry point for a potential career in sports journalism. I took it seriously and I was good at it. I was treated well by my overwhelmingly older male colleagues. I trusted them. What I didn’t realize, until several months into the job, was that one particular colleague was convinced he was in love with me. He was 27. He was high-ranking in the organization. He had a Master’s degree. He seemed nice and never made me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have been interested in dating him. He’d never even asked. And yet, it was a running joke in the organization that he was infatuated with me. Me? A 17 year-old girl, excited to be doing so well in her first job, thinking naively that these would be the people who would write me letters of recommendation for college and would point me in the right direction for career opportunities. Instead, I would find out later, they were presenting this man with an award for “most likely to fall in love with a high schooler” at their annual Holiday party and had the song “She’s Only 17” on the pregame music mix that blasted through the stadium as we were prepping for game days as an inside joke meant to poke fun at him. They were all in on it. With no regard for me at all. I was showing up to work thinking someone might notice my ambition, while they were humiliating me in ways I didn’t even know about. In ways I still think about. In ways that meant I didn’t ask anyone there for a letter of recommendation even though I stayed at the organization for another four years. It wasn’t harassment, really, and nothing ever came of it. Who knows if any of those men ever even considered it harmful? I was certainly in no position to tell them. I was only 17, after all.
I’m thinking about this today as I sit down to make some edits on the essay I’ve been writing about Taylor Swift and the release of “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” and the Jake Gyllenhaal of it all. Just as I sat down to edit, a friend sent me a video posted by a popular, sports-themed media network, of a man explaining how crazy it is that Taylor Swift would write a breakup song about someone she only dated for three months, ten years ago. Not just her, but all of her fans, he sputtered, needed to get a grip! Like the hysterical female I am, I was triggered. Taken all the way back to being young and in spaces and relationships that pushed me into powerlessness. And then I realized—maybe 10 years ago “All Too Well” was about the scarf. But now? Now it’s about the keychain.
The “F*ck the Patriarchy keychain on the ground” line, so beautifully delivered in the 10-minute Taylor’s Version of “All Too Well,” isn’t just a cute lyrical anecdote. It’s a reminder to all of us who have ever been silenced or humiliated by a man, or a roomful or a stadium full of men, who were supposed to have our best interests in mind, but were actually actively working to dismiss us while hiding behind the walls of patriarchy that keep them safe from consequence as long as they perform like “good guys” who would never! That kind of protection only works if we either ignore the inherent power differential that comes with age and gender or we make young women out to be irrational or minimal. It works especially well for men who proclaim to be fighting the oppressive systems that they’re directly benefiting from and being protected by.
The F*ck The Patriarchy keychain on the ground? That was Jake’s. He was using it as an armor to hide in plain sight just like he did with the stolen scarf. When you are 19 and you fall for a man who is 30 and you trust that he isn’t intending to harm you because he’s kind to his sister and he makes your dad laugh and he openly acknowledges that patriarchy is problematic by carrying a keychain that declares it?! He’s one of the good ones. He should know better. When you’re 17 and you think you’re safe at work because you are surrounded by men who claim to see your potential and want to support your career because they are also professionals and from what you can tell they are some of the good ones?! They should know better. But this is patriarchy.
Living in patriarchy means that young women should put their trust in older men who seem worthy of it, and even if those men steal their scarves or steal their songs or turn them into a running joke, it’s not something to take seriously. It was only three months. It was only a joke. Why are you making such a big deal out of this? A lifetime of patriarchy has taught us that men can do whatever they want with very little consequence as long as they keep it light and also collect symbols of solidarity to prove they don’t actually mean it and as long as the women they harm are too emotional or too young to get the joke.
With the release of Red (Taylor’s Version) we not only witness a woman taking back every ounce of her power, we also get the chance to make meaning of our own experiences of patriarchy and know that whatever we felt and however we express it is real and right. At the premiere of the video for “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”, Extra TV reporter Cheslie Kryst asked Taylor who the song was about. Taylor quickly shifted the focus to her fans. It isn’t who the songs are about that matters. It’s who the songs are for that is important, and that’s all of us. She wants us to know about her heartbreaks because she wants us to know our own. She wants us to understand that our Gyllenhaals were real and the pain and confusion we felt because of them were valid emotional responses to situations we never deserved.
I wish I’d had the 10-minute “All Too Well” experience when I was 17. Or 19. Or even 25. I wish I’d seen someone like Taylor Swift expressing every emotion about a man who should have known better and been better. It might have given me a stronger voice in times I really needed one. It might have helped me realize that it wasn’t my fault that I was young and under-experienced and more trusting than I am now. It might have been the reason I asked for a well-deserved letter of recommendation instead of walking away too humiliated to ask for anything at all.
So my point is this—Jake, you can keep the scarf. We’ve moved on. But we do need you to hand over that keychain. It’s not working for you anymore.
Image: Taylor Swift / YouTube