When TIME made “Silence Breakers” its Person of the Year for 2017, I breathed an audible sigh of relief. In the lead-up to this announcement, I’d participated in TIME’s Person of the Year reader’s choice poll, sifting through options like President Donald Trump, French president Emmanuel Macron, and North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un.
TIME ultimately picked the same “person” I did: “Silence Breakers,” members of the #MeToo movement, sexual assault and harassment victims who spoke out against their attackers and who, as TIME so aptly noted, refused to stay silent in a world that asked them to. That this collective of people was deemed by TIME’s editors to have had the most influence in 2017 is a welcome moment of respite in a year filled with exhausting and seemingly endless reminders of the misogyny ingrained in our society.
Six women appear on TIME’s 2017 Person of the Year cover: Ashley Judd, Taylor Swift, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, corporate lobbyist Adama Iwu, strawberry picker Isabel Pascual, and an anonymous hospital worker whose largely hidden form pays homage to the many anonymous victims who’ve stepped forward to share their stories. Though the response to TIME’s cover has been overwhelmingly positive, some have derided the magazine’s decision to make Taylor Swift one of its representative “Silence Breakers.”
The Outline’s Ann-Derrick Gaillot argued that “Swift is a conspicuous choice in a package highlighting women who spoke truth to power at all costs.” She’s not wrong. As Gaillot noted in her article, Swift has consistently remained silent when it comes to political issues—most notably during the 2016 election season. Though Swift encouraged her followers to vote on Election Day, she didn’t voice opinions about either candidate; though she tweeted her support for January’s Women’s March, she made no mention of the overwhelmingly sexist president-elect who’d taken office the day before.
Being politically active or outspoken shouldn’t be a job requirement for any celebrity, but it speaks volumes when someone like Swift—who has profited from much of what a specific brand of white feminism has to offer—decides to stay silent when women-centric political issues are at stake. (To quote Swift’s own “The Story of Us,” “I’ve never heard silence quite this loud.”)
Gaillot went on to argue that “it’s absurd and disingenuous to ignore how [Swift] has nurtured and exploited silence in other areas for her own personal gain” and that “[her] presence…seems especially cynical considering the many other brave, famous people who could have filled that slot.” She’s not the only one to reach that conclusion.
“I really wish Terry Crews, Gabrielle Union, Lupita, Kesha, or Tarana had been featured on the cover over T**lor S**ft,” Lara Witt, a freelance writer and editor, tweeted (emphasis hers). “What I am saying doesn’t minimize what happened to her, but she somehow always manages to get centered within discussions she is never vocal about.” Another Twitter user added, “So, how are we calling Taylor Swift ‘silence breaker’ when the only time she bothered to break her silence is when the sh*t happened to her?”
I understand these arguments. I, too, find Swift’s commodification of feminism rather disingenuous—and transparently so. It’s frustrating, albeit a little naive, to consider that if Swift had leveraged her fan-base during the 2016 election, things may have turned out differently. (“Who is Taylor Swift voting for?” was one of the most-searched Google queries on Election Day, and her Election Day Instagram was one of the most-liked, as well.)
But none of this invalidates her experience as a sexual assault victim, and it certainly doesn’t overshadow the strong, thoughtful, and powerful message sent by her testimony and subsequent contribution to charities affecting survivors of assault.
In 2013, Swift was at a Denver meet-and-greet when David Mueller, a DJ at a local radio station, reached under her skirt and groped her. “Right as the moment came for us to pose for the photo, he took his hand and put it up my dress and grabbed onto my ass cheek,” Swift later said in a filmed deposition. “No matter how much I scooted over, it was still there.”
Mueller was subsequently removed from the venue, permanently banned from attending Taylor Swift concerts, and fired from his job. In 2015, Mueller filed a defamation lawsuit against Swift and a few others, claiming that her allegations cost him his job. She responded by filing an assault and battery countersuit, asking for just $1 in damages, to prove a point.
Throughout the lawsuit, Swift was frank and confident. When Mueller’s lawyer suggested that Swift could have called the police after the incident, she replied, “Your client could have taken a normal photo with me.” When asked if she was critical of her bodyguard for not stopping the assault, she replied, “No, I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my bare ass.” And when asked if she felt bad that Mueller lost his job, she replied, “I’m not going to allow you or your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault…I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions and not mine.”
Swift’s testimony dispelled so many of the harmful myths lobbed at sexual assault victims when they come forward—namely that they deserved it, or that they could have done something differently, or that they should feel accountable for ruining their hapless assailant’s life.
That Swift was able to give such a clear, confident account of what happened—and that she was able to come forward, be believed, and ultimately win her case—is a function of privilege, which Swift has recognized. “I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society, and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this,” Swift said in a statement. “My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard. Therefore, I will be making donations in the near future to multiple organizations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves.”
Swift’s privilege—and her affinity for political silence—don’t invalidate her experience as a sexual assault victim, and they shouldn’t diminish the importance of her testimony, either. She used her platform to fight an important battle, and in doing so, had a tangible impact; sexual assault hotlines saw a surge in calls in the wake of her lawsuit.
It’s also worth noting that TIME’s Person of the Year cover paints a diverse portrait of sexual assault and harassment victims. Swift is just one face of a movement that’s so much bigger than she is—so much bigger than any of us are. Her presence on the cover signifies that sexual assault and harassment can and do happen to all kinds of people, and that no one—no matter how wealthy, powerful, or famous—is immune from the misogyny that pervades our culture.
On the cover, Swift stands alongside Judd, who “started talking about Harvey [Weinstein] the minute that it happened.” She was the first star to go on the record about Weinstein in the New York Times, effectively opening the floodgates for the deluge of sexual assault and harassment allegations that emerged over the following weeks. Swift stands alongside Fowler, who wrote a blog post that revealed the widespread sexual harassment in Uber’s company culture, and Iwu, who organized a movement to expose sexual harassment in California government, and Pascual, who was stalked by an abuser. And she stands alongside the anonymous hospital worker, who was harassed at her workplace, and who represents so many more who remain silent for fear of retribution, distrust, and other repercussions.
Considered together, these women communicate that there is no “right” way to be a victim; this point is an incredibly important one to make in light of the “perfect victim” fallacy that’s so often wielded to discredit those who come forward. Swift’s fraught history with feminism doesn’t make her any less worthy of justice, belief, or recognition, just as her wealth, fame, and power doesn’t make her any more worthy of it.