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The heterosexual agenda has been reset.
For the past few weeks, if we’re using social media as a proxy for reality, conversations between boy-girl couples have been all about the Roman Empire: Women everywhere were asking their male partners how often they thought about it. It turns out some men reckon that they think about it a lot, many ladies were bewildered—and somewhat dubious—to discover. But then Taylor Swift sauntered into a suite at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, to take in a football game on Sunday. Her rumored new beau, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, was playing, and she was there to cheer him on. I’m not saying we’re completely done talking emperors and gladiators, but suddenly there was a new No. 1 topic du jour among boyfriends and girlfriends—if all the posts in my various feeds are to be trusted, anyway.
Where the Roman Empire divided couples, the story goes, Taylor Swift is uniting them. “I would just like to thank Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce for giving husbands and wives something to talk about this football/Gilmore Girls season,” announced one woman in a TikTok video that has more than 500,000 views. “These months can be long, but now, couples all across America have something to gossip about. Do I think they’re actually dating? No. Am I gonna watch football now? No. But did my husband send me a Reel of football announcers making Taylor Swift references? Yes, and I think that’s really special.”
The ratings for Sunday’s game reflected all the interest among fans who don’t normally tune in for football, with Fox Sports reporting an upswing in viewership among younger, female viewers. On other social media platforms, Swifties attempted to educate one another on the basics of football.
FOOTBALL EXPLAINER FOR THOSE CONFUSED
you have 4 tries (downs) to go 10 yards, if you do you keep the ball and the cycle repeats, and if you don’t the other team gets it
you can score touchdowns for 6 points or kick a field goal for 3
thats basically all you need to know
— shannon (is celebrating 1989 tv! ) (@holygroundsound) September 24, 2023
Maybe it was a stretch to say Swift’s appearance at the football game brought all couples together, though: Elsewhere on TikTok, a trend emerged that encouraged women to bait the men in their lives by marveling about how Swift was really putting Kelce on the map, by showing up at his little game. Kelce, of course, is a big deal in his own right, a two-time Super Bowl winner who is generally acknowledged to be one of the best players in his position of all time, so you can see how that might drive a certain type of man bonkers.
But it’s true that no one is as famous as Taylor Swift, and even a juggernaut like the NFL seemed a little starstruck by her decision to show up at the game. On TikTok, the NFL changed its bio to read, “Taylor was here.” On X, formerly known as Twitter, the NFL’s account posted gleefully about Taylor’s activities at the game, which included chest-bumping someone else in the box and yelling “Let’s fucking go!” ESPN and many other sports outlets covered it all. Patrick Mahomes, Kelce’s teammate and the quarterback of the Chiefs, was asked about Taylor at a postgame interview. So was coach Andy Reid. Even coaches of other teams were asked to dish about the possible pairing. On a sports radio show, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick dad-jokingly quipped, “Well, I would say that Travis Kelce has had a lot of big catches in his career. This would be the biggest.”
We can all applaud Swift and Kelce on pulling off a good old-fashioned media spectacle. They are a stereotypical monument to heterosexuality—star football player and proudly girly blond pop star—and it turns out that a fling between them makes for a very attractive narrative, particularly as it contrasts to Swift’s recent dating history, which has tended toward artsy-fartsy British men. But the gender essentialism of it all does start to jump out at you. Though we can take jokes about a Swift/Kelce romance uniting women and the men in their lives lightly, as they’re intended, it’s also hard to ignore the darkness lurking around these jests—namely, the implication that women and men who are in relationships have so little in common that they need something like this to get them through the months when the men let their football fandom rule their lives, or that boyfriends’ masculinity is so fragile that implying that Swift is more famous than Kelce will set them off on a rampage. Reducing the situation down to “girls like Taylor Swift and boys like football” also ignores the plenty of women out there who have always been interested in sports, and the plenty of men who are, God love them, capable of intelligent thought and sensitive conversations beyond the topic of football.
Why has there been so much discussion lately about “girl dinner” and whether men think about the Roman empire, and now, Swift/Kelce’s fandoms colliding? As Rebecca Jennings at Vox has written, the way these trends are presented and circulated amounts to a public adoption of marketing speak. And while Swift/Kelce may well be a real romance—or, may well not be one—it is definitely a marketing opportunity. Where gender might not actually be binary, the almighty dollar loves to put us into boxes, because it makes us easier to sell to. As those ratings numbers reflected, the NFL is watching to see whether it can attract more female viewership, never mind the significant female viewership that it already has. And Taylor Swift, though it frequently appears that she has no more worlds left to conquer—this year alone, her tour earned billions, lifted economies, and inspired a congressional hearing—seems to have a special sense for how to wring money out of any situation she encounters. All the intrigue of watching her tooling around Kansas City in a convertible with a hunky jock is certainly not going to hurt ticket sales for her upcoming concert film, out in October.
But remember: You don’t have to be on anyone’s team or part of anyone’s demographic to enjoy all this. Swift and Kelce are talented performers, they’re giving us a show, and I bet they haven’t spent even a single second thinking about the Roman Empire.