It seems like we are in a time of feminist reversal. More and more topics with feminist character dominate not only the media but also everyday life. However, while we still face problems such as unequal pay, abortion and female genital mutilation, it has never been easier to feel empowered. Female empowerment, or at least some version of it, is on trend in the popular culture. It’s definitely a triumph for women to enjoy these generally positive portrayals of femininity and girlhood, but this popularity also means that we have arrived at a moment when commercial tactics may easily be made to look like feminist resistance.
What does it mean to be empowered?
In the 70s empowerment first came into popular use. It was described as a process by which an opressed person perceives the structural conditions of his oppression and is afterwards able to take action against his opressors. Reffering to the idea of providing autonomy and strength to marginalized communities, primarily in reference to black people. In 1981 the concept was broadened into a political theory of power viewed personal competency as fundamentally limitless.
In times of consumption and individualization
Meanwhile we are experiencing the very marketable empowerment of the woman. Empowerment did no longer refer to the idea of a demographic gaining power for the good of the group. Correspondending to the neoliberal view, it’s about one woman gaining power for the good of herself. The term takes a shift from the collective to the individual by empowering the woman as an individual. It does not refer to theory or practice, it refers to products. And the aim of this sort of empowerment is pleasure, not power. This empowerment is individualistic and subjective, tailored to insecurity, longing and desire. A feminist act therefore means that a woman does something of her own free will – no matter if she is taking nude selfies or buying clothes. It seems quite obvious: the intent of this new authorization is always on sale.
This version of empowerment can be actively disempowering: It’s a series of experiences and objects you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same. In this way, empowerement manifests itself in monetary gains. As a result, many ways to express empowerment must be limited to aesthetics defined by companies. Following this assumption, companies benefit from the concept of empowerment by leveraging it. Especially in the industrialized nations, the term is increasingly being used for marketing purposes.
How to purchase empowerment
It is difficult to find an argument that encouraging women to diet is an act of empowerment. However, products are always selling better by pretending to offer empowerment. Advertisements do not suggest that you should be thinner, these products suggest that you will love yourself when you are and that, in order, will make you feel empowered. This newly defined empowerment can be seen, among other things, in “real-beauty” campaigns, whose target group are mainly women who have no financial or social worries.
Zadie Smith follows the assumption that Western feminism is constantly dealing with consumer issues – Lifestyle feminism. She lamented the lack of a global feminism that also embraces the oppressions experienced by non-privileged women. A feminism that does not stop at the question of which model glitters on magazine covers, but also interested in whose children sewed the clothes that we buy so naturally.
Is it time to rethink what empowerment means to us and to redefine the ways to achieve it?
Photo Credit: Daria Shevtosova via Unsplash