ColumnThe New York Times recently published an article about how female empowerment is basically meaningless. Why? Because companies have figured out how to monetize it and turn it into a “feeling” women can buy.
Jia Tolentino penned the piece that’s quickly gaining momentum on social media because she gets it — and that it is the reality that big brands have latched onto modern feminism and women’s desire to claim their individuality.
The article points out that empowerment, at its heart, is truly amazing. It was used to describe how the oppressed could overtake their oppressors, “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,” Tolentino writes. “Eight years later, the educator Barbara Bryant Solomon, writing about American black communities, gave this notion a new name, empowerment.”
And in 1981 the term evolved again. “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.”
So, what does empowerment mean now? Tolentino bitingly describes it as a theory that is “applied to the needy while describing a process more realistically applicable to the rich.”
And she’s right — empowerment is now a product that’s sold to the less-than-wealthy female masses. That’s why companies sell pink-washed products and think that using hashtags like #StrongIsTheNewSkinny is totally okay.
Tolentino writes about more than a few brands that have effortlessly co-opted this once “empowering” word:
Aerie: the American Eagle lingerie brand sold a lot of product because of its #AerieReal campaign. This campaign was known for its lack of Photoshop and use of slightly larger models.
Dove: The personal care brand is incredibly well-known for its #RealBeauty campaign featuring women of all shapes and sizes.
TEDWomen: this sub-sect of TED is all about the power of women.
Forbes Women’s Summit: its hashtag is #RedefinePower.
Now, no one is saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing that women are generally using the phrase empowerment more. But when any word is monetized its authenticity begins to diminish.
Getting women who may never have thought about what empowers them before to do so isn’t bad — even if those thoughts are sparked from watching a Dove ad. The real problem is that corporations that aren’t exactly ethical and don’t consider women when sourcing or producing their products are making these ads to spark a need for worthless stuff. (And let’s not forget all the men at the top of many of these companies, too.)
Luckily, there are plenty women from all walks of life who embody what female empowerment really means. And if authentic messages keep getting play, perhaps they can up-end all this corporate feel-good crap and create a new definition of women’s empowerment that can help a new generation.
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Some corporate version of female empowerment via Shutterstock