THE REAL PRICE OF EM­POW­ER­MENT

Don’t be fooled by those “faux­pow­er­ment” prom­ises.

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS BY HAN­NAH BETTS

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”

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