What Has Empowerment Done for Us?

What Does the Term Empowerment Mean?

Barbara Solomon's work 'Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities' explored ideas to reduce paternalism

Barbara Solomon’s work ‘Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities’ explored ideas to reduce paternalism

‘Empowerment’ began with the concept of ‘conscientisation’ coined in 1968, by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian academic. Defined as a ‘process to which an oppressed person perceives the structural conditions of oppression’. Subsequently, through conscientisation, groups are able to take action upon the oppressors. In other words, groups and people become critically aware and awareness turns into action.

The term empowerment took its origins from conscientisation in the 70s, with Barbara Bryant Solomon, a social worker and psychology academic, writing about African-American communities. Used first as an ethos for social workers, to discourage paternalism, clients of a stigmatised group engaged in a set of activities, aiming to reduce powerlessness caused by authorities.

1981 saw a psychologist, Julian Rappaport present empowerment as a political theory of power. Placing responsibility in the hands of the people, the theory displayed personal competency as limitless. In effect, you could achieve anything, but it’s for you to achieve it. Even at this early stage, the theory flagged up problems. To take advantage and achieve, opportunity and resources must be available to you.

Modern Meaning

Jennifer Lopez, using the term empowerment on her Instagram post

Jennifer Lopez, using the term empowerment on her Instagram post. It shows the shift from the collective to the individual, ‘love yourself first’.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, the mainstream media adopted the term empowerment.  White, middle class females, with disposable income, quickly became the focus for empowerment. Fashion lines, lack of shaving, not wearing makeup, and not listening to men, all became empowering. The term made a huge cultural shift, applicable to the rich. Crucially, those who already had a certain level of power preached empowerment.  As Jia Totentino’s article stated in the New York Times Magazine, empowerment involved power while signifying the lack of it, on anything other than a superficial level.

In essence, empowerment began as an aspirational term for the good of the oppressed or stigmatised group.  Currently, it signifies the shift from collectivism to individualism.  The only purpose it serves is to gain ‘power’ for the good of the individual, but that power is fairly inconsequential for society, minority groups and the world.





Empowerment and consumerism

Eventually, larger corporations caught on, and the meaning of empowerment changed again.  Not only had empowerment switched to the elite, it began to mean female validation belonging and coinciding with consumerism.  As Totentiono explains, ‘A series of objects and experiences you can purchase with the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same’. Essentially, empowerment became marketable. No longer a fundamental right, it was a commodity, but whilst women may have felt empowered by this, it did little to change law, attitudes or social standing.

Commodified Feminism

Headlines of Theresa May often refer to fashion and appearance

Headlines of Theresa May often refer to fashion and appearance

Margaret Thatcher's 'famous' pussy-bow blouses, became part of her reputation

Margaret Thatcher’s ‘famous’ pussy-bow blouses, became part of her reputation

Hadley Freeman’s, article in the guardian, references commodified feminism and how feminist ideas and icons are appropriated for commercial purposes.  Attributing, but not accurate, to the television programme Sex and the City, women’s magazines began treating maxed out credit cards and buying shoes as feminism.  Referring to The Onion’s satirical article ‘Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does’, it jokes that shopping is a form of asserting autonomy; owning a lot of shoes is a ‘compelling way’ to signal strength and independence. A woman can ‘shoe herself’ without the aid of a man and writes ‘look out male-dominated world, here comes me and my shoes’.

Joking aside, and though blatantly satirical, we need only examine Theresa May and her representation in the media.  Acclaimed for her shoe collection, as a society we don’t say ‘who gives a damn?’ it has become part of her persona and her identity, much as a pussy-bow blouse became Thatcher’s. Implied as a symbol of her independence and ability as a leader, a principle item of clothing characterises her, despite being the prime minister.

Emma Watson, United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador

Shockingly, even media written by women for women emblazons this mentality. The website Popsugar wrote a short piece after Emma Watson. Currently, a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, Watson gave a speech in September, on gender equality in education. Named “Together for the 2030 Agenda: Partnering for Women, Children and Adolescents, to Thrive and Transform the World”, the UN headquarters in New York held the event. The article title from Popsugar read: Emma Watson’s UN Outfit Is Just as Important as Her Speech.

Quotation from article: 'Emma Watson's UN Outfit is Just as Important as Her Speech'

The article makes a trivial attempt to imply the article is about sustainable and ethical clothing, but quickly runs into describing how you can ‘get the look’. The real message is to buy the products; mentioning nothing of Watson’s actual speech which had discussed sexual violence, women in university and talks of women in power.  Additionally, Watson’s speech advocated that women’s thoughts matter, that they have the right to use their minds and gain respect with equal pay and leadership.

The article in Popsugar is ironic and incredibly sad. There is nothing wrong with feeling good in what you’re wearing, but reducing Watson to her appearance alone, discredits her. Clothing is not as important as Emma Watson’s words and I’m sure she’d consider it mortifying being portrayed in such a way.


Empowerment verses Real Power

Suffragette March, London 1911

Lady Gaga's Twitter post: 'pastels, flowers and woman power!'

Lady Gaga’s Twitter post: ‘pastels, flowers and woman power!’

Ruth Whippman, in Time Magazine, examines how ‘Empowerment’ Is Warping Women’s View of Real Power. Whippman states if a woman is in a real position of power, expressing empowerment doubtfully enters her rhetoric. If powerful women don’t use the term, it makes empowerment insubstantial to the average person. In summary, the article argues that selfies in your gym gear, avocado and a poach egg on toast posted to Instagram, are not placing women world-wide in greater positions of power.

Becoming a consolation prize, empowerment is a trade in for gender exclusion in power. Instead of instigating law, improving women’s rights in the developing world, improving abortion rights, banning female genital mutilation, fulfillment comes from Beyoncé wearing a leotard on stage.  Why should anyone really care that Alicia Keys is wearing makeup, or not? Sorry Ms. Keys, that’s not powerful; you just got out of bed, like most men, and went out.

Essentially, society tolerates empowerment because it is harmless to the way society functions now. The feminist movement has become a branch of the self-help movement. Why oppress women when they conform to existing social constructs, but deem it empowerment? Developing from considering Playboy a misogynistic disgrace, we now recreate it on Snapchat or Instagram.

Is Wonder Woman any more than a Fancy Dress Costume?

Wonder Woman

The best example to illustrate a lack of power, even for intensely qualified women, was Wonder Woman being named Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Messages a lot of women take from this, is no matter how qualified you are, no matter how smart, how successful, you still cannot make it.  There’s a glass ceiling for even some of the most powerful and influential women in the world, trading real influence for an image of empowerment.

Problems with Wonder Womanshazia-z-rafi

Shazia Z Rafi previously worked at the UN, but is now Managing Director at the consulting firm Global Parliamentary Services.  A petition took place from UN employees, which included taking issue with Wonder Woman’s skimpy outfit.  Rafi stated ‘This whole issue of taking a cartoon figure who is clad in a bustier, with cleavage, high cut shorts, a sort of muscled Barbie, and saying “this is what represents gender equality” is incredible”’.

Consequently, Rafi named Nadia Murad and Malala Yousafzai as two examples of modern-day female heroines. Murad became the public face of thousands of Yazid who remain in sexual slavery from Isis, in Iraq; Yousafzai championed education in Pakistan, survived a shooting by the Taliban and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Both women embody real empowerment.


Ronnie Rene Ritchie, a contributing Comic Artist for Everyday Feminism, iIllustrates the difference between sexual objectification and empowerment in this short comic strip. Unable to speak for themselves, comic book characters or any fictional character are given a voice. William Moulton Marston gave Wonder Woman hers. Instead of a real woman being granted a promotion, who can truly articulate the feelings of being a woman, the trials and successes, the UN has appointed a character who cannot communicate that, or anything at all. Fabrications of empowerment are not acceptable; we need to see that women can make it themselves.

Fourth Wave Feminism and the Damages of Empowerment

Can Empowerment be More than Being Valued for Physical Appearance?

The biggest problem of all for genuine empowerment worldwide is fourth wave feminism, or ‘choice feminism’. If a woman uses her own free will, whether it’s pole dancing or buying shoes, it’s now considered feminist.  Again, it’s about the individual woman rather than the collective of women.  A ‘girl power’ resurgence, but saying we shouldn’t evaluate behaviour, just supporting it because we are women.

Not serving to improve the lives of women in real life, Choice Feminism is problematic as it requires the support of others. Virtually we’re all there for each other, in reality, it doesn’t change anything about the ability to live.  Choice is amazing; it’s also an incredible privilege. That is not to say some choices are right or wrong, but who it serves and the consequences are important. Choosing is feminist, but is the choice? If choices only serve the individual, it doesn’t empower women, it empowers you and being female is secondary.

Kim Kardashian Nude Selfies[2]

Kim Kardashian Nude Selfies

Famous for her sex tape, but even more famous for her naked selfies and magazine covers, Kim Kardashian embodies issues with Choice Feminism. A lot of people don’t know how to feel about her, but Kardashian has defined ways of using social media and often characterises trends. This does not mean to say she is responsible for modern practices, but she serves as a common example of representation, and promotes herself as setting an example.

Labelled ‘Body Shamers’ people are criticised for judging Ms. Kardashian. Many claim Kardashian embodies liberation but, in stark contrast, some think she’s conforming to existing stereotypes as a symbol of all that is wrong for women.  Disputably, people even reference areas with few women’s rights, such as Saudia Arabia, stating that women don’t have the option to behave this way and this legitimises Kardashian’s behaviour. Is it powerful to be naked? Is it art? Should it cause offence, jealousy or inspiration? Does it serve any other purpose than being self-promoting?

Dishonest Representation

On her website, Kardashian posted her thoughts on the topic stating her sexuality empowers her, striving to encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.  However, posts did not appear on her website, without censorship, but on social media displaying editing and composition. Yes, empowerment in accepting your body is noteworthy. With the aid of photoshop, staging, stylists, professional lighting, (denied) plastic surgery? Not so much.

The problem is Kardashian’s images are hypocritical.  Realistically, it’s more like saying, life is empowering for a millionaire with a team of professionals, and that does not relate to normal women. Kardashian hides more flaws than she would ever embrace and doesn’t express an honest self. Like a carrot, she’s dangling ideas  of empowerment to her fans, from an incredibly wealthy and advantageous place, in a way they could never achieve.

The Future of Empowerment

These representations symbolise the idea of ‘just because I can, doesn’t mean I should’ mentality.  The greatest singer in the world can wear a bin bag and she’d still be the greatest singer in the world. Can women be more empowered by their intellect or skills, where appearance is completely irrelevant?

Saudi Arabia's women vote in election for the first time, December 2015.

Saudi Arabia’s women vote in election for the first time, December 2015.

Ideals of Choice Feminism are problematic when the actions prompt the question: what does a naked selfie from Kim Kardashian really do for humanity? For thousands of girls being harmed from genital mutilation or forced marriage, does this help them? Does it improve anything in the sense of gender equality? It doesn’t improve human rights, it doesn’t eradicate discrimination, it doesn’t promote education or professional development. It doesn’t progress us.

Bill Gates once said “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others“.  Crucially, empowerment and feminism has lost itself to individualism.  Distracting those with the loudest, most privileged voices, it forgets those most in need of it. Women need to look beyond themselves and think, what do we do to get real power? What would it be like to change the law, rather than accept it? Do we need to seek validation from others, or do something to help those that are more vulnerable than us?

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