Illustration of Taylor Swift, the subject of the new documentary "Miss Americana"
This documentary shows that fame isn't all that it's cracked up to be. (Illustration by Sarah Yu, Duke University)

What Netflix’s ‘Miss Americana’ Teaches Us About the Price of Celebrity

It’s easy to romanticize Taylor Swift’s extremely successful life. What many of us fail to remember is that it can be hard to be famous.

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Illustration of Taylor Swift, the subject of the new documentary "Miss Americana"

It’s easy to romanticize Taylor Swift’s extremely successful life. What many of us fail to remember is that it can be hard to be famous.

My first memory of Taylor Swift is a group of my friends singing “Love Story” on our way home from school, the bright yellow school bus bumping along the roads of our neighborhood. I had no idea what song it was or who sang it, and only came to discover Swift later on as another friend played the “Fearless” album from her radio. Back then, Swift was a country girl, singing her heart out as American’s new sweetheart. As the years have passed, this pop icon has reinvented herself several times, transforming from girl next door to vengeful warrior to, now, the self-possessed woman who features in the Netflix documentary “Miss Americana.”

All of those reinventions haven’t stopped her endless success, though. A 10-time Grammy winner, Swift has risen from small-town country singer to big-time pop icon and role model. With all these victories and an endless presence in the media, it’s easy for the world to assume her life is perfect. However, “Miss Americana” tells a completely different story. The documentary narrates the struggles of Swift’s life, laying bare her emotions for the world to see. With this, we are reminded that even pop icons have struggles, insecurities and sadness.

This not only holds us accountable for our judgements, but also gives us a look into the humanity of the stars we idealize. As many people don’t tend to share their deepest vulnerabilities and struggles on social media, the world only sees the best parts of their lives. This can lead to the misconception that everyone’s lives are perfect, especially those that are famous and successful, like Swift.

Through this documentary, many of us get an inside look into who Swift is as a person, allowing us to relate with her better and feel for her as a person. Therefore, “Miss Americana” teaches us to get in touch with our humanity, empathy and compassion for all people, not just our loved ones or those who don’t hold many advantages.

In many ways, that is exactly what this documentary did for me. It gave me a way to connect with my original love for her music. Since I tend to dismiss mainstream artists because of their popularity, I often forget about the aspect of humanity involved. I forget, as many of us do, that these are people with fears, desires and dreams, instead of the ever-confident and ever-happy facades that we see. We see this because that is what they show us, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I think it is largely related to how money-obsessed our culture is. In many ways, we are led to believe that money equals happiness, even though the research suggests something different. If someone is incredibly wealthy, we perceive them as incredibly happy, because that’s what our culture tells us.

We watch television and encounter hundreds of commercials. These commercials don’t portray sad, lonely people who buy nothing. Instead, they show us a cornucopia of happiness, if only we buy their product. The kids are always happy as they play with their new toys. The couple falls back into their new bed with as much joy as Princess Mia did in Genovia’s castle. The woman looks increasingly confident wearing her new bright pink lipstick.

We are constantly shown that we will be happy and satisfied when we buy the products that brands are trying to market us, so why wouldn’t we believe that money is happiness? Why wouldn’t we assume that those who are wealthy and successful are confident and happy? Therefore, why would we believe that Taylor Swift is anything less than happy in her life?

Sure, many of us can sympathize with the horrors of being stalked by paparazzi, but none of us truly understand this huge invasion of privacy until we’ve experienced it. Just watching the complete lack of freedom and privacy that Swift has to endure throughout “Miss Americana” made it clear in my mind that we, as a mass audience, have no idea what we’re thinking when we assume that her life is perfect. We have no idea what the price of her success is, because we don’t have to live it.

Some could argue that she brought this upon herself. If you choose to be famous, why wouldn’t you be able to handle all the pressures that come with it? However, when you’re 14 years old and dreaming of sending your music out to the world, you’re not thinking of the ways in which society will tear you apart. You’re not thinking about the constant criticism and lack of privacy that comes as a package deal with your dream. Instead, you’re probably dreaming up the many songs that you’re looking to sing in front of crowds and the fans that you could connect with.

Let’s keep in mind that over a decade ago, when Swift rose to fame, the internet wasn’t as developed as it is now. Social media only consisted of a couple platforms, cell phones weren’t at the complete center of our lives yet and news didn’t travel quite as quickly. Who could have guessed that tearing someone apart, famous or not, would become so easy?

This is how “Miss Americana” teaches us about understanding and empathy. It lets us see how devastating it can be when millions of people are leaving hateful comments about you online, how exhausting it can feel when hundreds of people stalk your home and how much work goes in to the Taylor Swift that we see. It forces us to view Swift, and every famous person we look up to, as a person instead of an icon. It makes us appreciate her for all the work that she does.

It also allows us to see her joy. The joy that Swift has while performing on stage is palpable, the genius of watching her write songs is inspirational and the adoration with which she showers her cats is relatable. We start to see parts of ourselves in the people we put on a pedestal and realize that they are, in fact, people, and should be treated as such.

So whether you’re a fan of Taylor Swift or not, “Miss Americana” is about so much more than just Swift’s fame: It’s about humanity and how we need to fight to keep it.

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