The Sound of Pen students spent two sessions listening to ‘folklore’ and exploring the position of women in love. Here’s an essay built from the ideas discussed!

  • MUSIC FOCUS: Taylor Swift.
  • ACTIVITY FOCUS: Sharpen your ability to define a convincing and compelling essay.

How does Taylor Swift use ‘folklore’ to explore ideas about love and the female position?

For Taylor Swift’s women, love is a reductive experience.

On ‘cardigan’, the songwriter tells us that the relationship being described is defined by the kissing: “in cars and downtown bars.” It’s as if the affair is being confined to small spaces, being deliberately kept out of sight and limited. Then, there are the connotations of “downtown” to consider: typically, it’s the area of a city associated with commercial dealings – the business hub. Perhaps we’re being encouraged to note the transactional nature of this relationship – or maybe we’re being prompted to think about the patriarchal structure of the corporate world, and how actually men expect their personal situations to follow a similar set of male-established rules.

Which leaves Swift’s female characters with two options: to fall in line or rebel against the unequal way of things. On ‘the last great american dynasty’, we hear about Rebekah, a woman who decides not to act in the way she’s been instructed to. And so she gets the blame when things go wrong: “Who knows if she never showed up, what could’ve been; the maddest woman this town has ever seen.” That superlative – “maddest” – absolutely underlines the position of women. To contradict the expectations, as established by the patriarchy, is to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Which feels pretty ironic – surely anyone expecting half of the world’s population to adhere to an invented stereotype must be verging on insanity themselves?

But doesn’t that just highlight the oblivious nature of the men in these women’s lives. They can’t see the situation for what it is and they certainly don’t understand – or even hear – the woman when she tries to articulate her experience. “I gave so many signs,” Swift sings, over and over, on ‘exile’. The repetition is worth noting. Her partner is not listening to her. Her words count for nothing. Is there any quicker way to reduce a person than to take away their voice? No wonder that, on ‘my tears ricochet’, we find the speaker, “Weepin’ in a sunlit room.” The juxtaposition between the “sunlit” setting and her state of mind speaks volumes for the position of women in love. She asks whether she deserved, “All the hell you gave me?” Given that hell symbolises the worst imaginable nightmare of a situation – reserved for the most terrible of sinner – we can assume not. But the metaphor certainly draws our attention to the idea of the male as the devil, and the perpetual, frightening position of women (in love or otherwise) throughout time.

Which perhaps explains why the woman is prepared to play the part of: “mirrorball”. The metaphor gives us an insight into the woman’s need to objectify herself – her need to serve as a reflection of the people around her – her need to please others before she pleases herself. The woman has been taught to hide her real self, and the mirrorball’s multi-angled nature means the man can choose the angle he views her from. The fragmented makeup of a mirrorball zooms us in, too, on the fragmented nature of women across time. Never can a women be her complete, unbroken self. Her glittering surface cannot possibly represent the full reality of her.

Even if a women is deemed worthy of love, the ephemeral nature of that affection ensures we end up questioning whether it was really love in the first place. “Please picture me, in the trees,” Swift sings on ‘seven’, “I hit my peak at seven.” The idea that a female’s value is inextricably linked to her innocence might be uncomfortable but it’s a notion that’s present across time and culture. The speaker tells us she’s: “Over the creek,” – and whether the “creek” is a metaphor for her own dreams or her fate as a woman in a man’s world, it’s no wonder she’s, “too scared to jump in.” To follow her own ambitions (as evidenced earlier by Rebekah) is to risk being ostracised; to grow up and accept her lot is to make a sacrifice of profound proportions. Either way, the act of jumping into the creek is dangerous.

Yet, the woman remains hopeful and that fact is testament to her enormous strength (a strength present under the surface of every lyric explored here). On ‘august’, the speaker says she’s: “livin’ for the hope of it all.” The sense of longing is affecting. Especially when taken in context of ‘this is me trying’. As hopeful as she is, she is also knowing. “They told me all of my cages were mental,” the speaker remembers and you can almost hear her raising her eyebrows and rolling her eyes. And perhaps it’s this particular lyric that really encapsulates the position of women in love. The pronoun “they” is indicative of the speaker’s minority role – the majority is clearly male – and the foregrounding of ‘they’ is telling too; the men are at the front of every line, shouting loudly and trying their best to dictate what happens in the remainder of each moment. And the metaphorical “cages” they refer to? Those are the obstacles they accuse women of imagining. This kind of gaslighting makes the female reality even more terrifying. If the men aren’t acknowledging that there’s even a problem, how will the problem ever get fixed?

This, then, is what Taylor Swift has to say about love and the female position: firstly, she defines love as very different for the man and woman involved in a relationship. The woman needs to be adaptable and flexible in the way a man does not. A man can pretend that love is an equal experience, but a woman has to accept that it’s not. Ultimately, ‘folklore’ depicts a world in which a woman is forced to bend and shapeshift. No doubt, a woman is multi-layered (as frightened as she is tough, as knowing as she is hopeful etc.) but too often ‘love’ reduces her to a one-dimensional form. How depressing.


How does a writer of your choice use a text of your choice to explore ideas about love and the female position?

Perhaps you’ll find these words useful:

  • reductive
  • limited
  • rebellious
  • oblivious
  • frightened
  • objectified
  • fragmented
  • ephemeral
  • ostracised
  • longing
  • knowing
  • flexible
  • F frightened/fragmented/flexible
  • O oblivious/objectified
  • L limited
  • K knowing
  • L longing
  • O ostracised
  • R rebellious
  • E ephemeral

Please do send your work in. I want to publish the most exciting answers and offer advice.

Now, explore the use of light/dark imagery!