Kelli Slogan | Contributor
Many self-proclaimed feminists today preach empowerment, and encourage women to enable themselves through means that would traditionally be considered degrading. By reclaiming the power of said tools in a new light, for example, by wearing makeup or revealing clothes, enhancing physical features through plastic surgery and performing distinctly “feminine” acts, they can take what was once believed to be a means of oppression and turn it into a ray of enlightenment. But juxtaposed with the stagnant — and in some cases worsening — political climate, it becomes apparent that this method is not working towards a goal greater than self-positivity. Merriam-Webster defines empowerment as the ability “to give official authority or legal power to” and “to promote the self-actualization or influence of.” It is not, contrary to popular belief, about feeling good. Empowerment, at its core, is about action, and fighting for rights that have never been and never will be handed to us.
Though the performance of behaviors like these is not to be discouraged, it is vital that we don’t distort our motivations for doing them. It is completely valid to do something because it makes you feel good about yourself, or for purely aesthetic reasons, but don’t do so under the guise of fighting for a just cause. As Diane Nguyen, a feminist journalist character from the Netflix series, “Bojack Horseman” stated, “I do wonder if it’s even possible for women to ‘reclaim’ their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society, or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves so we can more comfortably cater to the male gaze.” The truth is, though putting on red lipstick and heels may make you feel nice — and feeling confident in a society that profits off of your insecurity is a good thing — it is not the same as empowerment.
Power is widely viewed as the ability to produce a change. By simply conforming to standards of femininity that only further subjugate women, this so-called “empowerment” does nothing to change the lives of women. Rather than merely calling for the reallocation of power, true intersectional feminism calls for the entire restructuring of power. The patriarchal system that we live in today simply cannot give justice to all women as it stands. A reformation of said system must be generated to make any sort of gains towards equality. It is impossible to “reclaim” power that was never ours to begin with. As journalist, Susan J. Douglas put it, “This feel-good, hip feminism is about style, attitudes and words, and not about confronting deeply entrenched forms of inequality.”
For example, at the Women’s March on Washington in January of 2016, people attended to protest, many of them for the first time in their lives, in reaction to the inauguration of Donald Trump. The march was praised for its success, based on the premise that it was “polite.” There were zero arrests, and very limited police presence. But this may have less to do with the fact that it was extraordinarily “peaceful” and more to do with the fact that the majority of participants were middle class, cisgender, white women, who were no threat to the power structure at hand. Many of the signs held at this protest, and others like it were trans-exclusionary and ignored other issues of racism and classism. After the march was over many participants had the privilege to go home safely, post pictures of their “accomplishments” for praise on social media and return to their secure job the next week. Because white feminism merely panders to foundations that promote the oppression of minorities, rather than tackle greater issues, it is simple performance activism. Black Lives Matter and movements like it, on the other hand, challenge institutional racism and white supremacy, calling for lasting change and, therefore, receive harsh backlash from governmental authority and society as a whole.
Another prevalent example is the performance advocacy of materialism. Many mainstream feminists wear activism like a fashion statement, without addressing any of its real concerns. Various upper class, white liberals supported a brand of clothing with the slogan “This is what feminism looks like” across the t shirt, despite the fact that the product was made in a sweatshop by women being paid little to nothing, and being forced to live in inhumane conditions.
That is what false empowerment looks like — the exploitation of others for the sake of self-positivity and self-righteousness. Because in some instances, white, upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, women benefit from the power structures present in the US, their specific brand of feminism will remain illusory unless they are willing to rescind those few privileges for the sake of actual empowerment for all. We can’t just push the boundaries existing in the current patriarchal society — we must change the very norms themselves in order to push forward.