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
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