Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Topic of the Day: What Empowers You?

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Here’s an essay published in the Times about how the word “empowerment” in relation to women, especially, has become nothing but a marketing ploy. The author argues that she really knows what she’s talking about because she’s an editor for a women’s website (that would be Jezebel), is “young, female, educated and upwardly mobile,” “loves raises and underwear and voting,” and, therefore, is the target demographic for marketers marketing empowerment.

Women’s empowerment, she argues, is no longer about taking action against one’s oppression or oppressors; it’s no longer about solving one’s own problems or viewing personal competency as limitless or embracing personal responsibility. Women’s empowerment, according to the women’s website editor who fields emails all day from marketers wanting to market to upwardly mobile women, is all about: sell, sell, sell.

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. The new empowerment doesn’t increase potential so much as it assures you that your potential is just fine. Even when the thing being described as “empowering” is personal and mildly defiant (not shaving, not breast-feeding, not listening to men, et cetera), what’s being mar­keted is a certain identity. And no matter what, the intent of this new empowerment is always to sell.

Well… that’s depressing as hell. And also not true. I mean, who the hell is this woman to say if you happen to be young, female, educated and upwardly mobile, you only experience empowerment as a marketing ploy to feed your undying desire for pleasure, or that if you aren’t young, female, educated and upwardly mobile, then you experience empowerment as a service provided to you by someone in a position of some power? Fuck that shit.

My moments and experiences of empowerment (or “women’s empowerment,” since I happen to be female) have little to do with commercialism, and, knowing a little about some of you, I’d venture to say the same applies to a majority of DW readers. I, for one, feel empowered by what my body can do — Grow and birth babies! Run miles! Age (sort of) gracefully! — more so than what it looks like in clothes I pay for or with products I buy to tend to it with. I’m empowered by the positive changes I can make in the world and the lives of others. I’m empowered when I vote, when I share my opinion in a thoughtful way, when I stand up for myself and others, when I make clear and strong decisions (even if they aren’t always the right ones), and when I actually learn from my mistakes and see myself evolve.

What about you? What empowers you?

20 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Kate April 13, 2016, 2:16 pm

    Well. I think she might be right that marketers are using empowerment as a vehicle to sell things to women. Like Glamour’s PLUS SIZE issue that seems to just be a big ad for Lane Bryant if what one commenter said is true. Women’s magazines are always trying to sell you products under the guise of empowering you to be a better person.
    .
    Um… What empowers me? Honestly, knowledge and experience. It enables me to stay calm, not freak out, ride out change, keep my cool in the face of aggression coming at me, see the end game, etc. And also recognize things that really are issues and address them.
    .
    I think something else that empowers me personally is that I don’t outline. Meaning I never had this life plan with certain milestones and goals that I’d hit by a certain age. Not at all. The Lord or The Universe or whatever does not appreciate outlining. What it does appreciate is openness and listening for the right next step. Instead of blindly doing what’s required to get to the next step in your plan, using your instinct to guide you on the right path. Being open to ideas. That way you do what’s right for you at the time and don’t fall down spectacularly when things don’t go according to plan.

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    • Portia

      Portia April 13, 2016, 7:54 pm

      I started reading it and that’s what I thought too, that advertisers are reappropriating the term “empowerment” (and have been doing that for some time). Which is a valid point to make, I see it often enough. Like the “play like a girl” commercial, or the Dove series of commercials. It definitely waters down the term a bit. And it is this specific “women’s empowerment” that they’re playing on.

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  • avatar

    snoopy128 April 13, 2016, 2:31 pm

    I was just about to send you this article, Wendy!

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  • avatar

    RedRoverRedRover April 13, 2016, 2:45 pm

    The word “empower” is a weird one for me. It means you’re given power by something. I’ve never really felt that way, I’ve always felt like I had to earn power by degrees. And in fact I don’t really feel “powerful” per se, but I do feel confident. I know that at work, I can walk into a meeting room and be listened to. I know my opinion matters to people, and that I have their respect. And that it’s the same in my personal life. I’m in a position of power at work, but it’s actually kind of scary to have that kind of power, because it comes with so much responsibility. I feel like it’s something I have to deal with, not something I’m empowered by, you know?

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  • Moneypenny

    Moneypenny April 13, 2016, 2:47 pm

    For me, it’s being in a room with a bunch of male contractors where I am not just the only female, but the youngest one there, and I suggest something that turns out to be a good idea. (This just happened to me yesterday.)
    I would also say, being able to read a map and navigate a new city’s public transit system is up there on my list. It always feels good to be able to think, “hey, I think I’ve got this!”

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  • muchachaenlaventana

    muchachaenlaventana April 13, 2016, 2:47 pm

    I actually really liked this article: http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/a55017/kim-kardashian-naked-selfie-empowerment/ referring more to sexual “empowerment” which I think makes a similar claim but more successfully, to me, at least.

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  • avatar

    snoopy128 April 13, 2016, 2:50 pm

    I think what sticks out to me is what I learned in my health promotion classes about empowerment. Essentially, my understanding of the word means that one can never attempt to ’empower’ another. In trying to ’empower’ another person, one automatically places the person to be empowered in a ‘less than’ or ‘have not’ position in which they are lower in a hierarchy. Rather, only the person who has been empowered can really refer to empowerment in the truest sense of the word. To set out to ’empower’ another, one as already decided a) that something is ‘wrong’ and b)that this ‘wrong thing’ must be fixed. Therefore someone can say they feel empowered or that something empowered them, but the relationship only works in one direction.

    In this sense, I agree with this: “Women’s empowerment borrows the virtuous window-dressing of the social worker’s doctrine and kicks its substance to the side. “. But I don’t think empowerment is dead. Nope.

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    • avatar

      RedRoverRedRover April 13, 2016, 2:59 pm

      Yes, I find it hard to think about empowerment on an individual level. It makes a lot more sense if you look at it at a social level. In that case, you CAN identify the “have-nots”, and give them more power than they had. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights are all examples of that. The people in those groups are more empowered now than they were in the past, because of social change where the “haves” agreed to give some power to the “have-nots”. But to think about me personally being empowered, I wouldn’t feel powerful because someone powerful came by and said “I see you’re a have-not, let me fix that for you”. Like you say, it doesn’t really work that well on an individual basis.

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    • Portia

      Portia April 13, 2016, 7:41 pm

      My office has a leadership training next week. The topic? Empowerment. As in empowering your subordinates. It seemed like a weird topic.

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      • avatar

        Kate April 14, 2016, 5:23 am

        It’s not a weird topic, it’s part of that conventional guidance to women in business about being a leader and getting other people to be more confident and do great things. And the message is fine. Leadership is good and needed. It gets women to middle management where they are currently equally represented with men.

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  • avatar

    Kate April 13, 2016, 2:53 pm

    In the corporate world, the traditional advice given to women to empower them is, be brave, take risks, don’t let perfectionism hold you back if you were socialized to be “perfect.” Develop a brand, sell yourself, find a mentor. Be a leader and engender greatness in others. That kind of stuff. And it’s good advice and will get you to middle management. BUT….
    .
    …And I’m getting this from a couple of TED talks I just watched because I was asked to facilitate a women’s event at my company (it’s open to everyone, not just women). Women and men are equally represented in middle management. But at the top levels, women are incredibly underrpresented. Why? Well this woman Susan Colontuono who does one of the TED talks says it’s because there’s a missing 33% of what will get you to the top and it’s something women don’t think of: Business acumen – understanding the business, its strategy, goals, how it works, etc. That’s considered table stakes, but no one ever tells women that or helps them develop that knowledge and skill set. Mentors help women work on their confidence but not on their business knowledge and strategy.
    .
    Women in business can empower themselves by knowing that and showing what they know from the beginning. Maybe you take business classes. Maybe you get your company to offer them to you.
    .
    The point is, bravery, confidence, selling your “brand,” empowering others, etc. will only get you so far. There’s a huge missing piece. It was interesting to think about – I never really put that together until I watched the talk.

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    • avatar

      RedRoverRedRover April 13, 2016, 3:04 pm

      There also still are barriers, even if you do everything you’re supposed to do. Sexism exists. I think I’ve told the story on here about why I don’t work in my field (electrical engineering), and it’s a direct result of sexism. That stuff drives women out. That’s why academia has fewer women, that’s why STEM in general has fewer women, etc. Just having to prove yourself all the time is exhausting, so women end up more worn out than men in the exact same position.

      I’m not disagreeing with you, I do think women should become as savvy as they can about their careers and what it will take to get ahead. But it’s still not a magic bullet – doing the exact same things as a man would do to advance doesn’t mean it will work for a woman. It depends on the environment they’re in.

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      • avatar

        Kate April 13, 2016, 3:07 pm

        Agree, in the TED talk she mentions an example of a mentor who was working with a male and a female mentee – he worked with the female on her confidence and the man on business strategy, and he didn’t even realize he was doing it! Certainly sexism still exists. But this is one way to push past that middle level where it’s so easy to get stuck and passed over for promotions. Men already have that confidence and ability to sell themselves and willingness to take risks, but they ALSO have the business acumen, whereas women are never told to work on that… they’re guided to focus on other things, which is well-meaning but ultimately grounded in sexism.

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      • avatar

        RedRoverRedRover April 13, 2016, 3:36 pm

        Yep, I agree with you. Just pointing out that it doesn’t always work. Personally I find the “lean in” message a little troublesome because it seems to put the responsibility for why women aren’t equal on women themselves. We should do everything we can to fight sexism at an individual level (and I do), but it’s still an uphill battle, no matter how well each woman fights it.

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      • avatar

        Kate April 13, 2016, 3:12 pm

        And I spent almost a decade in technology as well… My company was a startup that had patented a technology, and then we were bought by a global company because they needed our technology. And it was such a boys’ club, with no women at the top levels, and the guys having Scotch and cigars at the CEO’s house. I know how exhausting it is.

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    • Cassie

      Cassie April 14, 2016, 4:13 pm

      I’m going to have to watch that TED talk! Do you recommend any others?

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  • avatar

    Anonymousse April 13, 2016, 3:12 pm

    I think she’s right that companies are jumping on this as a selling point. With Aerie, AE saw incredible growth immediately with that campaign. That tells every other company that this important and consumers are looking for this kind of “real” body as a model. “Empowering women” sells. I however, am totally cool with this being used as a marketing move. I like real bodies. The interesting thing is, every Aerie model I’ve seen is still really freaking beautiful and skinny, IMO. Empowerment isn’t something you can buy.
    How many of these companies are actually giving to women’s causes, I wonder?
    What I sincerely hope, is that this younger generation grows up, not having to feel empowered, just feeling in control of their own lives and free to make their own choices, while they get paid 100% the exact same as their male counterpart.

    And yeah, exactly what Kate said. My experience and life thus far makes me feel empowered. I can handle it, we can handle it. I never thought I’d have kids, get married or ever really “grow up.” And here I am, a real grown up with all the fun and responsibility that goes with it.

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  • mylaray

    Mylaray April 13, 2016, 5:26 pm

    I have to disagree that it’s not true. I work in advertising, and advertising is often referred to as the smoke and mirrors for a brand. Advertising and marketing get consumers to strive to fit their mold (of what they’re selling/offering), whether it’s truly empowering or not. Of course the intent is to sell. Is that depressing? Yes and no. Dove was one of the first big companies to promote empowerment in their body diversity campaigns. People do benefit from empowerment marketing, but not nearly as much than when it’s genuine. But I think the positives are when companies are focusing on women and not sexualizing them (as much).

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    • avatar

      Kate April 13, 2016, 5:59 pm

      Here’s the thing too… Advertising, messaging, comms, they’re usually generated from some kind of qualitative consumer research where they talk to the consumer and find out what will resonate with them. So imo they wouldn’t be selling empowerment if it wasn’t what women want to hear.

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  • avatar

    keyblade April 13, 2016, 8:18 pm

    I agree with Wendy; there are large chunks of conclusions in this article that I simply don’t believe.
    There is something refreshing about hearing a woman who works for Jezebel call out the mercenary practice of capitalizing on “empowerment” and even perhaps “feminism”. When ad campaigns attempt to sell products from a self-correcting mea-culpa perspective of correcting sexism and embracing diversity it feels good to acknowledge these images are not progress but rather “a glossy, dizzying product”. I share her suspicion of media-paid fame-gluttons who rally the twittterverse with watchwords like “sexual empowerment” and “body-acceptance” in order to keep every contrived scandal or attention-seeking nudie as relevant to something more than their fifteen minutes in the spotlight.

    But I think got it wrong. And for me, it started here:
    “Then in 1981, Julian Rappaport, a psychologist, broadened the concept into a political theory of power that viewed personal competency as fundamentally limitless; it placed faith in the individual and laid at her feet a corresponding amount of responsibility too.
    Sneakily, empowerment had turned into a theory that applied to the needy while describing a process more realistically applicable to the rich. The word was built on a misaligned foundation; no amount of awareness can change the fact that it’s the already-powerful who tend to experience empowerment at any meaningful rate.”

    I don’t believe in spontaneous generation; Of course empowerment happens when people have the psychological resources required for it. But I do believe in regeneration. And for many who have struggled with some form of learned helplessness, which is a valid response to repeated exposures beyond ones control, becoming empowered is finding a more adaptive way. Wikipedia characterizes empowerment as “move away from a deficit-oriented towards a more strength-oriented perception”. Of course this can only happen if the perception of strength actually exists. Accessing empowerment is less obstructed for the rich, but by definition internal empowerment occurs when there is a need. This is valid and respectable. It is distinct from the market-driven trends which mimic the consumers they are hoped to reach.
    But working where Tolentino works, and being surrounded by capitalists who have drunk their own kool-aid, I’m not surprised she can’t see it. She’s in the belly of the beast.

    For me, education has been empowering. Church has been empowering. Being able to find and surround myself with positive, validating, needy, amazing people is inspiring and empowering. Volunteering is empowering. Trying on new scary ideas and experiences is empowering.

    I feel inspired by the personal courage and empowerment of activists.

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