I’ll confess that I’ve avoided writing a piece like this for a long time. I was afraid a reading that hinged so much on two figures who happened to share a last name would come across as a gimmick. I think I was afraid because I, too, so often feel like I might be a gimmick, a trans woman who writes about transness in the eighteenth century. I wore sparkly pink nail polish—strategically coordinated to my blush pink blazer—the first time I gave a paper at an academic conference suggesting that Jonathan Swift’s work was loaded with transgender sorrow. I spent much of the presentation warding off what I felt were inevitable criticisms about the seeming anachronism of reading transness into the eighteenth century, feeling implicitly Sianne Ngai’s claim that a gimmick is that which insists on its contemporaneity despite its obvious anachronism. What, then, could be a bigger gimmick than an essay that links an American pop star of the twenty-first century with an Irish satirist of the eighteenth?
But Taylor Swift and Jonathan Swift are not as unlikely a pair as they might initially seem. For one, both are prolific artists that in some sense typify their respective eras. Jonathan Swift is easily among the most representative Augustan poets, and Taylor Swift has dominated radio pop for so long that most of my students were in diapers when her career began. Both artists also seem to draw a lot of ire. Taylor’s past reputation (her Reputation, if you will) as a vapid, boy-crazy rich girl isn’t so far off from Jonathan’s notoriety as a mere peddler of obscene, misogynist trash. It’s this very public messiness that I find so fascinating about “The Two Swifts.” What is it about these figures that keep us coming back again and again, even long after many had dismissed their careers as the artistic equivalent of junk food?
The Augustans of Jonathan Swift’s day, of course, reveled in the sort of nasty back-and-forth that so much of their work is animated by. Alexander Pope is notorious for depicting the authoress Eliza Haywood in a literal pissing contest with a poet and a bookseller, for example. I recall a colleague at another academic conference asserting that the eighteenth century was a “very mean” period. Jonathan Swift was no stranger to this; he probably wasn’t too surprised by Lady Montagu’s poem depicting him as an impotent lecher, written in retaliation to his own poem that cast women as slimy, shit-filled deceivers. The haters gonna hate.
Taylor, too, is known for feuds. So many and so complex are they that entire articles exist merely to explain who her various songs are connected to: “Bad Blood” to Katy Perry, “Look What You Made Me to Do” to Kanye West, and so on. This is not even to mention her litany of breakup songs, perhaps the most enduring legacy of her pop country career, in which she investigates and reveals the various insults, traumas, and personal mistakes that her very real romances have contained. Much has been written about this aspect of Taylor’s career too, perhaps most notably Megan Schuster’s excellent piece for The Ringer which calls Swift “the queen of the breakup song.”
But what interests me beneath all this mess—be it heartbreaking boys or shitting Celias—is the very raw vulnerability of both Swifts. Following Reputation, Taylor Swift has leaned hard into vulnerability. Lover saw her singing about her struggles with her career managers, celebrating her body and how good it felt to use it, examining the broken pieces of her once squeaky-clean Christianity in light of her mother’s cancer. Her documentary Miss Americana (released around the same time) saw her laughing about her reputation as the “breakup queen” and admitting that she simply enjoyed writing in the genre. In Miss Americana, Taylor talked about her eating disorder, too. Glancing between the camera and out of a car window as she discussed watching back concert footage of her performances—in which she was already performing dizzy from lack of nutrition—Taylor confessed to feeling disgusted with her body. It came as something of a relief when folklore and its sister album evermore dropped, containing sincere celebrations of Taylor’s growth as a human and tender tracks that demonstrated her ability to stop gazing so painfully at her own navel. Once bona fide Taylor haters now find themselves begrudgingly nodding their heads to her new indie pop style, mouthing along as Taylor marvels at sending presents to her exes’ babies.
Jonathan Swift was vulnerable, too. This is a harder sell for most people, I think. Swift’s writing is filled with talking horses and excrement in the city streets and recipes for roasted infants. But Jonathan—like so many of us who grew up as soft, bookish boys with a strange relationship to girls—is hiding something by being funny. Between all the fart jokes and giant boobs, what we find is a man who had charming, intimate relationships with women—a man who wrote them sweet birthday odes that are achingly cute. To an aging “Stella,” Jonathan waxed poetic about her eternally-assured beauty, for his eyesight was declining more rapidly than her wrinkles were coming in! So, I suppose it’s natural to wonder what the exact nature of Swift’s relationship to Stella was: whether he was secretly married to her as the rumors said, whether he consummated that marriage. And I think the answer is no, for that is the other vulnerability beneath Swift’s humor. For every poem that we might brand misogynist, I see a poet working through his utter confusion about the female bodies his society demanded he be attracted to. I see an asexual man rebelling against allonormativity. I see a trans woman obsessing over bodies she wishes she could inhabit.
And here’s where it gets juicy, for the Two Swifts also invite a certain queer reading, never to be confirmed by the subjects themselves. How come Jonathan’s work is so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of sex with women? How come Taylor keeps writing love songs to women, cunningly couched from male points of view? Why does Jonathan ruminate on castration? Why does Taylor—an artist known for her love of coy symbols and clues—make such heavy use of the colors found on the bisexual pride flag? What’s up with that video of her in drag?
But of course, the Swifts never tell. It’s their most compelling quality, I think: that wild vulnerability peeking out behind a thin veil of artistic license. In this way Jonathan fits right into his own century, a time loaded with masquerades and nighttime trysts and secret letters. His work is that tantalizing slice of face beneath the domino, the ankle exposed in a pair of breeches. And Taylor, I think, reveals that we haven’t changed so much, really. She writes about London boys, illicit affairs, Dear John letters. And all the time, she truly gives so little to her adoring public, assured in our ability to hunt out and obsess over the smallest details of her work. Her songs are the “mirrorball” fascinating “masquerade revelers,” just as surely as Jonathan Swift’s “satire [was] a sort of glass wherein beholders…discover everybody’s face but their own.”
The brilliance of both artists is clear, then. They know their audience, know us. We are a people who gaze, who guess, who try to pin down identities. Jonathan and Taylor live (or did live) their lives under the weight of a thousand stares. But when we start to see them together, these Two Swifts, that’s when we start to understand that we voyeurs are also the observed. Jonathan and Taylor, the Two Swifts, always gazing back.
Julia Ftacek (she/her) is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Western Michigan University. Her research interests include trans femininity in literature and culture of the long eighteenth century and LGBT literature pedagogy. She is in the top 2% of Taylor Swift fans on Spotify.