Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’ (10 Minute Version): a reflection on power imbalance & age gap love

I used to think the gap between us would shrink as I grew older,
but it’s still as wide as it’s ever been.

— Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa

You can’t just run stoplights and ignore me.
That’s not what a relationship is.

— Alison Espach, The Adults

There is an opening scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it: it begins with Isaac, the film’s protagonist, having dinner with a couple of friends. He announces that his second ex-wife is writing a book about the deterioration of their marriage, and the first thing his friend, Emily, says is: “That’s really tacky.” Isaac then proceeds to explain how embarrassing the whole thing is going to be for him. He says his ex is going to give away all his little quirks and idiosyncrasies, right before gently admitting to his own shame. In a preemptive attempt to garner sympathy, he admits: “There are a few disgusting little moments that I regret.” At which point, his second friend, Yale, chimes in, “It’s just gossip, you know. Gossip is the new pornography. Pick up the daily newspaper.”

This opening has stuck with me because, within the context of Woody Allen, I find it a little infuriating. On some level, it’s hard not to conclude that he was grooming us all to discredit the stories of women—the personal accounts of anyone who has felt hurt for that matter. Like: Don’t write about bad breakups, it’s tacky; don’t tell people about the ways you have been mistreated, it’s petty, etc. (It’s an unsurprising characteristic in people of the Woody Allen variety, having this conviction that whatever they do is art, while whatever someone else does—particularly someone with an opposing perspective—is just plain crazy.) Basically, I interpreted this scene as a form of parasocial grooming because these opinions, coming from Woody Allen, however veiled, seem calculated; like he was trying to create some pre-existing prejudice in all of us. (Psst: Don’t believe Mia Farrow.)

It’s infuriatingly obvious in retrospect, knowing what we know now. Isn’t it? Especially when it all could’ve been so easy to turn it around and place the attention back on him, like: How could writing a book about the deterioration of a toxic marriage possibly be tackier than a forty-something-year-old man dating a teenage girl? (For those of you who are unfamiliar with Manhattan, the plot follows a relationship between a middle aged man and a high school girl; it’s framed as a love story, because, supposedly, the teenage girl is so “self-possessed”.)

One could argue that Woody Allen’s intention for this scene was to frame Isaac as a hypocrite; that the whole point of demonizing his ex-wife—while he’s in the midst of a relationship with a high schooler—was to emphasize how pathetic a character he really is; how vapid and gullible his own friends are. However, considering Woody Allen’s track record—his molestation of his adopted daughter, his pattern of psychological and emotional abuse of Mia Farrow, and his grooming of a teenaged Soon-Yi Previn—I am not so generous: any possibility that this scene was intended to place Isaac in a bad light is a ruse, and I think everything the characters are saying is supposed to be taken literally, albeit discreetly.

And, I mean, is this conclusion of mine really so surprising? Especially when there are still so many people who agree with these positions, and still believe stories of abuse should be dismissed as petty gossip, saying: The #MeToo movement is mass hysteria; the accused are the real victims! Our collective reckoning surrounding power imbalance has gone too far! etc. (I suppose, on some level, these reservations should be taken seriously. It’s only fair to think about everything critically, like: Where is the line, and how do we define it? What are the consequences? What does it all mean, and how much does it matter?)

It’s an old wound that feels like it has been rehashed everyday since 2018, when the #MeToo movement first gained significant traction. Everyday, some new piece of pop culture has been added to the discourse, another politician has been outed as a predator. The villains keep on accruing: Shia LaBeouf beat all of his exes, Justin Timberlake was, consistently, not great to women in the 2000s, Monica Lewinsky was, in fact, an intern taken advantage of by the leader of the free world, R. Kelly peeing on that teenage girl was never funny… Was it okay for Drake to text Billie Eilish when she was sixteen? Was it okay for him to text Millie Bobby Brown when she was fourteen? Was what Aziz Ansari did even bad?

Fuck, I don’t even know anymore. (As Sally Rooney observes in her most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You?: “I think if every man who had ever behaved somewhat poorly in a sexual context dropped dead tomorrow, there would be like eleven men left alive.”)

For better or worse, however, it appears as if the script is finally being rewritten, and some would prefer that it wasn’t. For many, Woody Allen’s idea still holds: Talking about this stuff is tacky. Or, at least, that’s how Jake Gyllenhaal has allegedly responded to the recent release of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” (10 Minute Version); a song that, although it has never been confirmed by Taylor herself, is widely interpreted as being about him. (When Taylor Swift’s fourth album, Red, was released in 2012, it included the original five-minute version of “All Too Well”. According to Taylor, however, the song was always intended to be ten minutes long; she cut it down for its public release, because, as she said herself in an interview with Jimmy Fallon, “[Ten minutes] is an absurd amount of time for a song to be.” However, now that her success has reached a point where she can do whatever she wants, she has released “All Too Well” in full. And, as added length would promise, the longer version provides more insight into what was, presumably, her 2010 relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal. The most poignant new details focus on their nine-year age difference, with some prime examples being: “You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine”, “It’s supposed to be fun turning twenty-one”, and, “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age”.)

Naturally, people (myself included) have wanted to know about Jake’s reaction to this new development in the Taylor Swift universe, and according to Life & Style, a source close to him has commented on the subject. Allegedly, they said: “Jake is mortified that Taylor has targeted him in ‘All Too Well’. He’s such a private person and goes out of his way to avoid drama, so having their three month fling dragged up in the song and hearing people gossip about it is a hard pill for him to swallow.” (When I saw this statement for the first time, I couldn’t help but read it in the same tone as Woody Allen’s “tacky”. Certain buzzwords and phrases stuck out to me as particularly dismissive and minimizing, like: Mortified! Drama! Gossip! Private person! Basically, it all read like gaslighting from beyond the grave [woe is Jake] and it reeked of guilt in a way that, to me, made Taylor Swift’s account of feeling taken advantage of look all the more credible. Especially when it could’ve been so easy for him to squash the whole thing by demonstrating actual maturity. [It can’t be that hard to release a statement saying something, like: Yeah, I’m not proud of the decisions I made back then. That way, there would be some mutual understanding and recognition; an admission that it’s not the song that’s embarrassing—it’s the fact that he chose to pursue and date a twenty-year-old when he was twenty-nine.] But, of course, instead, he opted for the pseudo high-road; instead of meeting Taylor where she’s at, he responded in the vein of “that’s really tacky”—the same old narrative that has placed the onus of blame for her failures in love onto her, and has often been used to eclipse her talent.)

Is now a good time to mention that people calling individuals they can’t immediately understand “crazy” is a pet peeve of mine?

The other day I got upset in a debate over Justin Timberlake. (lol) I said something, like: Who he was in the 2000s is not a good look in retrospect. And then I cited our collective reckoning over the media’s treatment of Janet Jackson’s halftime nip-slip, and, of course, Britney Spears, juxtaposed to Justin’s smooth rise to success. “But Britney Spears is crazy,” the guy said. And, being unable to respond how I wanted to (emotionally), I quietly brooded for the next few hours, mulling over the things I wanted to say, but couldn’t for fear of being viewed as taking a “petty” piece of pop culture too seriously. (If I got emotional, then he’d assume I was crazy for being emotional, and if he thought I was crazy, then, surely, Britney Spears must be crazy, too; ultimately making my argument—that Britney Spears is not crazy, but was driven to irrational coping mechanisms due the public treating her as if it owned her—invalid.)

I know it’s actually very irrational, but it’s difficult for me to untangle myself from women in the public eye in this way, or even normal women in everyday life. When someone calls another woman crazy, I feel like they’re calling me crazy, too. I take it as a personal betrayal, because I know the sting, and the stomach drop; the pain that follows when you find out someone has been dehumanizing you in this way, like: But they don’t even know me! Or, worse: But they know me!

However, with my 20s almost behind me, I’ve learned that when a person makes a pointed effort to tarnish the credibility of another person’s sanity, they’re trying to steal that person’s voice. (Calling someone “crazy”, especially someone you’ve known intimately, is a silencing tactic designed to incite doubt in its subject and further isolate them from potential support systems. And, perhaps even more than that, it’s a way to avoid accountability in a relationship—ultimately, it’s about preserving a position of superiority and power.) I mean, if you just google “signs of abuse”, you’ll find that trying to make a partner feel crazy, and calling them crazy to other people, is listed among the most noteworthy of red flags. And yet, as outsiders looking in, we so often drop the ball on victims and choose to believe in the calm and collected exteriors that abusers save for everyone other than their anxious and reeling counterparts.

This is why I’ve always found the media’s interpretation of Taylor Swift, in her earlier career, as this relentless pursuer of older, famous guys—desperately clinging to their coattails—interesting. Because when you dig up the past, it’s so obvious that these more seasoned celebrities (like Jake Gyllenhaal and John Mayer) were the ones pursuing her—when she’d only just stepped into her role as a legal adult. And yet this narrative that she was her own worst enemy in love—and not, perhaps, taken advantage of—continued to prevail. Everyone sang along with her songs; they made jokes about how her heart had been broken, yet again, but nobody ever really gave much thought about the very specific kind of heartbreak she was writing about.

In fact, for years, I have loved her song “Dear John” (back in 2013, someone did the math for me using the total number of times I’d listened to “Dear John” on iTunes, and he concluded that I’d spent a total of 79 hours of my life listening to the track) and it just occurred to me, only a few months ago, that “Dear John” isn’t a normal breakup song—it’s about being groomed and discarded by someone you looked up to when you were only nineteen years old. And, with this newfound understanding, combined with the new details gleaned from “All Too Well” (10 Minute Version), I feel it can be concluded that this is also how Taylor Swift has interpreted her experiences from that period of her life: she was taken advantage of by older guys with more life experience. Which isn’t to say that I think Taylor Swift is this horribly abused and exploited victim (I think Taylor Swift is definitely more than okay) but to say that I believe her earlier work was trying to communicate something that held a little more weight than people initially gave her credit for.

It’s something that gets talked about more frequently now, but I think girls and young women often find themselves in exploitative relationships with older (predatory) guys and men, because these relationships subsidize a need that society, along with their communities and families, doesn’t fulfill; as Sandra Song writes for Nylon, “[A predator] is one of the few people who really get you at a time when it feels like the entire world is either too busy underestimating you or too out-of-touch to connect with you on a meaningful level.” (Basically, the vulnerability of feeling unseen, unheard, and not taken seriously, provides predators with an in; if undivided attention, free of condescension, is a finite resource, then girls and young women—operating from a place of scarcity—will become more abetting to boundary violations in order to get this need met.)

Taylor Swift dated John Mayer, and Jake Gyllenhaal, in the years immediately following the 2009 VMAs where Kanye West interrupted her—a formative experience that, understandably, fucked with her self-confidence and identity for years. Considering this, I think it’s fair to speculate that this experience, compounded by the naivety inherent to most nineteen and twenty year olds, made her particularly vulnerable in the years immediately following—less discerning in the face of flattery from perceivably important people. Which, once again, isn’t to say that she’s the most abused person on earth, but to say that her work from those eras (songs like “All Too Well” and “Dear John”) was expressing something that had never been so vulnerably displayed on such a mainstream platform before; and, as some writers have theorized, may have provided a warning sign for those who have found themselves in an all-too-common gray area, like: Yes, I was a consenting adult, in a consenting adult relationship, and now I’m not, and I’m heartbroken—but also, it feels a little more complicated than that.

Unbeknownst to myself at the time, I was one of those people: Taylor Swift’s Red came out during a time in my life when I was in the early stages of a relationship with someone I looked up to and had known ever since I was sixteen. He was a few years older than me, and I’d only ever known him inside a context where he had power over me. At the time, I didn’t understand how much these details mattered, and, let this be a testament to where I was at in my development as an adult: I didn’t understand why more practical factors mattered, like how we were in two completely different life phases (he had just graduated from college, and I was just getting started), or how he had more life experience (he had just broken off an engagement and years-long relationship to be with me). I was way in over my head, but, also, I was nineteen: love, I still believed, didn’t stop to consider anything.

Of course, what ensued was an incredibly toxic relationship. (I don’t know who needs to hear this, but: healthy relationships never begin when one person is in the midst of another one, anyone who can look you in the eye and tell you “you’ve really grown into yourself” has no business being your boyfriend, and when someone flat-out warns you “I’m not a good person” believe them.) I apologized constantly, I was controlled, I was guilt-tripped, I was isolated, I was manipulated, I was always on the losing end of double standards, my movements were tracked, and my boundaries were violated. I based important life decisions, that I still wonder “what if” about, on him; I always felt as if nothing from my own life, no honest part of myself—not my friends, my family, my opinions, my interests, my past—was ever good enough, and so I distanced myself and lost touch with people and things that I cared about. And the entire time I couldn’t identify any of this as wrong. I didn’t know abuse was as much an emotional and psychological experience as it was a physical one, so I didn’t even have the wherewithal to google about these things, or seek help. And besides, superficially, it seemed like he was giving me everything: attention, commitment, compliments, dinners, trips, gifts… For the longest time, I truly, honest-to-god, believed every problem and failure in our relationship was solely my fault.

Eventually, however, I got enough distance to finally cut the cord. After which, I actively repressed my feelings about the break-up, knowing that any amount of feeling would send me straight back to him. I studied abroad and my course mates looked at me sideways, some of them concerned, whenever I talked about this break-up as if it were no big deal. Then, I got home and felt anchorless with no distractions. Confused and without an identity to call my own—I did, after all, spend almost two of the most formative years of my life trying to please this one very critical person—I reached out to him, to get back together. (I was sick, there’s no other word to describe it.) He got back to me quickly. He was already in a new relationship with the girl he’d always told me not to worry about. (He had done to me, with her, what he had done to his ex, with me.) Suddenly he was regarding me with an air of responsibility; drawing boundaries that he should’ve drawn years ago, before we’d ever gotten together; saying things that would’ve seemed less condescending in any other context, were they not the same exact points he’d always talked me out of believing every time I’d tried to leave him in the past, like: “You’re a great person and you deserve to be in a relationship that makes you happy.” Until, finally, he signed off; like one last pat on the head, he said, “You’re very sweet.” And a rage flared in me, so deep and pronounced… I was wrecked by the realization: It had always been so inconsequential to him. He’d always been two steps ahead, and I’d always had more to lose. And yet, I was the one left holding the bag: I lost my fucking mind. (If you want an idea of where I was at mentally and emotionally during this time: I wrote a lot of poetry where I compared myself to a paper napkin, and I compulsively listened to Linkin Park’s “In The End”.)

Red is an album that coincided with, and carried me through the duration of that relationship: from the beginning, where I started off as a person on the verge of coming into her own, and all the way to the bitter end, where I’d digressed into an infantile robot performing little pavlovian tricks. Its themes of passion and innocence lost, combined with its moments of levity, connected with something very intrinsic to being an average young adult realizing for the first time that she isn’t anything special—that she is, in fact, very discardable—but is still trying, in vain, to find something reconcilable in the events leading up to that knowledge. And this interpretation of Red, combined with the evolution of “All Too Well” and its added themes of age gaps and power imbalances—with ten years between me and my failed relationship’s inception, combined with the recent development that my ex’s summation of our love’s demise is, simply, “she’s crazy”—I’ve also garnered new insights about how that break-up altered my understanding of the world and other people, because, frankly, I’m still processing it.

Looking back, when I think about my desperate bid to get back together with my ex, I know that I was never honestly looking to get back together with him. Really, I was just trying to make the whole thing make sense—I was so resistant to the idea that it never would. Because the kernel of truth at the center of the whole charade was that I’d always been in the wrong place at the wrong time—a subordinate caught in the crossfire of her boss’s quarter life crisis. Nothing special, just a “crazy” lapse in someone else’s judgment. And that was a tough pill to swallow, realizing that this thing that had eaten through two years of my youth—that had affected my priorities and where I went to college—had ultimately meant nothing.

Even now I have a hard time accepting it. Like, I don’t want to believe that he’d ever intended to put me in such a compromising position; that he’d ever expected me to shoulder all the blame for these resounding, negative consequences. For so long, I hoped for some sunny moment of recognition between us; a mutual moment of confession and amends, like: “I did x” / “I did y,” / “I’m sorry” / “I’m sorry, too.” But having had so much time to consider it, I realize now: if he were to give me that, I don’t think I’d believe him. I think I’d just see it as one more attempt to control me; a foot in the door of my life, and an opportunity for him to wipe me down and place me back on the shelf—just in case.

You see, the gap between us is just too wide; it always was and it always will be. And that’s the problem with power imbalances: they never really go away, and they just become more obvious with time; as Billie Eilish—who recently revealed that she was taken advantage of by someone older when she was a young teenager—said for Vogue, “People forget that you can grow up and realize shit was fucked up when you were younger.”

So, when do age gaps matter? What constitutes a power imbalance, and what makes a predator vs. a normal, run-of-the-mill, asshole? It’s a debate that “All Too Well” (10 Minute Version), accompanied by its short film starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien—two actors whose age gap closely aligns with Taylor and Jake’s—has inspired. One writer and critic, Moira Donegan, tweeted: “Taylor Swift revisiting her ten-years-old bad break-up with an older man reflects a really particular feeling where women remember relationships they had with older men in their teens and twenties and wake up like ‘wait, that was exploitation.” While another person, someone named Rachel, tweeted: “If I see ONE more tweet with thousands of likes acting like a 9-year age gap is factually, inherently predatory between two consenting adults I am going to lose my MIND.”

From everything I’ve read, both opinions are fair; because the answers to the aforementioned questions aren’t so straightforward. According to an L.M.H.C. for Glamour: It depends. She (Grace Huntley) said, “It depends on the individuals and is less about age than it is a matter of maturity, power and life experience… A specific factor to consider is a power imbalance. This can occur when one person, due to their position in life, finances, or status, has undue power to control and influence the other person.” After which, she cited patterns of behavior, saying that if a person’s relationships always seem to be with adults who are barely legal, and if they regard the age of consent as a “legal green flag”, opposed to a boundary that is intended to protect vulnerable youth, then that person is probably someone you should be wary of. (Ahem: “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.”)

These are the things I usually consider when I’m contemplating a relationship and power dynamic that makes me uncomfortable. And, when I do that, I admit to myself that youth is an inherent vulnerability. (Especially with the increasing evidence that shows—at least in terms of brain development—we’re not really adults until our mid-twenties.) No matter how mature you like to believe you are, no matter how old of a soul, and no matter how confident, there is always someone who is going to know more than you, and that person doesn’t always have your best interest at heart. Youth really is such a precious life-force, and there are a lot of cynics and creeps out there who want to tap into that energy and find some compensation for an inner lack. Like, I feel like the irony of youth is that, as a society, we value it for its beauty and potential, but then, in the same breath, we have this overwhelming urge to smush it like a bug—especially when it’s in the form of a young adult. (Just look at the way young Hollywood is treated and talked about, and you have an accurate reflection of how society treats and talks about youth at large.)

Bringing me to one of the few graces I’ve always had to offer my ex: he was young, too. Any chance of common ground between us may have collapsed a long time ago, but I can acknowledge that his prefrontal cortex was also mush when we both decided, in some shared state of mania, that being in love was a good idea. And, like Taylor, I am most definitely not the most abused and exploited victim on earth; I remind myself constantly: I got out. I went to therapy. I did the work. I learned something. (Did he? I don’t think I’ll ever know.)

At the end of the extended version of “All Too Well”, Taylor sings, “I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight.” And what I take away from this line is that, this song, although it’s primarily about a woman who is refusing to be forgotten, is also about upholding one’s own end of the bargain, and wishing the second party would do the same; a plea that, ultimately, falls on deaf ears. If this song is about Jake Gyllenhaal after all, then his lack of a response—his response via a third party, saying, essentially, Can’t she just let it go already?—makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t feel like he owes her anything. Which is his right. One of the most difficult things to accept in the aftermath of feeling used, and taken advantage of, is that nobody owes anyone anything, ever; not love, or an explanation, or even respect. And that’s part of growing up: accepting that there are a lot of apologies that will never be uttered; that there are always going to be some mysteries you can’t crack—no definitive answers to how much or how little something mattered. The best you can do is build yourself back up; return half your weight, and hope that, somewhere along the way, someone will recognize how hard you try; they’ll see the whole of who you are and meet you in the middle, as an equal. (A.K.A. They will never call you crazy.)