Published:  12:00 AM, 14 March 2017

How 'Empowerment' became something for women to buy


Empowerment" wasn't always so trivialized, or so corporate, or even so clamorously attached to women. Four decades ago, the word had much more in common with Latin American liberation theology than it did with "Lean In."

 In 1968, the Brazilian academic Paulo Freire coined the word "conscientization," empowerment's precursor, as the process by which an oppressed person perceives the structural conditions of his oppression and is subsequently able to take action against his oppressors.

Enter the highly marketable "women's empowerment," neither practice nor praxis, nor really theory, but a glossy, dizzying product instead. 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; it's individualistic and subjective, tailored to insecurity and desire

Aerie, the lingerie brand of American Eagle, increased its sales by 26 percent in the last quarter of 2015 primarily on the strength of its "#AerieReal" campaign, which eschews Photoshop and employs models of a slightly larger size - and is described as "empowering" as if by legal mandate.

Dove, the Patient Zero of empowerment marketing, has lifted its sales to the tune of $1.5 billion with its "#RealBeauty" campaign, cooked up by executives who noticed that few women like to call themselves beautiful and saw in that tragic modesty a great opportunity to raise the profile of the Dove brand.

This consumption-and-conference empowerment dilutes the word to pitch-speak, and the concept to something that imitates rather than alters the structures of the world. This version of empowerment can be actively disempowering: It's a series of objects and experiences you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same.

So women's empowerment initiatives begin to look increasingly suspicious. In 2013, Kate Losse, a former speechwriter for Mark Zuckerberg, criticized Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In initiative for locating disempowerment in women's "presumed resistance to their careers rather than companies' resistance to equal pay."

 A company's sudden emphasis on empowerment is often a sign of something to atone for. Searching online for the word, I kept being served two advertisements by Google. The first was for Brawny paper towels, tagged #StrengthHasNoGender; the other was for Goldman Sachs ("See how Goldman is committed to helping women succeed").

But despite its nonexistence in honest conversation, "empowerment" goes on thriving. It's uniquely marketable, like the female body, which is where women's empowerment is forced to live. On March 8, International Women's Day, Kim Kardashian posted an essay on the topic to her subscription-only website, in response to the backlash over a naked selfie she had posted - criticism leveled mainly by women who drink their empowerment a different way.

"I am empowered by my body," she wrote. "I am empowered by my sexuality." Quickly, her focus turned global: "I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world."

On that day, corporate empowerment came to a teleological summit in the hands of Kardashian, who's not as different from Sheryl Sandberg as she may seem. Like Sandberg, Kardashian is the apotheosis of a particular brand of largely contentless feminism, a celebratory form divorced from material politics, which makes it palatable - maybe irresistible - to the business world.

The mistake would be to locate further empowerment in choosing between the two. Corporate empowerment - as well as the lightweight, self-exculpatory feminism it rides on - feeds ravenously on the distracting performance of identity, that buffet of false opposition.

Sandberg and Kardashian are perceived by most to be opposites, two aesthetically distinct brands fighting for our allegiance, when each has pioneered a similar, punishingly individualistic, market-driven understanding of women's worth, responsibility and strength. In the world of women's empowerment, they say the same thing differently: that our radical capability is mainly our ability to put money in the bank.

The author is the deputy editor at Jezebel.


-Jia Tolentino

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