Camille Paglia takes on Taylor Swift, Hollywood's #GirlSquad culture
This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Girl squads were a hashtag summer craze that may have staying power. Blogs and magazines featured intricate star charts of the constellations of celebrity gal pals clustering around Taylor Swift, Cameron Diaz, Lena Dunham or Tina Fey.
Names appearing on the shifting roster of girl squads include Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon, Selena Gomez, Willow Smith, Kendall Jenner, Sofia Richie, Chloe Sevigny and Karlie Kloss. Hot models Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne bob and weave through several groups. Adele joined the club in November when she dined out in New York with Emma Stone and varsity squad player Jennifer Lawrence.
"Squad" as a pop term emerged from 1990s hip-hop (Hit Squad, Def Squad). It once had a hard, combative street edge, but today it's gone girly and a bit bourgeois. Social media are its primary engine. Perhaps the first star to use stylish Instagrams to advertise her tight female alliances was Rihanna, with moody snaps of herself and bestie Melissa Forde out and about in Los Angeles or lolling seaside on Barbados.
Do girl squads signal the blossoming of an idealistic new feminism, where empowering solidarity will replace mean-girl competitiveness? Hollywood has always shrewdly known that cat-fighting makes great box office. In classic films such as The Women, All About Eve, The Group and Valley of the Dolls, all-star female casts romped in claws-out bitchfests. That flamboyant, fur-flying formula remains vital today in Bravo TV's boffo Real Housewives series, with its avid global following.
A warmer model of female friendship was embodied in Aaron Spelling's blockbuster Charlie's Angels TV show, which was denounced by feminists as a "tits-and-ass" parade but was in fact an effervescent action-adventure showing smart, bold women working side by side in fruitful collaboration. A similar dynamic of affectionate intimacy animated HBO's Sex and the City, whose four feisty, mutually supportive professional women prefigured today's fun-loving but rawly ambitious girl squads.
The entertainment industry has seen feminist spurts come and go. Helen Reddy's 1972 smash hit "I Am Woman" became the worldwide anthem of second-wave feminism. In 1985, Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox did the slamming duet "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves." The Spice Girls encapsulated sex-positive third-wave feminism with their 1997 manifesto Girl Power! Performing at the 2014 Video Music Awards, Beyonce flashed "FEMINIST" in giant letters behind her, but questions were raised about the appropriation of that word by a superstar whose career has always been managed by others, first her parents and now her domineering husband, Jay Z.
With gender issues like pay equity for women actors and writers coming increasingly to the fore, girl squads can be seen as a positive step toward expanding female power in Hollywood, where ownership has been overwhelmingly male since the silent film era. For all its dictatorial overcontrol, however, the early studio system also provided paternalistic protection and nurturance for young women under contract. Marilyn Monroe was a tragic victim of the slow breakdown of that system: The studio made her, but in the end it could not save her from callous predators, including the Kennedys.
Young women performers are now at the mercy of a swarming, intrusive paparazzi culture, intensified by the hypersexualization of our flesh-baring fashions. The girl squad phenomenon has certainly been magnified by how isolated and exposed young women feel in negotiating the piranha shoals of the industry. A dramatic example of their vulnerability was the long-lens pap photo of Swift sitting painfully sad and prim on a Virgin Islands taxi boat after her tumultuous 2013 holiday breakup with pop star Harry Styles.
Given the professional stakes, girl squads must not slide into a cozy, cliquish retreat from romantic fiascoes or communication problems with men, whom feminist rhetoric too often rashly stereotypes as oafish pigs. If many women feel lonely or overwhelmed these days, it's not due to male malice. Women have lost the natural solidarity and companionship they enjoyed for thousands of years in the preindustrial agrarian world, where multiple generations chatted through the day as they shared chores, cooking and child care.
In our wide-open modern era of independent careers, girl squads can help women advance if they avoid presenting a silly, regressive public image -; as in the tittering, tongues-out mugging of Swift's bear-hugging posse. Swift herself should retire that obnoxious Nazi Barbie routine of wheeling out friends and celebrities as performance props, an exhibitionistic overkill that Lara Marie Schoenhals brilliantly parodied in her scathing viral video "Please Welcome to the Stage."
Girl squads ought to be about mentoring, exchanging advice and experience and launching exciting and innovative joint projects. Women need to study the immensely productive dynamic of male bonding in history. With their results-oriented teamwork, men largely have escaped the sexual jealousy, emotionalism and spiteful turf wars that sometimes dog women.
If women in Hollywood seek a broad audience, they must aim higher and transcend a narrow gender factionalism that thrives on grievance. Girl squads are only an early learning stage of female development. For women to leave a lasting mark on culture, they need to cut down on the socializing and focus like a laser on their own creative gifts.
Camille Paglia, 68, remains one of the world's leading cultural critics and is a frequent contributor to THR, where she has written about the intersection of pop culture, politics and religion. "Writing about Taylor Swift is a horrific ordeal for me because her twinkly persona is such a scary flashback to the fascist blondes who ruled the social scene during my youth," she says of analyzing the pop star and her entourage.
Read more essays from THR's Women in Entertainment issue: