The Word “Empowerment” Has Been (Literally) Stripped Of All Meaning
On #ChallengeAccepted and how female empowerment has been co-opted by capitalism (and the Kardashians).
What does the word “empowered” mean? If you were believe the hashtag on Instagram, it would seem to denote being female-identifying, having a camera, and a black-and-white filter.
The most recent trend circulating on the social media app, renowned as a platform for pretty people to post flattering photos of themselves, was #challengeaccepted whereby women posted flattering black-and-white selfies and “challenged” other women to do the same.
Celebrities — having learned seemingly nothing from the trainwreck “Imagine” video — were quick to jump on the bandwagon. From Reese Witherspoon to Ivanka Trump, endless hot selfies flooded Instagram timelines, with vague messaging about the sisterhood accompanied by hashtags such as #womensupportingwomen and #femaleempowerment.
The origins of this trend were unclear — some claimed it was inspired by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s speech in US Congress about misogyny (AOC notably did not take up the challenge) while others claimed the source was a movement protesting the high rates of femicide in Turkey.
However, very few of the millions of #challengeaccepted photos on Instagram contain the original Turkish hashtag #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır, which demands enforcement of a human rights convention to fight violence against women.
Without any call to action, all that these photos have succeed in achieving is diluting the #challengeaccepted hashtag so that pictures of murdered women in Turkey now appear alongside pouting shots of Cindy Crawford and Eva Longoria.
Aside from the question of whether one can be “challenged” to do something that isn’t remotely challenging (chal·lenge: a stimulating task or problem), I would also ask what is empowering about posting a photo on a platform that is designed precisely for this function.
em·pow·er·ment | \ im-ˈpau̇(-ə)r-mənt: the granting of the power, right, or authority to perform various acts or duties
In the era of social media marketing via buzzwords and hashtags, “empowerment” is frequently co-opted by advertising campaigns — particularly those aimed at women. Consumerism now thrives on selling female empowerment back to women: Want to be empowered, ladies? Use this shampoo, buy this car, join this weight loss program, wear this lipstick!
As a concept, “female empowerment” has been reduced to signifying literally anything that a woman does.
Take Khloe Kardashian signing up to be a brand ambassador for a protein shake to empower young women by “showing their ex what he is missing.” It shouldn’t need pointing out, but apparently it does, but there is nothing particularly powerful about women drinking protein shakes instead of eating so they lose weight for the sake of a man who dumped them.
Khloe Kardashian’s passionate advocacy for female empowerment has not stopped there. Her denim clothing line too is “all about empowerment… making the women feel great about themselves.” As if gender inequities can somehow be addressed by wearing the right pair of expensive jeans.
Meanwhile, when her sister Kim “broke the internet” by posting a nude selfie for International Women’s Day, she spurred a debate about whether or not this was an act of female empowerment. Kim Kardashian herself said:
“I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin… I hope that through this platform, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”
She has since created a “women’s empowerment” add-on for her personal emoji collection — successfully monetising feminism and turning it into yet another Kardashian product. I personally couldn’t care less whether Kim Kardashian posts nude selfies, but she is a woman of immense power — and she is simply exercising that power, not reclaiming it for girls and women around the world who are powerless.
It might look like I blame the Kardashians, but whatever other talents they lack, they are truly masterful in marketing themselves (and the brands that pay them a fortune to do so) in the modern age. They understand that the appeal of social media lies in its simplicity — in flattening the world to pretty pictures and aspirational hashtags. In doing so, it voids terms like “empowerment” of any actual meaning and transforms them into tools for capitalism.
According to its dictionary definition, empowerment refers to the act of placing power in the hands of those who have been excluded from it. So what does posting a selfie on social media do to empower women? Very little, unless they live in a country where women are specifically banned from posting black-and-white photos of themselves on Instagram.
When a woman does something, it is not inherently empowering just because a woman is doing it — despite what the hashtags would have you believe. It only becomes a form of empowerment if the woman has been denied the right to perform this action by existing power structures.
So by all means, post your selfies and drink your protein shakes — just don’t call it female empowerment. Much like the millions of black tiles shared on Instagram in performative support of the Black Lives Matter movement, it only serves to make us feel like we’re doing something of any substance.
But no matter how many products we buy or pictures we post that are supposed to empower us as women, we still haven’t closed the gender pay gap or given women worldwide the right to control their own bodies. Women still can’t live without fear of sexual harassment or abuse. And the women in Turkey continue to be murdered, their faces appearing in black and white media images.
Now that is the real challenge.