“Women doing stuff”: is ‘female empowerment’ losing its meaning?

“Women doing stuff”: is ‘female empowerment’ losing its meaning?

“Women doing stuff”: is ‘female empowerment’ losing its meaning?

“Femvertising” has been accused of diluting the meaning of ‘female empowerment’, selling it to those who need it least at the expense of those who need it most.

‘Female empowerment’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years. Although at its core a critical concept and international goal, it has become to the early 2020s what ‘girl power’ was to the 1990s — that is, an easy catchphrase used to celebrate seemingly anything that a woman does — to the extent that it completely loses its meaning and power.

Advertising is one of the main culprits here, co-opting the language and images of empowerment for female-focused advertising selling everything from moisturiser and makeup to diet programmes and active wear. “Buy this product”, the adverts say, “You’ll be empowered”.

This is a savvy marketing tactic. Modern perceptions of beauty advertising and popular culture have been moulded by decades of feminist critique of beauty standards and gender expectations. The narratives that women are too fat, or too ugly, or will never get a boyfriend just don’t fly anymore as a means of selling beauty products — preying on women’s insecurities and perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards is now seen as something to be shunned, not shrugged off.

However, although this approach is preferable to being made to feel bad, these brands are still trying to sell us the same products, just repackaged into a more feminism-friendly box — sometimes in amusingly haphazard ways, like the Special K advert that tried to depict eating cereal as feminist. It isn’t just beauty brands jumping onto the ‘empowerment’ bandwagon either — previous winners at the SHE #Femvertising Awards, launched to honour brands with adverts containing “stereotype-busting, pro-female messages and images” include corporations like Audi and Microsoft. Seen in this light, in which feminism has become commodified, the messages of ‘empowerment’ fall a little flat.

Alongside celebrity culture, advertising has contributed to a new definition of ‘female empowerment’ in which anything can be seen as ‘empowering’ as long as a woman is doing it — as worded in a satirical article by The Onion, “women are now empowered by everything a woman does”. Going to the gym? Buying clothes? Taking selfies? Cooking healthy food? All of these are portrayed as acts of ‘empowerment’.

So, what should female empowerment mean?

At its core, ‘empowerment’ is about providing autonomy and strength to marginalised people. “To achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” is number five of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and female empowerment in this context doesn’t refer to selfies or having softer skin — instead, it refers to the process of women activating their own internal power and agency, developing solutions to the problems that they face, transforming their lives for the better, and making their own choices. Women are ‘empowered’ by factors like equal pay and access to the labour market, education, reproductive rights, and equal political participation — principles that place the power back into their hands, enabling them to take control of their own lives.

This is why the ‘female empowerment’ sold by brands and popular culture is not really about expressions of ‘empowerment’ at all. It’s about expressions of power that women in positions of privilege already have. An action is not inherently ‘empowering’ just because a woman is doing it, especially when the woman in question is not being denied her right to perform that action by existing power structures and social barriers. This form of ‘empowerment’ is simply “a series of objects and experiences you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same”.

Actions like buying lipstick or posting selfies are expressions of the power of individuals — of ‘self-empowerment’ — not of the empowerment of ‘women’ as a collective whole. That meaning of the word appears to have been lost in translation, enabling shirts saying ‘Girl Power’ to be made by exploited, underpaid female workers without much thought put by brands into how that might be ironic.

As a result, many have argued that ‘female empowerment’ must be reclaimed as a tool for advocacy, activism, and consciousness-raising, and is the key to tackling issues like FGM, sexual assault, and forced marriage. At JAN Trust, empowerment is one of our three guiding principles, alongside education and encouragement. Our work is guided by the importance of giving marginalised and vulnerable women and girls a voice, helping them to achieve their full potential and overcome the barriers to inclusion and integration that they face. Through our guidance, these women and girls are empowered with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence needed to exercise their agency in addressing the issues facing themselves, their families, and their communities.