Sneakily, empowerment had turned into a theory that applied to the needy while describing a process more realistically applicable to the rich. The word was built on a misaligned foundation; no amount of awareness can change the fact that it’s the already-powerful who tend to experience empowerment at any meaningful rate. Today “empowerment” invokes power while signifying the lack of it. It functions like an explorer staking a claim on new territory with a white flag.
Enter the highly marketable “women’s empowerment,” neither practice nor praxis, nor really theory, but a glossy, dizzying product instead. Women’s empowerment borrows the virtuous window-dressing of the social worker’s doctrine and kicks its substance to the side. It’s about pleasure, not power; it’s individualistic and subjective, tailored to insecurity and desire. The new empowerment doesn’t increase potential so much as it assures you that your potential is just fine. Even when the thing being described as “empowering” is personal and mildly defiant (not shaving, not breast-feeding, not listening to men, et cetera), what’s being marketed is a certain identity. And no matter what, the intent of this new empowerment is always to sell.
This version of empowerment can be actively disempowering: It’s a series of objects and experiences you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same. The ready participation of well-off women in this strategy also points to a deep truth about the word “empowerment”: that it has never been defined by the people who actually need it. People who talk empowerment are, by definition, already there.
Jia Tolentino, “A Woman’s Worth”, The New York Times Magazine (17 April 2016), 24.