How ‘Empowerment’ Became Something for Women to Buy

Apr 17, 2016 · 123 comments
Ann (California)
Look at what's happening in state after state where women's access to affordable health care, birth control, and abortion is being limited, blocked, reduced or entirely cut. Then there's job pay and health insurance disparities, lack of support for day care, etc. etc. Empowerment? Sure, if you're rich.
robind (victoria, bc)
"empowerment" to equality is as "bucket lists" are to the meaning of life
CW (Left Coast)
I'm the founder of a non-profit dedicated to economic development for low- and moderate-income women and we use the words economic empowerment in our mission and have done so for 25 years. I have had many discussions over the decades with women who object to the term empowerment (so it's not a new issue) and do have my own reservations, but have not found a better substitute.

It is problematic when a powerful word or concept is co-opted and trivialized but does that mean we need to abdicate our right to use it on our own terms? Twenty years ago, I saw a full-page ad in our local paper headlined: "The New Feminism." It was an ad for gloves, perfume, purses, etc. I wrote a letter to the paper protesting that what they were advertising was "femininity" not feminism and that there was nothing new about it.

So should I have stopped using the word feminist because someone chose to give it a different meaning? We stopped using the term women's liberation because it became a term of disparagement: "Are you one of those Women's Libbers?" In a word. Yes.
Susan Cohen (Cape May Court House, New Jersey)
I was sitting here feeling glum about the fate of feminism after reading the NYT's front page story about Ivanka Trump, with its description of the crowd at Glamour's Women of the Year Event. A group of greedy hustling opportunists and rich dilettantes. America has been very successful at coopting movements, hollowing them out, and turning what's left into just another gimmick for making money. I was just wondering if anyone else shared my contempt for celebrity feminism, when I came across this article.
Thank you, Jia Tolentino.
SandraHelena39 (New York)
Western feminism today is so utterly vapid and shallow compared to what it was when I was growing up. In the 70s & 80s the word wasn't "empowerment" - an empty word that I refuse to use. It was "liberation." "Womens liberation" was the term used by everyone -- including opponents.

Today it's "empowerment" in patriarchal institutions that liberal feminists all want to be a part of. Back then we fought to change them fundamentally - radically change their structure. Today it's just about being able to get ahead in destructive, undemocratic, unjust institutions. Big whoop.
Dwight Miles (Naples, Florida)
The word has creeped in to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, like, sobriety has empowered me to be more assertive, stuff like that.
volorand (colorado)
Thank you Jia
Brilliantly written and so true
I have never liked the term "empower." As the author states, it presumes to "transmit" power to women. Transmit from where? The implication is that women don't have any and need someone else to give them some. That's hooey. We need to learn to use the power we already have.
Professor (NYC)
Saying that Kim Kardashian and Sheryl Sandberg are essentially synonymous, without offering alternative, is a surprising lack of nuance from an editor of Jezebel, which runs a daily column "TODAY IN THE TABLOIDS," presumably not for its gripping content, but for its power to capture page views.

Rather than add to the conversation by suggesting new ways forward, this article attacks efforts, admittedly in their infancy, to advance women's agenda.

TED Conferences for women would have been unthinkable even thirty years ago. No, not everything that is presented will stand the test of time, but neither did the majority of what was presented at philosophical conferences in the early 20th century.

Finally, equal pay will not equal a world free of inherited cultural norms that no longer serve the rapidly changing recreation of gender dynamics. We, each of us, carry the weight of thousands of year of human history dominated by a predominantly masculine approach to life. Policy alone cannot change the content of the human heart.
Emma (Washington, DC)
Jia Tolentino's discussion of the origins of the term "empowerment" also illuminates some of the more problematic aspects of its use in another sphere, that of global development. Foreign aid programs are often sold under the guise of enhancing "women's empowerment" or the "empowerment" of some oppressed/marginalized/indigenous group. As the author points out, however, the "empowerment" that these programs promote may not be a true process of self-actualization. Rather, such programs often impose the values and beliefs of outsiders (development professionals or governments) on target populations. Similar to the commodification of women's empowerment in advertising, this misuse of the term undermines the original intent of empowerment, which would allow people to advocate for themselves and reach their full potential.
A Girl Today (Tucson)
What’s wrong with buying items and incorporating them into our lives if they make us feel more empowered? The most important thing is the overall message these companies are trying to convey. If we see more ads like Aerie out in our public, we are instilling that these “ideals” should continue to be recognized and widely accepted. However that being said even Aerie is not perfect. Their models are only slightly larger, so the image they are conveying is not completely representative of the wider female population and the many different body images. Thus, I completely agree that marketing wise there is an issue, but that issue is representation. It is the biggest problem with Aerie and many other brands that are similar. We should not only put out images that cater to a privileged group. If it were up to me, I would have chosen models of sizes, ableism, race, etc. because I don’t care about giving the world an image that has always been typically seen as “beautiful”. I care about the honest truth and experiences that a majority of us really face. The author believes we shouldn’t channel our energy into obtaining self empowerment through the objects we can purchase. However, this to me, isn’t artificial empowerment because we still have the power of choice. By choosing certain brands that send positive messages about women’s bodies, minds, beauty, and more, we are sharing with others and most importantly ourselves, that those messages are apart of us.
Minna Salami (London)
Great commentary. As you rightly point out, empowerment was once a radical term. Believe you me, if people paid homage to the origins of the term, it most certainly would not be the darling of an American Eagle and no Kim Kardashian would near it.

Similarly, I’m impatient with the idea that we should empower women to lift African economies. Sure, growth is important (though we focus on it excessively). But a declining economy is far from the only impediment to women’s rights in Africa. Oppression caused by traditions, social attitudes, sexual norms, international politics, laws etc. are culprits too.

It’s especially unfortunate when women themselves weave women’s empowerment with “smart economics” – the credo often tied to gender equality initiatives. How devoid of genuine concern.

Actually, the point of women’s empowerment is that if women are truly empowered we’ll end structural oppression of our bodies and minds. In fact, the prefix ‘em’ stems from Latin, meaning to ‘put into’. The suffix ‘ment’, in Latin, signifies something having to do with the mind. Thus, empowerment connotes to put power into the mind.

I’ve thus come up with a term “repowerment”. ‘Re’ originally connotes ‘to undo’ and ‘to breathe new life into’. So repowerment is to undo the uncritical and senseless way we speak about women and power and breathe new life into the discourse. We need to stop dallying with patriarchal fantasies of women as nothing more than a potential economic bonanza.
A well-written and thought-provoking article. I have sort of a side question though: what's defiant or empowering about not breastfeeding? What is being defied, other than the baby's best interests? In what way is that empowering? It certainly does not empower the baby and it seems to me that the only sense in which it might empower the woman is through the ephemeral satisfaction that comes from avoiding responsibility. I can understand that it would be freeing--breastfeeding is difficult and painful--but I fail to see any way in which it is truly empowering. I image mothers who want to breastfeed and can't might even be offended by the suggestion.
Brandy Danu (Madison, WI)
$10,00 to attend the Powerful Women Conference? That's about what I earned last year in my sole proprietor business, not including the cost of business use of home. Hope they had a good lunch.
Candaceb108 (Old Greenwich, Ct)
Fabulous journalism Jia, thank you. The best for me, "...the process by which an oppressed person perceives the structural conditions of his oppression.." As I have gotten older, a senior citizen now, the scales have fallen away, the skeletal structure of patriarchy is in EVERYTHING. It is as if I have x-ray vision. There is no struggle now with hormones, media, the Joneses. In every interaction, there it is, the excess burden, the voicelessness, the willful viciousness of patriarchy's effect.
Liva Paudere (Singapore)
"Contentless feminism", "tailored to insecurity and desire" - we should not condemn Kardashian for feeling emowered by her celebrity. We can, however, question her announcement her nudes are advancing global women's causes.
Liz R (Catskill Mountains)
Great piece. I could not agree more. Loved this line: “The formulation has been diluted to something representational and bloodless — an architectural rendering of a building that will never be built.”

Yep. Not unlike the built (but somehow still representational and bloodless) community center of a public housing block, as Monica Ali had it in her novel “Brick Lane”:

"It had been built without concession to beauty, and with the expectation of defilement."

There you have it. Two women seeing past all the hype to an existential reality.

There's a lot of talk these days about "cultural appropriation" and I've tended to think some of the conclusions are a bit over the top. But I've also started to think that corporate (or government) marketing of appropriated dreams deserves far more scrutiny. We seem to have arrived at a place where "if you market it, mission accomplished." Really? Well not by a long shot, and it's time for more of us to say that.
Adjunct Professor (NYC)
I understand that using women's empowerment to sell is an issue however when the media scrutinizes powerful women to promptly dismiss them one by one, it sends a sexist message that women's voices don't matter. Let's instead blame the commodification of women's empowerment on capitalism and credit women with the intelligence to not buy into it commercially.

If women talking about empowerment are already there why should we silence them? "Lean in" for example notes how women undermine other women and she gives advice on action to take that I was able to use in my own career. So calling her a largely "contentless" representative of a brand writes off of Sandberg's important advice for women.

I'm not going to sit around and wait for equal pay and equal rights. The college students in the class I teach talk about empowerment for women and reference Kardashian. So rather than dismiss the women who represent the idea I would like a follow up article that proposes solutions and ways that women instead can really empower themselves and others. It's time for the media to start supporting more strong women and their ideas as a symbol for the rest of us.
Ben (Austin)
I'm not sure if I would prefer the empowerment spam the author indicates women get or the little blue pill spam that I get as a man. But it is an interesting thing to ponder whether the spammers are accurate in their identification of our hopes and anxieties.
Pat Jones (UK)
Well I'm sure they are accurate Ben!

That's why the always promise miraculous enlargements, youthful appearances, paper-white teeth, firmer bits, smaller bellies, bigger muscles... not to mention wealth and independence.

It's all about convincing us how we should be. Then selling us something to help us become it. The more unrealistic the better, because we'll never get there but will continue to buy, buy, buy as we strive for perfection.
Jill (<br/>)
"contentless". nailed it on both levels.
C (Ohio)
Oh my! when I graduated from college in 1972 I was a minority When I had a baby in1977 and went back to work, there was no one to help me.Did I give up? Sorry,no.
But to get to college,there were Federal aid grants to help and Federal worker programs so you could earn income at your college while you were going to school.These all depended on your parents income.
My husband and I went through the FICA program for our children.Sometimes it worked,sometimes it did not.
Ad men try to ressurect themselves.Like Don Draper,they are a dying breed.
Angelo Stevens (New Brunswick, NJ)
Don't equate feminism with abortion. There are indeed women feminists who are pro-life.

You don't need to agree with them. But abortion is not misogyny, as implied in this article.
throughhiker (Philadelphia)
I don't see how having the government insist that a woman not have an abortion, if she chooses to, can be a feminist position. Feminism is all about giving women power over their own bodies and lives, not about putting that control into the hands of the government. The "pro-life" movement is all about prioritizing concerns for the life of an undeveloped fetus over the life of a woman. If a particular woman does not believe in abortion, that is fine and wonderful. Every feminist will support her choice. And feminists are the ones fighting for her to have all the rights that will help her raise that child. But a feminist does not want women serving as incubators for the state. Forcing people into a continued pregnancy is not as charming as it apparently sounds to some people.
JSD (New York, NY)

I am pro-choice but completely disagree with your simplistic reduction of the pro-life argument to the prioritization of an undeveloped fetal life over the life of the mother. Most sane pro-lifers do not make that trade off and, in frankness, the vast majority of abortions are not to save the life of the mother.

Additionally, that straw man is certainly not the one the Court struck down in Roe and affirmed in Casey.

I get it that some crazy fundamentalist pro-lifers loudly advance truly some truly insane arguments for their cause. It does nothing for the credibility of our side to do the same.
Anna (Md)
I'm not sure about this. Certainly there are feminists who would never choose abortion for themselves and do not like abortion (does anyone?), but to be pro-life is to attempt to curtail the reproductive choices of other women, and to me that is patriarchal not feminist.
JSD (New York, NY)
Sheryl Sandberg is not looking to empower women; she's not even talking to women. She's talking to men assuring them that the glass ceiling is due to women's failure to "lean in" (whatever that means). She speaks in the voice corporations that pay for her appearances, appealing to female employees to equate work-life balance to their inability to get ahead. In the end, she is a tool to increase corporate efficiency, not any kind of advocate for female empowerment (basically Tony Robbins in a pantsuit).

If Ms. Sandberg really wanted to "empower" women, she might consider discussing mandated child-care, women's health issues, parental leave, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, wage disparities, or the right to choice or if she want to go third wave, forced marriage, sexual repression, domestic abuse, the sex trade, genital mutilation, etc.

... but she doesn't. She keeps her message hermetically sanitized from anything that may touch political controversial or that may direct the trade-offs of true female empowerment to anyone other than women themselves.

Just once, I would love her to turn to her host at one of her events and say:

"G.E., while I appreciate you having me here today to teach your female employees to lean in, I am going to spend my time discussing the effect that GE has on the women of India and China and how you could effect meaningful change without asking your labor force to reconsider the career risks of taking maternity leave."
Jo (Oregon)
Of course women's empowerment would inevitably be commodified, as has everything of any value, and many things of no, or inconsequential value. The relentless need to buy anything marketed to us cannot be quenched - this is the nature of marketing. It is lamentable that in our culture, citizenship is rarely mentioned while consuming has become our most patriotic duty.
Thanks, NYT, for a well articulated piece.
AC (Minneapolis)
Don't forget that idiotic campaign Mika Brzezinski's been pushing for the last year or more. Would love to hear some news but instead we get slogans and feelgoodisms. Hucksterism is not empowering, people. If someone's selling it it's probably not worth buying.
RJPost (Baltimore)
Oh my .. the tragedy you American woman face. To have the economic freedom to spend your money on products that claim to empower you. The ceaseless whining of feminists and women in country compared to the state of both genders in 95% of the rest of the world is simply stunning. BTW: you have equal pay .. simply work as hard as your male counterparts and your bank balance will be the same. Of course if what you are really saying (and you are) is that society and companies should spend money to accommodate your child rearing and other personal choices while still paying you equally, that is a form of inequality, no?
Jade (Chicago)
"Simply work as hard as a man." No. In the words of the US president, a woman in 2016 has to work harder than a man to make what said man made in 2015. I suspect, missus, that you are a man, or quite privileged and unaware. No issue for you, no issue for anybody? Well, not so.
throughhiker (Philadelphia)
Wow. You haven't spent much time in workplaces if you think women don't work as hard as men. You also haven't familiarized yourself with the abundant research showing that women face discrimination at every point in their careers. Also, women are much much more likely to live in poverty than are men. They are much more likely to be raising children as single parents. Men are equally responsible for producing children ("personal choices!"), yet they are much more likely to shirk their responsibilities or rely on women to do the bulk of child rearing. The fact that women in the U.S. don't have it as bad as women in much of the rest of the world doesn't diminish our responsibility to make things as fair as possible. If anything, it makes it even more important to keep pushing for our rights, while we also fight for the rights of women around the world. This is not an either-or proposition.
kt (New York City)
"...society and companies should spend money to accomdate your child rearing..." Who raised you, RJ? She didn't do a very good job.
Stacey (San Francisco)
Advertisers commonly use trendy terms to sell their junk products; the term "empowerment" is the just the latest one to surface. The word means different things to different people, and I understand it's roots, but I would argue that in our first world society, empowerment means (to women, at least) that we have the ability to exercise choice in any given situation, and we have the right to exercise our power of that choice. It has nothing to do with the cheesy ad/entertainment/reality tv world, but it is a right of being human. Of course, this will never stop money making businesses from trying to capitalize on the term. But as consumers, we should be able to see through the facade.
Beth Berman (Oakland)
The revolution will not be comodified, no matter how many workouts, skin goo, ersatz celebrities, fake sex and gung ho corporate sloganeering is poured down our throats. Thank you Ms. Tolentino - I do believe I'm actually feeling a bit "empowered" by your article.
AES (Toronto)
Thank your for this. You articulate better than I've been able to why I have felt so uncomfortable with use of the term "empowerment" and why its appropriation by brands such as Dove is so noxious. The term's use in the contexts you describe, and which are motivated ultimately by profit, is simply oppression dressed up as liberation. Yet somehow more insidious, since it asks women, the consumers of "empowerment" to participate in, yet simultaneously ignore, that oppression.
Sarah Kuhn (Lowell, MA)
To paraphrase Karl Marx, who was paraphrasing Hegel, “Great struggles reappear: the first time as politics, the second as advertising slogans.”
MaureenM. (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)
Flaneuse in DC is exactly right and bang on in her analysis. (I'm assuming she's a woman based on the rather personal and clear focus her comments have.) She could have read my mind, and likely speaks for many women above the age of 50 today.

I would add only one thing to Flanuese's comment: women will be more 'empowered' in the world (and our North American society in particular) when men learn clearly that their role is to 'protect' and 'profess' above all, and 'providing' is secondary. For a man to 'protect' women's contributions through respecting and promoting pay equity -- and then 'professing' to all that this is important to him, well, THAT *is* 'empowering'! (For everyone!)
Likewise for a man to 'protect' his daughters from the oversexualizing influences in North American society today by encouraging their 'tomboy' tendencies and admiring their strengths and aptitudes, both physical and intellectual... THAT is also 'empowering'.
Men have an enormous influence on their families and society. When they behave like conscientious husbands and fathers by 'protecting' their nearest and dearest in this personal - and critically 'empowering' - way, and then take it to the streets by being vocal about it ('professing'), these 'real' men can find great relief in the stressful 'providing' department.
They'll find they have a devoted wife who will be happy to share that, sometimes onerous, task - and even children who will pitch in where they can too. Now THAT'S 'empowering'!
Matt (NYC)
Thanks for informing us of our role.
Tatyana (Seattle)
When I read, hear, or say the word empowerment I automatically lift up my head, draw back my shoulders, and sit a little taller. With "power" at its core, "empowerment" psychologically triggers me to work toward shaping the world in which I live instead of falling victim to it. Regardless of the term's origins and any potential misuse, this trigger cannot be anything but positive.

Throughout history women have not been a powerful group, but change is clearly in the air. We need to go easier on Kim and Sheryl - like us, they are just women trying to muddle through this period of change, helping us do so ourselves by sharing their stories publicly.

The fact that marketers are using women's empowerment messaging to sell their products should also be viewed positively. Whether specific messages land well or not, they show that the corporate world has begun to understand that the language it uses to speak to its female customers needs to change.
dve commenter (calif)
I am reminded of a few phrases that we have all heard:
"The Business of America IS business"
"There's a sucker born every minute"
"Born to be conned"
I've read a little history and it would seem that while many people in diverse fields win Nobel prizes for their work, it is usually the work that was done 30, 40 50 years earlier.
If you are empowered, it will be in your early years, your teens will demonstrate that you have better than average abilities. That will set you on a course of achievement (if you don't blow it). For the rest of us, yeah, empowerment can be purchased like soap. The "empowerment" movement is like the "other" movement. It does nothing, and for the poor working people it raises a lot of false hopes." empowerment" won't pay the rent, but a decent job will if it pays a decent wage.
America is the creator of advertising, and"nobody has gone broke under estimating the taste of the American public."
Feel empowered?
The Buddy (Astoria, NY)
Resisting the pull of consumerism sounds empowering to me.
Barbara T (Oyster Bay, NY)
You do not have to be a hyperactive consumer of beauty products, travel tickets or home goods to set yourself on the path to empowerment. The fact that we create a deficiency theory in young girl's minds in the first place is very troubling. Why would assume that they are not empowered in the first place?
Anglican Abbot (Chicago)
Because they can expect, by virtue of their birth, to earn less than their make counterparts over a lifetime.
Justice Holmes (Charleston)
And most of the women who are in the "empowerment" business treat their own employees both men and women like slaves. Often requiring them to be independent contractors so that no benefits will be paid and they work at the "empowering woman's" pleasure. Whether it's leaning in or empowerment, it's all about making money and the women who take advantage of their fellow women while being loaded up with phony awards are the worse to be blunt. They sure can talk the talk but their employees know they don't walk the walk.

Just like Hillary!
Jones (New York)
A truly brilliant piece. Very clever, careful, and insightful.
Kalidan (NY)
I first heard the term 'empowerment' as a student while researching small and midsized firms. Managers spoke of empowering teams for improved implementation processes. I could see clear evidence that empowerment of teams produced meaningful outcomes - as long as members had paid their dues, were focused on learning and improving, and were meritorious. Empowering dull and untalented people led to redefinition of the work environment to suite one's needs (untalented teams empowered themselves to take Friday's off, and devote time to personal issues like balancing checkbooks on company's time). I saw this brand of corrupted empowerment (sadly) in educational institutions; teachers redefined their responsibilities in ways that all negative learning outcomes could be attributed to someone else.

I am concerned about the baby-bathwater connection. Empowerment is a good thing, to the extent it is the opposite of reducing power and freedom, and curbing individual aspirations and creativity. There is strong evidence that technological advancement has empowered people. Trust brands to corrupt this otherwise sound notion. Lousy brands aimed at weak people on the back of this term - sadly - is providing fodder to this brilliant article. Alas.

Colenso (Cairns)
When I think of a strong woman, in my mind's eye, I cannot help but see the female equivalent of that rather ridiculous figure the strongman: a circus/stage performer with heavily waxed moustache and leotard, a burly entertainer for the masses; or a Castro, a Chavez, or similar South American despot.

But no, apparently I am wrong, just plain wrong, so very wrong, to think like this.

A strong woman is simply another version of that emblem of female virtue, the empowered woman.
Roger Corman (Nyack, NY)
Capitalism creates wealth and jobs--which supposedly we want--everyone from Bernie to Trump--we all want those "good jobs."

Today Jia Tolentino blames capitalism's seductive power for diverting women from overthrowing it with bigger panties and TED Conferences.

Yesterday Ross Douthat blamed late stage western capitalism's gospel of self-fulfillment for helping undermine traditional Catholic marriage.

You can't love employment and hate employers. If there is truly a need for a revolution, my guess it will happen, from either the right or the left, regardless of how hard people are marketed to in the future.
PogoWasRight (florida)
You need much, much more discussion and arrival at conclusions about the definition of the word "empowerment".......
njglea (Seattle)
Right On, Ms. Tolentino! This is what empowerment means to me, "an oppressed (or suppressed) person perceives the structural conditions of his oppression (or suppression) and is subsequently able to take action against his oppressors." Today, more than ever, there is a barrage of supposed entertainment and "news" meant to make women feel like victims with a "canned" method of overcoming some problem - rape, abuse, economic inequality, etc. We have "Supergirl", "Madame Secretary", the "Kardashians", "Mob Wives", "Snapped", which is nearly always about female murderers, many renditions of "Sherlock Holmes", one in which the woman who plays Dr. Livingston is clearly smarter but has less power, dozens of "king" and "male power" stories where women's only role is to play badly to help their men get power, and all the Lifetime entertainment basically showing supposedly "empowered" women in their traditional "female" roles with different costumes. It is ludicrous because, as ALL women know, it has no bearing on reality. Please keep printing articles like this one to remind women of their true, creator-given power and promote women stepping up and taking one-half the power positions in the world. Time to change HIS story to OUR story around the world. It is a joyful, courageous, intelligent, powerful story that MUST finally take it's place in the world.
b. (usa)
It's empowering to sell worthless products, meaningless experiences, and empty bromides to gullible people.
Michael Goodwin (Oakland-New Orleans)
Ya think? This excellent analysis is a few days late, but still might change a few hearts and minds. Nice job, Jia.
fast&amp;furious (the new world)
The most stylish and impressive person I've noticed recently is the 66 year old poet and writer Eileen Myles. She looks great, like a cross between Bowie and Sam Shepard and her decades of writing are brilliant, tough and gorgeous. Fashion is admittedly trivial but I don't mind fashion when designers like Celine use Joan Didion (80) or St. Laurent uses Joni Mitchell (71) as models and muses, Or when Marc Jacobs uses Jessica Lange (64) as a model. Anything that subverts the given that fashion and beauty are only for the very young and that mature women should be as invisible pleases me.

We need more of that - being able to see lots of women of any age, background, race, and mindset as worthy of our admiration and interest even in an endeavor as trivial as fashion. I can't imagine that a tough customer like Didion felt 'empowered' by appearing in a fashion ad. It was great to see her, nevertheless.
D. Good (Seattle)
I am reminded irresistibly of the Virginia Slims commercial from the early 70s, which was so ubiquitous that I still can't get the jingle out of my head:

"You've come a long way, baby, to get where you've got to today - You've got your own cigarette now, baby! You've come a long, long way."

This was cynically distributed as the tobacco companies hid their own research showing the deadlines of their product.

Co-optation is ugly and distracting and, unfortunately, lucrative.
arichan (brooklyn, ny)
Thanks for this essay, and reminding us of liberation theology and revolutionary political thought. Today's "empowerment"--as it is promoted to women but as so many activities of self-expression are promoted to people of all genders--can make us feel powerful while drawing our sphere of influence around the very tight circle of the individual, and all personal power is expended grasping for self-esteem.
dve commenter (calif)
HUH? Sounds like an "empowerment ad".
Jenny (Los Angeles)
As the mother of two young daughters I have been finding all the "empowerment marketing" more and more distasteful. I want my girls to grow up and live in a society where they earn equal pay, where they are safe in their bodies, where they have access to childcare resources and women's health resources. Selling them "girl power" dolls feels like a mockery of what they will actually need.
dve commenter (calif)
"I want my girls to grow up and live in a society where they earn equal pay, where they are safe in their bodies, where they have access to childcare resources and women's health resources."

You want to move to the Netherlands then. Ain't gonna happen in 'merica I'm afraid. Maybe the best empowerment that people can get is by understanding the reality of the world we live in--it is not a nice place, but could be better with a lot of change. slogans are just that--personal ethics may do more to empower than almost anything else.
chickenlover (Massachusetts)
"People who talk empowerment are, by definition, already there." It is rarely "defined by the people who actually need it. "

The political equivalent of this would be the American way of trying to impose humanitarian values and democracy in various parts of the world. While laudable as goals, they often reek of paternalistic imposition.

Neither "empowerment" nor "democracy" can be imposed purely from the top down or from the outside-in. It has to be accompanied by a bottom-up, local, and internal movement that comes from those seeking these goals. Absent an inside-out component it is doomed to fail.
neal (westmont)
Will Jezebel publish the story in today's Times showing that what pay gap there is appears to be in good part due to women setting their salary expectations lower? Or that women out of college are being offered salaries 7% higher then men out of college? Empowerment is about being willing to look at the fundamental truth, not rejecting it because it doesn't fit a gynocentric viewpoint.
Dcmd (Washington dc)
What a well-thought-out, deliciously written piece! "leaning in" makes, me angry for exactly the reasons the author cites and it relieves society and men - as our bosses and life partners - of so much! If society truly placed full accountability on men to be a "lean in" and equally present parent, much of this discussion would be moot.
caliken (Los Angeles, Calif)
During the 1960's, Herbert Marcuse, a German-American philosopher, wrote that capitalism has the the power to co-opt any movement and render it irrelevant. In One Dimensional Man, he argued that the commodification of our society had dulled our ability to see beyond the false needs created by advertising.
jasmine (<br/>)
This is the best essay I've read in the NY Times in too long! More thoughtful critiques/calls-to-arms/meditations on discourse like this please!
Median (Westchester, NY)
Really fine analysis. An additional thought: power, of course, flows from many factors, including wealth, birth, strong families/communities, education, race, and doing the right kinds of work. So, "empowerment," real or fabricated, becomes yet another factor that increases mainly for those who already have it, as you note. How do we really "spread it around?" Daunting changes in the factors above would be needed. Empowered people might think of taking them on.
Robert (Canada)
Nice article. Very substantial. What I really appreciated was the lack of empty liberal slogans along the lines of 'when we as a society x'. Empowerment is not about complaining that everybody else isn't fixing your problems for you. It is about living with the confidence to fix them yourself to the degree you are able.

The black/white issues are the perfect example of this. After decades of calls to the greater society to fix itself, affirmative action, the welfare state expansion and unending declarations of racism and the rise of BLM etc, finally blacks are equal to whites right? Nope. In fact blacks are today further behind whites than anytime in the last 60-70 years.

Conservatives empower themselves, men and women. Liberals hope that blaming the bogeymen of today, others will empower them. This is all the difference in the world.
Sharon (Seattle)
Empowerment usually means -- not enough -- without this item, this service, this product that will transform us into someone better than we are today. As women we need to consider this: we are enough. Just as we are.
Susan (Windsor, MA)
Don't forget guns! Samantha Bee had a great segment at the end of her show recently about a late-night television show hawking guns to women, with an "empowerment" message....
Mister X (NY)
I much prefer being male.

Yes, we get 63% more jail time for the same crime.
Yes, spending on men's health needs pales in comparison to womens'
Yes, the media vilifies us and lies about a wage gap.
Yes, the media vilifies us and lies about campus rape.
Yes, more men support abortion rights then women, but we are still considered oppressive on this issue.
Yes, we have to work twice as hard not to be considered stupid, brutal, lazy or unable to multi-process.
Yes, the schools favor girls over boys.
Yes, prostate cancer research funding pales in comparison to breast cancer.
Yes, the media makes us look like fools and idiots.
Yes, men were denied suffrage too, and that is ignored.
Yes, in the past, men were jailed when their wives committed crimes.

But at least we don't suffer the poppycock and psychobabble foisted on women by feminists desperate to prove that there is a war on women, when, in reality, women of this country's century are the most pampered, people in history, hell bent on a life of solitude with cats due to their endless self-pity.
njglea (Seattle)
Boo hoo.
Justice Holmes (Charleston)
Wow, I'm glad I'm not you!
Mister X (NY)
Feminists don't disappoint, do they?

Blame men
Blame business
Blame advertising
Blame the media
Blame Hollywood
Blame patriarchy

But certainly, do not ever take responsibility for yourselves and acknowledge that feminists are heaping all this pressure on women

Now, if you'd only take yourselves off the pedestal and recognize that you're the gift of God, maybe you'd have less pressure on yourselves and stop turning every slight into an opera.
Bill Camarda (Ramsey, NJ)
Superb. I'd only add that, along with generating massive wealth, innovation, and disruption of tradition, this relentless commoditization of human dreams and aspirations is what capitalism does best. Women and feminists aren't alone in feeling the resulting disorientation, disconnection, and vague sense of inauthenticity.
Flaneuse in DC (Washington, DC)
Here's what I've learned over the years: when you're young and your hormones are raging, being attractive and sexual *feels* powerful. And it is, kinda, in a certain arena. But it's shallow for three reasons. First, it's utterly formulaic, shaped by what's normative for the culture at the time (why so many women dye their hair blonde, for example; very few adults are naturally fair-haired). Second, it's other-centered, informed by the Male Gaze or perhaps now the Media Gaze (for example lesbians, instead of opting out of this game, are now mainstream and should also be sexy). Third, it's fleeting - ask any woman over a certain age.

Here's what I'd tell any young woman who would listen: True empowerment does involve economic autonomy, which doesn't have to mean being well-off; it means finding a work-life balance that makes sense. ("Golden handcuffs" are not empowering, nor is exhaustion). It means wearing what you wish and looking how you like to look, regardless of public opinion and norms of having to be attractive and conformist (which can be hard if you're trying to find a mate or fit in at the office).

Age has its freedoms, but women will be more "empowered" in our society when and if we again honor the "crones" and respect our elders.
brave gee (<br/>)
i don't know. looking like how you like to look doesn't seem that empowering because if you have a desire to look a certain way, the next logical thought would be why, and there goes whatever empowerment is supposed to mean. i would say not caring how you look is true empowerment.
MaureenM. (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)
brave gee... Flaneuse in DC said "wearing what you wish and looking HOW you like to look" not "looking LIKE HOW you like to look"... small difference in your addition of one little word, but a major difference in the meaning. Your hair-splitting misses the point the rest of us got.
MaureenM. (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)
Flaneuse in DC is exactly right and bang on in her analysis. (I'm assuming she's a woman based on the rather personal and clear focus her comments have.) She could have read my mind, and likely speaks for many women above the age of 50 today.

I would add only one thing to Flanuese's comment: women will be more 'empowered' in the world (and our North American society in particular) when men learn clearly that their role is to 'protect' and 'profess' above all, and 'providing' is secondary. For a man to 'protect' women's contributions through respecting and promoting pay equity -- and then 'professing' to all that this is important to him, well, THAT *is* 'empowering'! (For everyone!)
Likewise for a man to 'protect' his daughters from the oversexualizing influences in North American society today by encouraging their 'tomboy' tendencies and admiring their strengths and aptitudes, both physical and intellectual... THAT is also 'empowering'.
Men have an enormous influence on their families and society. When they behave like conscientious husbands and fathers by 'protecting' their nearest and dearest in this personal - and critically 'empowering' - way, and then take it to the streets by being vocal about it ('professing'), these 'real' men can find great relief in the stressful 'providing' department.
They'll find they have a devoted wife who will be happy to share that, sometimes onerous, task - and even children who will pitch in where they can too. Now THAT'S 'empowering'!
SteveRR (CA)
Missing the obvious - for marketing to women...

Empowerment has become a tautology.

And thus - devoid of other than self-referential meaning.
James (Hartford)
The cornerstone of this phony enterprise is the selling of abortions as the sine qua non of female empowerment.

At face value, it is a bizarre contention that the social standing and moral worth of all women would be determined primarily by their consumption of potentially unethical medical procedures.

But it makes a lot more sense when you consider that abortions keep women thin, sexually available, unattached, and at their desks at work.
njglea (Seattle)
Spoken like a true man, James.
Justice Holmes (Charleston)
You have got to be kidding. Reproductive freedom isn't all about abortions. I'm really tired of indivuals who twist very appropriate concepts to serve their own anti woman agenda.
FSMLives! (NYC)
Does it still make a lot more sense when you consider that the lack of access to birth control keeps women pregnant, attached, and in the home?

Ya know, chattel?
We saw the same corporate takeover of the serious drive for social change in the 1960's when the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement became "chic", and stores began selling "love beads".
Pat Jones (UK)
I consider myself educated, articulate, intelligent and a good communicator.

I wanted to read and absorb your article but had to look several words up. That's not easy to admit but I did and I'm betting others did too.

Personally, I'm a huge believer in plain English for communication. Rightly or wrongly, I sometimes feel articles that use numerous unusual terms or words are trying to make the audience think that "she's using big words that I have to look up. She's more intelligent and learned than me, she must be right."

Sorry, I don't mean that in a harsh way, but I'm sure you'd want as many people as possible to understand your article and find it easy and pleasant to read.

I do understand that many apparent synonyms have subtle nuances which allow you to convey the quintessential essence of your postulations...

See? I'm doing it now!

Really all I mean to say is: "Sure, you need to choose your words carefully to get your exact meaning across."

Easy right?
Allison (Austin, TX)
I thought about this, too, as I began to read, but suddenly realized that I was tuning in to what she was saying, and it all started clicking, as if my brain had become aware that it was being addressed on a deeper level. The urge to look up words (none of which are unfamiliar) vanished, and I realized she was saying exactly what needed to be said in the way it needed to be said. She's talking about a subtle form of oppression, one that's very difficult to perceive because it's disguised by layers of things that our culture labels "empowering." In order to combat the coopting of language by people who are just trying to make a buck off you, you have to figure out how to strip away the layers of marketing rhetoric, which requires playing with language and using the codes of feminism that have yet to be stolen, "performing identity," for instance. Because these codes haven't been adapted into marketing strategies, they still remain unknown to the broader public that only reads or consumes advertising, and therefore they come across as confusing in a journalistic context, where they are also still largely unknown. I'm glad she's at least introducing these concepts into her article, so that more people will have access to them and perhaps start to incorporate them into their thinking.
brave gee (<br/>)
but looking up unfamiliar words is universally a good thing, right? that's one of the benefits of the written language, you have the time to do this and increase knowledge and vocabulary. spoken word is different, obviously. but in this instance, what you are complaining about is really exactly what is supposed to happen when you read. new stuff!!
Daniel Baker (MN)
Notice you did look the stuff up. It is good when an article pushes people to go to the original source. Using the original terms source material etc... gives it credibility. That is the greatness of the internet is that there is room for all kinds of articles with all kinds of different depth. I often give a book, article, other written thing, extra points when it prompts me to do extra research on a subject. Just because an article causes me to have to do extra work shouldn't necessarily be a criticism, sometimes we are looking as readers for guidance to the extra work we should be doing.
fast&amp;furious (the new world)
Commodification of 'enlightment feminism' means $$$ for those cynical enough to run with it. Expensive conferences brought to you by the likes of Tina Brown, Arianna Huffington and Mike Brzenzski offer lectures and lifestyle experiences for hundreds of dollars a pop to the 1% - and working people who'll drop that kind of money to see a hero. Arianna and Mika interviewed each other about turning off their devices while lying in a bed on the stage. If you don't think that's worth hundreds of bucks to experience, this whole movement may not be for you.

I wanted to go to the upcoming Tribeca Film talk with Donna Karan. It lasts 50 minutes. I stepped back when I saw the event ticket was $160.00. Donna Karan's worth 10s of millions $$$. Does she need to charge this much for this 'talk' or is this the organizers of Tribeca Films being crazy?

The people who organize and price these events are out of their ever-loving minds. But apparently there's a sucker in $800 Louboutins seeking enlightenment every minute.
Lianne Raymond (BC, Canada)
Kelly Diels is also tackling this subject with a lot of insight and journalistic probing - she is focussing particularly on the entrepreneurial angle. So fascinating.
Frank (Oz)
marketing 101 - create an urgent desire - women's mags post photos of (photoshopped) flawless glowing skin of a slim (photoshopped) 14yo - to create anxiety in the slightly-overweight older woman - ooh - you need this product - to make you feel better - it's only $50 for the 1oz jar - rush this ! - it even smells nice ...
SassyChicGeek (New York, NY)
Great and timely article. I had a conversation this morning on this very topic and the monetization of empowering people, especially women. The question that I continue to ask is this: if there's so many people and org out there focused on empowering women, why are we still struggling with things like pay gaps and access to basic rights, in some parts of the globe? Your perspective articulates the tension I feel on this topic. Thanks!
Lamont MacLemore (Kingston, PA)
"it placed faith in the individual"

In fact, it placed _full responsibility_ on the individual and relieved society of any responsibility for anything. If you are poor, then it's because you intrinsically *deserve* to be poor. If you are rich, then it's because you intrinsically *deserve* to be rich.

It's no one else's business but your own.
Daniel Baker (MN)
Paulo Freire the author Jia is referencing in this article would call this one of the myths that the oppressors use to oppress the oppressed, along with the myth that the oppressed are lazy stupid etc... Basically the argument here is that Empowerment as a movement is a co-opting of the concept of Empowerment from a revolutionary movement from the oppressed to a method of oppression, and thus has lost meaning.
Kate G (NY, NY)
Are there any examples of brands that actually are empowering women? Like, brands, that give some of their proceeds to Planned Parenthood or educating children in Africa or even supporting local female artists? If a company were to do that would they be justified in using the concept of empowerment in their marketing campaign?
Quinn (nyc)
Depends on what "some" of their proceeds translates to, in amount , effort, and persistence. Donation by itself does not excuse abuse and opportunism.
Mira (new york, new york)
I'm afraid that if that were done they were use it as part of their marketing :(
Megan (Santa Barbara)
To characterize not breastfeeding as 'mildly defiant' is, I would argue, another instance of "punishingly individualistic, market-driven understanding of women's empowerment." Reframe breastfeeding as an A+ bonding experience, an endorphin cocktail, and a free miracle health elixir that you produce in your sleep, and it can feel extremely empowering to breastfeed. Surely we can nurture our babies without being disempowered, or the whole notion of empowerment is a male model.
Julie Owsik Ackerman (Narberth, PA)
It's precisely because of attitudes like this that not breastfeeding is defiant.
Robert (Canada)
Exactly. It is a source or unique power available only to women, which is priceless, utterly intrinsic to women, and cost-free, not requiring any pre-existing position or status.

But I think you've hit the nail on the head. It is mostly derided as within the confines of femininity as defined by tradition, falsely so. Women have power in their own way, not in the same way as men, and this is true female empowerment. Chasing after the same power as men is like when humans kept trying to fly like birds (various comical attempts at wing-flapping contraptions). We had to fly a different way.
Dcmd (Washington DC)
I am pumping as I write this. If only it wasn't so disempowering for a mom to produce less than adequate, can't, or simply choose not to breastfeed because she wants to or has to work instead! Society, family and friends and institutions ALL love to tell women what's best for them or their babies without providing real alternative support. Including other, self - righteous mothers out there. That is indeed disempowering and maddening.
Margo (Smith)
Interesting piece. Just finished reading a review copy of Andi Zeisler's new book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement and this almost reads like a review!
Shifu Says (Los Angeles, CA)
The Onion summed it up brilliantly with this headline:

"Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does "
Nancy (OR)
Great essay. See Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. Pepsi or Coke is not a choice. Empowerment is choosing what's right for you, not what we are force fed.

Why is it celebrating your sexuality, when you are displaying your body in a serialized way, and posturing in ways that deliver that image. Why has it become de rigueur for women to be undressed in our media and this is seen as liberating and empowering and the only way of expressing our sexuality.

These are false choices and cloaking them in empowerment has co-opted that word so it has become a commodity rather than a form of liberation. But then we have been reduced to consumers rather than participants.

When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace. Jimi Hendrix
Bernard (Montréal)
Empowerment has been co-opted and détourned.
christv1 (California)
How about real empowerment in the form of equality in wages and salaries, access to free birth control and available abortions when needed? How about the fact that many retired woman live at the poverty level? Let's talk about something real.
SFR Daniel (Ireland)
"Let's talk about something real." That's what would threaten the magic marketing machines. As long as we're obsessing about our underwear, the whiteness of our teeth, the depth of cleavage, the accepted diet, the empowering product, the right job, the best college, the best shoes, the most acceptable political opinions, then what's real can just slip by. As we concentrate on our selfies we miss the real picture. I like this column. Thanks.
njglea (Seattle)
Women need to band together and VOTE for all qualified women, christv1. We need ACTION - not more talk.
Susannah (France)
What is empowering is the vote. Women who don't vote on women's human right to be equal to men are dooming all women to be considered less than a commodity. I am not talking about women voting for women. Rather, I am talking about every woman's right to control her bodily functions as she determines. I am talking about hold those people who deprive a female of her human rights just as suspect as a person who seeks to deprive a male of his human rights. It is incredible that today I know a man who has stated on more than one occasion: 'There's sexism. When a woman does what a man does routinely she is lauded.' ... and he believes himself to be a feminist.

Here's a feminist's point of view:
I am the essential other half of humanity.
I can choose for myself what I want to believe or disbelieve.
I am just as entitled to be educated as is any male.
I deserve to be judged equally along with all other person before the law.
My body belongs to me.
Rape is not a spur of the moment sexual act; it is a personal attack made with malice and intend to harm.
If I am qualified to hire for a job then I am qualified to be paid the exact same wage as everyone else who is doing that specific job.
Both partners of children need to be available for those children so the family leave act must be refined.
fromsc (Southern California)
This piece had the unfortunately not so rare effect of taking my own muddled thinking, my incoherent sputtering anger and frustration with a topic and presenting it as a clearly articulated, superbly rendered argument. I found it irresistible and empowering (in the best way).
yoyoz (Philadelphia)
There always seems to be two competing ideas that need to be seperated: (1) individualism as applied to personal choice, and (2) individualism as applied to neoliberal entitlement.

The author sadly doesn't separate this important distinction, and, thus, her argument that Kardashian's empowerment is 'contentless' feels odd and wrong. You can hate Kim K as much as you want, but to say resisting sexual mores is contentless is to be asleep for almost 500 years. It's a moral change--there are no laws banning women from being naked--but it's still political.

The rest of the critique is quite correct though about neoliberalism and how it is co-opting feminism. Just it's messy.
Lamont MacLemore (Kingston, PA)
"there are no laws banning women from being naked"

There are, *in fact*, such laws. In the incredulous words of the parking-structure attendant in _Ferris Bueller's Day Off_: "What country do you think this is?!"
Brooke (<br/>)
How exactly does Kim K. resist sexual mores?

Roseanne appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair in lingerie was resisting sexual mores. Jamie Lee Curtis appearing unretouched in MORE magazine was resisting sexual mores. Jessica Lange's roles in American Horror Story have resisted sexual mores.

A young, rich, nominally attractive woman showing off her body is not resisting sexual mores.
Robert (Canada)
How is KK resisting sexual mores? Have you watched an hour of television in last 20 years? She is the full embodiment of the universally known fact that sex sells. Selling her body empowered her, financially. It diminishes her in every other way, along with everyone else.
Changed and Changed Back (San Francisco CA)
Perfectly put. You go, woman!
shirley s (wisconsin)
the writer calls herself educated. attending college makes no one educated.
socanne (Tucson)
what a silly thing to say. Attending college is the process of obtaining an education. Even if you don't think so.
Janet (&lt;br/&gt;)
There are college grads who are still ignorant in many ways.
Doubting thomasina (Outlier, planet)
is that all you see/gleaned from this piece?
CJJ (Pennsylvania)
For the 23% of American woman who identify as "feminists," this piece makes a strong case for feminists to turn their guns on false, corporate-approved feminism.

For the majority of women and men who reject such identity politics, it provides a sobering reminder of where it inevitably leads.

More pleasantly, it reveals that even feminists don't like those patronizing "empowering" ads from Madison Avenue. There's hope.
njglea (Seattle)
The first "female empowerment" ads I remember were from cigarette manufacturers when that drug was socially acceptable. Virginia Slims "You've Come a Long Way Baby...You Have Your Own Cigarette Now...You've Come a Long Way" and Newport with beautiful women enjoying sailing on yachts at Newport Beach, high level social parties, etc. How about "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never, never, never, never let him forget he's a man" Because I'm a Woman - W O M A N"? Don't remember what that was advertising but know it worked. BIG democracy-destroying money masters like Rupert Murdoch own nearly all the major media. Do NOT expect them to portray women as anything but play things and servants.
Heath Quinn (<br/>)
The deeper issue is income equality, magnified by feelings of personal entitlement common to so many cultures. In a greedy mindset, anything one does to improve one's perceived competitive advantage is acceptable. Judgment becomes distorted, and decisions become less and less connected to any realities besides money and competition. This creates a market of semi-abstract "products" offered to millions of people at increasing risk of being further manipulated and scammed.
njglea (Seattle)
Female voters - and the men who love them - can change it on November 8 with VOTES for all qualified female candidates. There are plenty out there and women make up the largest voting bloc in America. Time to stop crying and take action.
See also