Miss Americana and the Heartbreaking Impossibility of Being Good

When Being the “Good Girl” Isn’t Good

Charlotte Donlon / 2.20.20

When I watched the new documentary about Taylor Swift, Miss Americana, I couldn’t help but see some of the elements from the story of my life portrayed in the story of her life. I know that sounds silly. I’m a 44-year-old mom of two teenagers who hasn’t been out past 10PM in months, years. I’m an ordinary person without millions of adoring fans, without a squad of famous models and musicians. People don’t wait outside the entrance to my condo hoping to catch a glimpse of me on my way to the gym or Trader Joe’s or the library.

But when I watched this particular narrative of Swift’s life and career, I connected with many plot points. Being the good girl because everyone around you wants (and needs?) you to be the good girl. Not knowing who you are until your 30s because up until that point, you had tried to be who others thought you should be. Trying, unsuccessfully, to fit into certain boxes that define what it means to be an ideal Christian woman who doesn’t cause any trouble. Struggling with feelings of all sorts of loneliness for all sorts of reasons, one being that you are too different from those around you. And working so hard to prove you have it all together, then crashing—which in my case means winding up in an inpatient psychiatric facility and suffering from the effects of bipolar I disorder.

I imagine other viewers of Miss Americana have felt a similar solidarity. Many of our stories have followed this trajectory. We try to be who our parents or spouses or bosses want us to be—or who we think they want us to be. Our happiness is based on praise and adulation. We dream of having more—more success, more influence, more power. We are lonely even if we aren’t alone and we wonder if anyone will ever really see us or know us. We hit rock bottom. Everything falls apart. We wonder how we will pick up the pieces.

In the same way that the lyrics of Swift’s songs don’t tell the whole story of her life and career, Miss Americana doesn’t tell the whole story of her life and career. But the film does shed light on the hardships she endured in her teens and twenties—an eating disorder, a sexual assault and eventual litigation against her perpetrator, her mother’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, the Kanye West controversy, the other Kanye West controversy, and her fall from the public’s adoration. This last event was particularly impactful. “When people fall out of love with you, there’s nothing you can do to make them change their minds,” she said. “They just don’t love you anymore. I just wanted to disappear.”

The film suggests that Swift struggled with her identity—who she was and who she wanted to be—for much of her life. She finally arrived at a point where she said she no longer wanted to be defined by others. She pulled back from the public eye. No one saw her for about a year. And it seemed like when she re-emerged, she had a greater sense of delight, freedom, and authenticity. She seemed to belong to herself instead of to everyone else.

Miss Americana shows several glimpses of a changed Swift—the exhilarating “Aha!” moment while discovering the perfect lyrics for a new song, how she let go of others’ expectations and began to use her own voice (beyond her singing) to speak up about issues she supported and denounce things she was against, and the joy with which she described a video she planned to make, exclaiming that it will be full of “everything that makes me me!”

Some of us who have had similar moments of clarity have taken time to try to learn from our mistakes, grow from our experiences, and heal from our wounds. Some of us have read self-help books or studied the results of various personality tests that claim to tell us everything about ourselves and everyone around us. Some of us have sought God because we discovered (when the self-help books and personality test results didn’t come through for us) that God is all we had all along, echoing the psalmists who cried in Psalm 86:6, “Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace.”


Even if we cry out and believe our identity is defined by who we are in God, we usually discover we aren’t as “fixed” as we thought we were. Having self-awareness and insight about who we are and desiring to change doesn’t mean we will necessarily be rid of all of our old ways. Seeking God, crying out for mercy and grace, even believing the gospel — none of this will necessarily remove all of our wounds and bad habits. Our slippery memories forget, again and again. We forget everything we thought we knew when we remembered who we are. We discover some of who we used to be is still here. We are reminded that all of the bad things and all of the sad things haven’t been undone.

Maybe that’s why Swift still seemed burdened by the expectations of others, by the expectations of herself, after she declared she wanted be free from them. While working on a new music video, she claims with self-disdain that she has a “slap-able face.” The director of the video looks uneasy, not knowing how to respond. When “Reputation” doesn’t win any Grammys, Swift says, stricken, “I just need to make a better album.” And that is what “Lover” was supposed to be. Since that album’s release in August 2019, it has won several awards but none of the coveted Grammys for which the album and its songs were nominated. We don’t have any video footage of how she responded this time.

While Swift is finding her voice and becoming more confident about some things, she is still performing. I get it. I do the same thing. And because I know what it’s like to keep performing to gain the approval of others when you thought you had stopped, I know that neither Swift nor I are free. We are not yet all of who we were made to be.

James Bryan Smith writes that our identity should form and influence our behavior, but we live in a world where our behavior determines our identity. Miss Americana is a great example of what it looks like to live in a world where our behavior determines our identity. The good news of Christianity, in Smith’s words, is that our “fundamental identity…is not up for grabs; it is not subject to change, regardless of our behavior.”

In Miss Americana, Swift’s greater sense of belonging to herself is portrayed when she displays a newfound boldness and confidence. But remnants of who she no longer wants to be remain. They are like stage makeup that won’t wash off, waterproof mascara that stains. I want to believe that Swift’s movement toward belonging to herself, as well as her openness about her Christian faith, means that her overall sense of belonging is growing, too. If all of our belongings are dependent on our belonging to God, maybe so. Perhaps this is what has happened, or what is continuing to happen. Or, maybe because God is a gracious God, Swift, and all of us, already belong as we are—regardless of our various statuses, regardless of whether or not we remember our identities, regardless of how much self-awareness and insight we might have.