Selling “empowerment” to the people: Why the word has finally lost all meaning
The word “empower” is so tasty. It’s sprinkled on everything from self-help articles to personal essays to marketing campaigns because, like sugar or salt, a hint of empowerment can make the bland palatable. Appearing in myriad forms—empowering, empowerment, empowered—the concept is everywhere. Google Trends shows the word “empower” to be ascendant; it grabbed a cultural toehold more than a decade ago and it has never let go.
But what does it mean when we use it? And what does it cease to mean when we use it too much?
Is education empowering? Is makeup empowering (or is going without it what’s empowering)? Is Beyoncé empowering, or is Taylor Swift? Are selfies empowering? Is eating alone empowering? Is celibacy empowering? How about threesomes? Do t-shirts empower? Are jorts empowering? Is pole-dancing empowering? Will driving a sports car empower you? What about vaginal weightlifting? If everything is empowering, is anything? And more to the point, if we’re all in need of empowerment, are any of us powerful?
“Empowerment” appears in places you’d expect, sites like GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand that started out as a handbook for women who wanted to live Gwyneth’s best life. A quick GOOP search provides 90 empowering hits, in pieces as diverse as female friendship, trusting your instincts, and global hunger. O Magazine is invested in “empowerment,” so too is VICE, Cosmopolitan, XOJane, and Bust. Indeed, virtually every media site that’s aiming to attract women relies on “empowerment” to snag its audience.
But “empower” also pops up in places you probably don’t expect, like men’s magazines. GQ yields 117 results for “empower,” including a series of sponsored posts for Infiniti that exhort its audience to “empower the athlete within.” Even Donald Trump’s campaign has jumped aboard the empowered train with its Trump-Pence Women’s Empowerment Tour. Its speakers’ aim is to “tell people what a great guy Donald Trump is,” declares Lara Trump, daughter-in-law and the sole white chick in the six-woman Trump girl-power band. Empowerment to the people, it seems, including millionaire white men who ask women to excuse their “locker room talk.”
If I sound cynical about all this empowerment, that’s because I am.
I am not, however, alone in my cynicism. Writing for the New York Times Magazine last April, former Jezebel editor (and current New Yorker staffer), Jia Tolentino penned a blistering critique of marketers’ exploitation of empowerment. Tolentino says, “Women’s empowerment borrows the virtuous window-dressing of the social worker’s doctrine and kicks its substance to the side. It’s about pleasure, not power…tailored to insecurity and desire.” Responding to Tolentino’s piece on the Guardian, Hadley Freeman claims that “empowerment” has become an “empty word denoting a watered-down feminism, one beloved of bubbly celebrities and canny advertisers alike.”
Both of these women take issue with the ways that empowerment seems to waft in the air like lavender at Muji: so dense that it’s overpowering and so overpowering that you stop noticing it. Empowerment is everywhere, and in its proliferation, it loses meaning, especially as it’s deployed in messages aimed at women. In this way, empowerment seems to function like avocado toast: an ubiquitous, overpriced dish that fails to deliver actual nourishment. Yet we buy it again and again, mostly because we can’t stop believing it’s good for us.
So here’s the thing: the mainstreaming of “empowerment” is, actually, a lot worse than either avocado toast or lavender aroma diffusers. Indeed, it’s more akin to the pastel dreadlocks in Mark Jacobs’ recent NYFW runway show: a candy-colored appropriation by very rich, mostly white Americans that makes them feel, like, super good about themselves.
(Miley Cyrus, known empowered sex-haver and advocate for the empowered nudity of her thin, white, typically abled, cisgender body)
As Tolentino neatly explains, “empowerment” entered the American consciousness in the mid-70s as praxis for social workers in supporting disadvantaged peoples by helping them set, pursue, and achieve their own goals. However, by 2001, the idea of empowerment had gone corporate as the business writer Ken Blanchard of One Minute Manager® fame used it as the lynchpin of his book, Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute.
In other words, it took less than three decades for empowerment to shift from helping actually disempowered people create better lives for themselves to helping totally powerful corporations create more profits for their shareholders.
Empowerment as a feminist concept is yet more fraught. On the one hand, clear markers of power disparity such as the gender pay gap persist. Unlikely to close for another 118 years, the pay gap gives evidence to women’s continued need for financial empowerment; cash is king, especially when you consider that 14.2% of American women ages 18 to 64 live in poverty (10.5% of men the same age do). On the other hand, women’s empowerment is so diluted that our most mundane decisions can fit its rubric; not for nothing did The Onion run a story with the headline “Women Now Empowered By Everything a Woman Does” 13 years ago. Time hasn’t decreased the dizzying range of what women can, or should, find empowering. The empowerment pool continues to grow wider, if more shallow.
It’s hard for me to think of the many ways that feminist empowerment goes wrong without thinking of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where the Wiccan wannabe claims she “does an empowering lemon bundt.” To spin the quintessential ‘50s hostess gift as a feminist act of rebellion epitomizes the issue with empowerment. Looking at empowerment in everyday things, this question arises: When women are empowered by baking a cake (or shaving their pubic hair or wearing high heels), what’s the source of the power? Confusing empowerment with tacit patriarchal permission does no one any good, except, I suppose, men.
If you’re a middle-class, white, straight, cis-woman, you probably don’t need empowerment, but you might use it as a justification for the things you enjoy, and that’s an issue. Unlike the fripperies of selfies and jorts, real empowerment comes in very specific forms: money, tools and skills. If you’re reading this piece on a smartphone you pay for, on a work computer, or on your tablet in your bed, you’re probably not disempowered. Making pleasures matter by claiming their empowerment weakens the term for those women who really need it, and there’s nothing feminist about that.
Regardless of where you land on the empowerment spectrum, it’s important to understand that empowerment and power are not the same. The former is a transitional state of being, a movement from deprivation to sustenance; the latter is a position of capability, strength, and authority. Drawing on that distinction, I’d rather be powerful than feel empowered.
If you’re a middle-class, white, straight, cis-woman, you probably don’t need empowerment, but you might use it as a justification for the things you enjoy, and that’s an issue.
Look: You can pole-dance, wear makeup, have threesomes, and drive a sports car—or not. Make your own decisions and find strength in what you do (or, if you’re celibate or sober or whatever, what you choose not to do). But don’t confuse these joys with empowerment. Feeling good about the choices you make doesn’t need to come with a sloppy side helping of corporate doublespeak, marketing psych 101, and pop feminism. Women who pay their own way don’t need to justify their pleasures with pink empowerment labels. What marketers, magazines and, yes, readers need to recognize is that not every woman needs empowering, and that is a powerful realization for all of us.