Why We Need To Stop Saying "Empowerment" When We Mean Something Else

Earlier this month, I received an email from Lifetime declaring that the network is now referring to itself as a Fempire. I'll admit the first place my brain went was blood-sucking she-vampire. But a beat later, I caught the real drift.

"We know our viewers come to Lifetime because we empower them," read the statement from an exec, as though the network were a lighthouse flashing beams of pink amidst a storm of repressive patriarchy. And with that, the concept of empowerment lost a little more of its meaning — just when I thought it had already hit peak triviality.

I'm not suggesting that Lifetime has some secret, nefarious agenda to take power away from women. (Frankly, it's great news that the network is moving away from the women-in-peril movies that have been its bread and butter and developing more dynamic content about the female experience.) Every day, as a entertainment writer at a women's lifestyle site, I receive at least one pitch related to "empowerment." Some of them are even about things that actually are empowering. So I'm not taking Lifetime — or other corporations who have hopped on the empowerment bandwagon — to task for borrowing a mainstay of modern marketing buzz speak.

But I am consistently baffled by how routinely the word "empowerment" is misapplied. The more it's casually thrown around, the less it matters. What was once a powerful concept has become the nebulous mot du jour we reach for when we're not sure how else to capture women's attention.

Put another way: It's as if we've been playing a decades-long game of telephone, in which someone whispered the true substance of the word empowerment into the receiver back in the '70s, explaining that it's about providing people without agency the resources and support (i.e. the power!) to take control of their lives. But in 2016, what's blaring out the speaker has been warped almost beyond recognition.

Empowerment has, for example, become a key tenet of treat yo'self culture, particularly when it comes to "empowering" purchases like exercise classes, healthy food, expensive period underwear, and bespoke products — partial proceeds from which, of course, go to artisans in need of "empowerment," who may or may not have Etsy shops. As a verb, "empowered" has also become a handy bulwark against certain types of criticism — another way of asserting the "I do what I want" ethos of our time — and if you criticize me for it, you are curtailing my freedom, my right to be empowered.

What was once a powerful concept has become the nebulous mot du jour we reach for when we're not sure how else to capture women's attention.

Nowhere is the hollowness of empowerment-speak more evident than in the realm of pop culture. When Kim Kardashian snapped back at critics who called her out for that naked selfie, I'll give you once guess as to what word she employed to defend herself.

"I am empowered by my sexuality," she wrote in March. "I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my own skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me.”

There is nothing wrong with being proud of your body or wanting to share it — and if Kim wants to put hers on display, she has every right. We have absolutely no quarrel with that. But sharing a naked photo of yourself, when you're hardly what one would consider oppressed, when you have every resource at your disposal and nothing to lose, isn't an expression of empowerment. It's an expression of power. When we repeatedly confuse those two words, one of them ceases to have any value.

Another way to think about it: We don't talk about white men being empowered — because they aren't. They're simply powerful, because on a certain level, it's a given that they don't need to be propped up. Kim Kardashian may not be a white man, but she's pretty much the opposite of oppressed. So to suggest that somehow sharing a nude photo on the internet is the same thing as empowerment makes light of what it means to be powerless and without. It surely wasn't her intention, but when the powerful appropriate the language of the powerless, it just comes off as mocking.

Is Amy Schumer's speech about women's magazines empowering? Or is she fearlessly funny and generally unafraid to call out bullshit?

Of course, Kim Kardashian West is hardly the only celebrity borrowing from the vocabulary of liberation and getting it wrong. Back in 2013, Miley Cyrus told Cosmopolitan U.K. that she is a "feminist in the way that I'm really empowering to women... I'm loud and funny and not typically beautiful." Maybe there are women out there who somehow gain access to personal agency by scrolling through Miley's Instagram feed or observing her in pasties.

But more likely, women aren't empowered by her zany stage antics or her selfies. They might be inspired. They might also feel joyous or giddy or any number of positive emotions. But empowered? Come on. Women are empowered by equal pay, access to safe and affordable health care, and adequate parental leave policies; they could be inspired by women who demand to be taken seriously, who express themselves freely, and who embrace sexuality. They are empowered by a consciousness-raising movement like Amber Rose's SlutWalk, which appeals for a reframing of the conversation around sexual assault so that blame doesn't rest on survivors' shoulders. But Taylor Swift demanding that her achievements be recognized as her own and not someone else's isn't empowering: It's inspiring.

Is Amy Schumer's speech about women's magazines empowering? Or is she fearlessly funny and generally unafraid to call out bullshit? Is there enough of a difference? Do semantics really matter? On those last two counts: damn straight. Because the longer we say one thing when we mean another, the less powerful the term "empowerment" becomes, and there are still too many truly disempowered people for us to dilute that definition and pare away at its actual substance.

According to global statistics from last year, 1 in 3 women on the planet experiences sexual assault at some point in her life. More than 125 million women and girls have been subjected to genital mutilation. Women carry out 75% of unpaid labor around the world. There are women in this country, across this planet, everywhere for whom actual empowerment represents a significant change in quality of life and status.

And so when Lifetime announces that it's starting a Fempire because it is in the business of empowering women, it's hard not to raise an eyebrow.

Self-expression and storytelling are important ways to help distribute the narratives of female experience. That's not the same thing as empowerment, though — it's just another way to sell audiences on your new season lineup. Bring on the second season of UnReal. (Seriously, we can't wait for it.) But let's call it what it is: entertainment.

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