Taylor Swift is a megastar, and when it comes to her new relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, she’s now a mega-fan. Hanging at games with her friends – and Kelce’s mom – she’s shown that she’s excited to publicly support her guy. NFL fans (and the NFL itself), in turn, have been excited to see Swift so excited . . . so far.
While the Chiefs managed to eke out a win against the New York Jets on October 1, Kansas City’s lackluster performance resurrected some familiar rumblings. Could it be that Kelce was distracted by his new boo and her crew partying in the owner’s suite, as ESPN host Mike Greenberg posited on X? If the Chiefs hit a losing streak, surely we have Taylor to blame.
Could it be that Kelce was distracted by his new boo and her crew partying in the owner’s suite?
Jessica Simpson, who had the finger pointed at her when quarterback boyfriend Tony Romo fumbled on the field, knows how this story goes. So does Lindsey Vonn, who took the heat when Tiger Woods played like an amateur at the 2013 US Open. Heck, “The Alyssa Milano Effect” was coined by a sportswriter after a string of Major League Baseball players with whom the actress had been romantically connected had poor showings.
POPSUGAR isn’t the first outlet to point out how infuriatingly sexist this backlash is. But as it rears its head again, now under the stadium-size spotlight that shines on Swift wherever she goes, it’s worth taking a closer look at why the female partners of these players are expected to show up and cheer, but are then held responsible if their male partners’ performance isn’t up to snuff.
Taylor Swift is one of the biggest musical stars in the country, if not the entire world. She has hundreds of millions of fans. Her net worth is nearing a billion dollars. She’s so famous that a national publisher is hiring a Taylor Swift beat reporter. But when Swift enters Arrowhead Stadium on game day – a place that she sold out during her Eras Tour just months ago – she’s “the girlfriend.”
Because no matter how big or important or larger-than-life a woman’s career or life outside of her relationship is, no matter how much responsibility she holds, when it comes to romantic relationships with men, she is expected to show up and be a supportive partner in the eyes of those who watch her. When it comes to men in cis-hetero relationships supporting their significant others, the bar is lower – and they face fewer consequences if they don’t adequately “fulfill” this role.
Margaret Rau, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist practicing in New York City, attributes this double standard to the different ways men and women are socialized to “support” their loved ones: men are valued by their material output (money, protection, acts of service), while women are tasked with delivering emotional output (caregiving, keeping the peace, listening).
“Men are traditionally tasked with the support roles of providing and protecting, while women are tasked with nurturing and care tasks.”
“What it means to be a supportive partner depends on the individuals and the context of the relationship, yet there are some expectations we tend to see across couples that look different depending on your gender presentation,” Rau tells POPSUGAR. “Men are traditionally tasked with the support roles of providing and protecting, while women are tasked with nurturing and care tasks.”
Research backs this up: according to a 2017 Pew Research report, a quarter of respondents ranked “professional and financial success” as the most valuable quality in men. Only eight percent of respondents named this same quality as important in women. Meanwhile, a third of respondents said “empathy, nurturing, kindness” was the trait they valued most in women, compared to 11 percent who picked this characteristic for men. Furthermore, 76 percent of those surveyed said men are pressured to “support their family financially,” compared to 40 percent saying women face pressure to perform professionally. On the flip side, 77 percent said women are pressured to “be an involved parent”; something under half of respondents named as an expectation for men. (Having kids obviously adds a whole other layer to the conversation, but it’s nonetheless easy to draw parallels between the “involved” soccer mom rooting for her kids and the “involved” SO of the pro athlete.)
According to Rau, nurturing behaviors fall under the umbrella of “emotional labor,” a buzzword we’ve seen used with increased frequency as mental health concepts have gained public visibility.
“Emotional labor in cis-het relationships tends to disproportionately fall heavier onto the workloads of women; this phenomenon has been well studied by sociologists, psychologists, and feminist scholars,” says Rau. “Women so often are overburdened with anticipating and having solutions for the emotional experiences in a relationship. . . . Regardless of the work that a woman does or her income, there are still social and cultural pressures for her to show up in the role of the emotional labor project manager.” According to a 2018 UN study, women do 2.6 times more (unpaid) emotional work in relationships than men do. It’s also been reported that heterosexual relationships are ranked as being more satisfying by partners when a woman reported doing more emotional work.
When it comes to Swift and Kelce, Swift has shown she’s capable of being the cheerleader; the images we’ve seen thus far of Swift at games are of her cheering, raising her drink, laughing, smiling, and conversing with Kelce’s mother. And she was applauded for this show of support: the NFL was quick to co-opt these photos of Swift in the stands for their social media banners and nod to the relationship in their promo ads. But while Swift has been seen as the doting partner thus far, one frown, one non-show, one act of perceived non-support, and it’s very likely that football watchers will have something not-so-nice to say about it. And if the Chiefs lose . . . well, we unfortunately know what happens then.
Society weighs Swift’s value in this situation, however, by her impact on others.
We can revisit that Pew Research survey for an explanation of why sports WAGs bear the brunt when their men drop the ball. American society expects Kelce to show up and do his job, to run with the pigskin and bring home the bacon. He’s judged by his own merits. Society weighs Swift’s value in this situation, however, by her impact on others. Just like the Pew survey showed is true for many women, she is pressured to be “nurturing” to her partner; to be “involved” in his activities. “Involved” evokes an interaction, a cause and effect. And so, it follows that when the expectation is that a woman will be involved with her family (or, in this case, partner), she’ll be rewarded for their successes and also blamed for their failures – whether that seems fair or not.
We’ll see how it all goes for Swift and Kelce in their relationship. And I hope that, privately, both parties are protecting their peace and blooming partnership. But even though I’m not a die-hard Swiftie, I’m happy that she has her community to turn to when this media frenzy (inevitably) becomes even larger, and the criticism goes even deeper. Because while Kelce seems like a great guy, Swift is now a Sports Girlfriend – and with that, she joins other women in a well-known play.