The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word empowerment as: “to give (a person) more control over his or her life or circumstances, by increasing civil rights, independence, self-esteem, etc. ” The word empowerment has historically meant marginalized groups gaining autonomy by fighting for equitable allocation of resources and influence in public policy, but it has now come to mean: being Miley Cyrus; being Gwyneth Paltrow; looking at advertisements; getting divorced; watching TED Talks; having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; owning your feminism; disowning your feminism; participating in ancient Egyptian sex rituals; wearing red lipstick; doing stand-up comedy; buying leggings; buying designer clothes, or masturbating.
In 2003, satirical website the Onion ran the headline “Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does”. This change in meaning has stemmed from companies co-opting and neutralizing the term to sell products without trying to change anything or to create spaces catered towards privileged women while selling false hope to the disadvantaged. The meaninglessness of the word has become dangerous for our society because it turns the language of self-resilience and resistance into language of subservience to the status quo. The original usage of the word empowerment finds its roots in marginalized groups overcoming domination through building self-reliance and self-determination.
In 1976, Barbara Bryant Solomon published Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities, the first modern appearance of the word. Taking guidance from the method of conscientization developed by the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed where intensive meditation of one’s position in relation to society would guide individuals to obtain the “instruments that would allow himself to make choices”, Solomon described empowerment as the “process whereby the social worker engages in a set of activities with the client or client system that aim to reduce the powerlessness that has been created by negative valuations based on membership in a stigmatized group”. She emphasized the importance of enabling African-Americans to make their own decisions and solve their own problems so that they too could have access to the benefits and advantages afforded to the rest of society, and she¬ critiqued the “emphasis on effecting change in the psychological function of those experiencing the problems rather than on effecting change in oppressive social institutions”.
Simply giving clients the resources did not empower them because it only served to make them temporarily feel better. It did not shift the power balance of the status quo and instead worked to limit their future choices. However, providing them with education on resource access and working towards actionable change in their communities could give them more control over their lives. As women gained more spending power and feminism became more mainstream in the late 90’s and the early 2000’s, women’s magazines and advertisements aimed at women began to use the word to sell an image of autonomy in the face of oppression even as companies steered them into making those choices. Companies twisted the definition to prey on vulnerable women and their insecurities.
Aerie, the lingerie retailer and intimate apparel sub-brand owned by American Eagle Outfitters, boosted sales by thirty-two-percent in the first fiscal quarter of 2016 due to its widely lauded “#AerieREAL” campaign. The campaign decried the use of Photoshop in the industry and its effect on body image even as the company continued to use young women who closely aligned with normative standards of beauty to sell their products. Dove’s growth from a 200-million-dollar soap brand in the early 1990s to being worth four-billion-dollars today can be attributed to its “Real Beauty” campaign. However, Dove’s message of body positivity conflicts with other brands under its parent company Unilever like Axe, a male-oriented grooming brand whose advertisements objectifying women created the niche necessary for the success of Dove. Neither Unilever nor Retail Ventures — the parent organization of American Eagle — really wish to tackle the root cause of women’s lack of power; rather, they choose to exploit the billions of dollars already spent by the beauty and lifestyle industry making women feel bad about themselves by marketing their products under the guise of empowerment. Rather than explicitly coming out and telling consumers they need to be thinner or prettier, now companies use the more insidious approach of telling women that if you use their products, you’ll love yourself as you are, and thus feel empowered. The version of empowerment being sold by these companies is actually disempowering: they sell material goods that briefly act as a salve due to the companies’ façade of fighting against systemic injustice, while in truth, they are distractions as the mechanisms that determine who can and cannot access and accumulate real power remain untouched. When material goods aren’t being sold as the path to female empowerment, a branded corporate experience often is.
TEDWomen, the Forbes Women’s Summit, and Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Conference, SHE Summit, Politico’s Women Rule, MAKERS, and whole plethora of other female-oriented conferences pledge that they desire to increase “the power of women” everywhere (TEDWomen). However, the ticket prices for these spaces which are supposedly open to all women can cost up to ten-thousand-dollars making them non-accessible to the women who need to be empowered the most. Nor do the conferences address topics that have a huge impact on disempowered women because they are not genuinely advocating for women without the resources to attend. Up to 2015, TED and TEDWomen didn’t allow speakers to talk about abortion because “abortion did not fit into their scope of “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights. ” “Abortion was more of a topical issue that they wouldn’t take a position on”, even as the right to abortion and women’s bodily autonomy was and continues to be policed. Instead of doing anything towards changing systemic forms of oppression, these conferences focus more on bringing elite women on stage who have every resource at their disposal and nothing to lose such as Kim Kardashian and Ivanka Trump. If these women truly cared about empowering women like they claim in their books or from behind the paywall of their subscription-websites, they wouldn’t give talks about feelgood topics such “the importance of building your personal brand” while their brands are made by women in foreign sweatshops facing daily abuse, dangerous conditions, low pay, and child labor — the same women markedly not present at these conferences.
The women who talk about becoming empowered are the ones who already are. Feeling “empowered” does not mean the same things as having power. Although companies and conferences advertise themselves or their products as empowering, the power dynamic remains the same. Without a clear understanding of the original definition which emphasized fighting for equal rights rather than buying a $12. 99 t-shirt emblazoned with a spiffy feminist slogan, the word empowered has become an empty catchphrase, used to mollify women’s very real and very valid anger and keep them satisfied with being subservient to corporate interests. It acts as a pat on the head or a band-aid on a wound. Instead of directly addressing and working to break the system of oppression, women become complacent because companies lead them to believe that power can be bought from or fixed by the same system that harms them. In a time when women need their voice the most to lift themselves and each other up, the popular discourse takes that power away from them.
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