THE REAL PRICE OF EMPOWERMENT
Don’t be fooled by those “fauxpowerment” promises.
A QUARTER OF A CENTURY AGO – possibly your entire lifetime – I taught feminist theory at Oxford University. Back then, our poster-thinker was Judith Butler, whose most famous works argued that gender, sexuality and man and woman as biological entities could only be determined in performance – as it played out, so to speak. Our heroine argued this in language so convoluted it rendered us cross-eyed. How we fretted, how we thrilled.
Fast-forward to 2018, and I found myself gazing at some newly released gingerbread biscuits, Godfrey and Annie. Annie sports a frock and a red (lipsticked?) smile. However, according to their producer, neither are gingerbread men, making it clear they are gender-neutral biscuits. “Christ,” I thought, “We did this. A couple of decades on, our elaborate academic wranglings are being packaged and sold with a ‘Have a nice day.’”
It’s not just gingerbread snacks being deployed in the battleground for gender equality: in recent years, more and more brands are pushing supposedly empowering messages, often specifically aimed at women, to sell their products. As a journalist, I might receive 900 or so emails a day, legions of them banging the empowerment drum over the latest hair thickener or protein bar. Femvertising is nothing new (hell, there are even #Femvertising Awards) – lessons in female empowerment have been thrown at us from all corners of consumerism. Take the furore over Scottish brewer Brewdog’s pink “beer for girls”, launched for International Women’s Day – allegedly to highlight the gender pay gap – and lambasted for being the marketing gimmick it was.
However, in the fight for equality, aren’t there bigger, more pressing issues than the gender of your gingerbread biscuit or the colour of your beer bottle? Aren’t these, in fact, just further examples of what one might refer to as “fauxpowerment” — the overselling of false or banal so-called empowerment to women? For empowerment has become one of the most used – and abused – terms in the conversation around feminism, in a way that serves to dilute and undermine the cause itself. Bandying the word about for everything from childbirth to chocolate, fitness to floor cleaner is stripping the term of any meaning at a time when genuine power is still lamentably far from women’s grasp.
So from where did this omnipresent word spring? Its first appearance in the English-speaking West occurred in the ’70s, in relation to African-american communities. Feminists began using the term in the ’80s and ’90s, tending to deploy it in reference to changes within the developing world. As the century staggered to its end, women’s magazines increasingly appropriated the word to buoy their readers, bolstered in turn by the Spice Girls’ championing of so-called “girl power” (an ideology that occupied an uncertain territory encompassing pinching Prince Charles’ bottom and being nice to your pals). Then, in 1998, came HBO’S
Sex And The City, and empowerment became enmeshed with conspicuous consumption. “Hey, Manolo lover,” the commercial clamour went, “prove your independence by enslaving yourself to a credit card.” Not only did this transfer empowerment from some sort of collective experience to an individual high, it put it firmly within the realm of the (designer) wallet, conflating consumerism
with female autonomy. In 2003, the satirical website The Onion ran the headline “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does”, with “does” meaning “buys”.
Big business was not slow in striving to exploit the idea of “women’s lib” as a commodity. Whether it was an It-bag, an It-restaurant or an It-shoe, the “It” we were being sold was empowerment; because we were worth it. The global financial crisis of 2007–2008 looked to have thrown a spanner in the works of consumer feminism, but, in fact, it merely forced it underground.
When it emerged, it was no longer confined to luxury goods, but became a marketing free-for-all. Today, anything can be sold as empowering, from leggings to lingerie, weight-loss programs to wine, sanitary items to Kim Kardashian’s arse.
As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, notes: “The idea of selling individual women ‘empowerment’ can be an easy way for brands to jump on the bandwagon of a thriving feminist movement without actually engaging with the systemic, ingrained issues women are really battling. It is frustrating when we are sold the idea that women themselves could solve the problem of institutionalised discrimination and abuse by simply buying the right shampoo or T-shirt.”
That’s not to say organisations and companies can’t adopt meaningful feminist messages, “but they need to put their money where their mouth is if they expect it to be convincing,” says Bates. “It’s no good slapping feminist quotes on your merchandise if your senior leadership is completely dominated
by men, or if you’re paying your female staff less than their male counterparts.”
This attitude – separating genuine feminist commitment from mere bandwagon leaping – lies at the heart of the issue. Kate Bosomworth, chief marketing officer at M&C Saatchi’s UK branch, argues that today’s fauxpowerment explosion was inspired by a handful of genuine attempts by businesses to engage with women’s issues. “The 2004 Dove [Real Beauty] campaign was the first of its kind,” she tells me. “Then we had Pantene’s #Shine Strong. These campaigns were challenging, disruptive and truly tipped norms. However, those that have followed suit haven’t always been that authentic. Like us, they need to apply real insight into how to solve problems and help; how to bring a truth that no-one’s talked about before. Not just putting women in their adverts – consumers can see through that in a nanosecond, as they can find out very quickly whether organisations are true to their word.”
It is this lip service to empowerment that brings us so many platitudes: from one Dove campaign imitator too many informing us that our chubbiness is emancipatory, to Hollywood’s tokenistic rehashing of male-focused hits. And so here we are, in a world in which we are presented with “empowering” control knickers, rosacea cures and rosé, with power something you can buy into so long as you’re not disempoweringly poor.
Call me a killjoy, but doesn’t this seem tawdry given that the issues women might more obviously seek empowerment over include voting access, equal pay, equal parenting, abortion rights, forced marriage, genital mutilation and rape as a weapon of war? Moreover, at a time when the pussy-grabber-in-chief occupies the White House, isn’t the notion that getting your power can be reduced to the perfect pink drink a tad Marie Antoinettish?
In this fauxpowerment-saturated world, we need to distinguish the faux from the real deal. Sure, I bought myself a mock prefect’s badge saying “feminist”. It was funny and playful, and feminism is not without these qualities. But right now we need less stuff and fewer power poses: more action, progress, rights.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of gender equality lobby group the Fawcett Society, tells me: “I’m not po-faced: there is a value in having fun with the message. We sell great feminist T-shirts and Tatty Devine jewellery and they get people talking. However, the concept of empowerment is something we slip into for want of something better, or clearer, to say. It suggests that women move from being powerless to powerful, when it’s more about recognising your own power, then recognising the structures and barriers designed to make women feel less powerful. It’s these barriers that need addressing: not changing the individual, but the system they find themselves in.” As the novelist Naomi Alderman, author of the prize-winning
The Power, asserts: “Products, my friends, are very nice. But they are not the same thing as doing the inner work to increase your confidence, or knowing you have a group of female friends to rely on, or understanding truly in your heart that the fact that you feel shit about yourself a lot of the time is not your fault and that there are societal forces trying to make women, in particular, feel shit about themselves. Enjoy the products – why not? But do the work, too.” You said it, sister.
“We need less stuff and FEWER POWER POSES: more action, progress, rights”