The Myth of Empowerment

Katy Perry in her music video for <i>California Gurls</i>.

Katy Perry in her music video for California Gurls.

I read an interesting article recently on The Peach, an Australian website for young feminists. In it, author Shanrah Wakefield looked at the compulsion for some feminists to argue amongst each other about who did and didn't have the right to call themselves a feminist based on their actions, based on a recent move by Katy Perry to distance herself from the term. It was a thought provoking read, but I didn't agree with one of its arguments: that "every woman’s success is a contribution, in some form or another", and that "each time a woman achieves success on her own terms, she’s re-enforcing capability of the gender and she should be met with a round of applause."  

I think it's a little more complicated than that. In the age of You Go Girl feminism, it’s become increasingly difficult for feminists to criticise the actions of other women without being accused of betraying the sisterhood. Our choices, we are told, should be honoured and respected because we are All In This Together and we must support each other in our various kaleidoscopic destinies. But the demonstration of feminism shouldn't be to sit in a Kumbaya circle and acknowledge the bravery involved in diverse decision making. Choice and the ability to freely make it is central to feminist ideology; but it doesn’t follow that all choices should be accepted as feminist acts and therefore given a free pass. Katy Perry may have achieved great success in the pop music world - but her 'contribution' to women's suffrage is entirely open to debate when she publicly chooses to discount feminism's influence while accepting a music award, apropos of nothing other than the apparent desire to ingratiate herself to those who think women are getting a little bit too grabby. 

Unfortunately, there seems to be some confusion over where the concept of choice exactly sits in a feminist framework. Some time ago, I wrote an article about the radio presenter Jackie O and her complicity in propping up the sexist antics of both 2DayFM and her co-presenter Kyle Sandilands. At the time, Jackie O was allowing herself to be shamed on air for having gained weight, and bullied into losing it in a very public fashion while the mawkish fans of 2DayFM followed her progress (presumably from worthless fat loser back into acceptable version of womanhood allowed to wear a bikini).

Dara-Lynn Weiss poses with her then 7-year-old daughter Bea in Vogue magazine last March.

Dara-Lynn Weiss poses with her then 7-year-old daughter Bea in Vogue magazine last March.



While the article received generally positive feedback (not a lot of people are in support of someone who sits there giggling while her male co-host calls another woman a ‘fat slag’, or participates in stunts that traumatise asylum seekers and 14 year old rape victims), there were a couple of commenters who argued in her defence: that because Jackie O had chosen to participate in this very public example of fat shaming, she was actually honouring feminism and everything it stands for. Similar conclusions were drawn when I highlighted the persistence sexism of Zoo Weekly’s Facebook page, and the women who chose to pose therein. When a friend recently criticised the decision of Dara-Lynn Weiss to publicly shame her daughter into losing weight and then write about her success, she was pompously asked 'when did it become okay to judge parenting choices?' On a more expansive scale, the capitalist structures that once sold products to women by highlighting the importance of being beautiful have now shifted their message to one of empowerment. No longer able to openly judge women’s inadequacies, we now find the beauty establishment selling improvement to women under the guise of ‘empowerment’ - as if all the feminist movement was leading up to was a world in which women would finally have the right to a spray tan.


Jackie O during an on air weigh-in.

Jackie O during an on air weigh-in. Photo: Kyle and Jackie O

Choice, and the ability to make it, is not in and of itself a feminist act. Women are entitled to choose anything they like, just as men are. They are entitled to the same kind of bodily autonomy as men, and to the same kinds of choices that empower men to be the dictators of their own lives, whether or not it’s how they dress, who they sleep with or where they work. Celebrating choice as a feminist act in and of itself, regardless of what that choice might be, paints a very limited and patronising view of women’s rights and capabilities. We’re not children who need to be rewarded with a biscuit every time we have the fortitude to choose our clothes for the day. So we should stop behaving as if the act of getting up and negotiating life as an adult - as a man might do - is the equivalent of storming the barricades.


But - to confuse you further - the complexity of choice and its outcomes naturally change depending on who’s making them. Because we have yet to reach a state of equality or equity (and this can be even more difficult for women marginalised not just by gender, but also class, race and religion), the consequences of choice coupled with the accessibility of it become particularly significant. I would argue that access to choice amongst poor women (particularly in regards to career and education) is more fundamentally liberating than whether or not women are allowed to rip their pubic hair out. The former is something that can tangibly empower women - the latter is just a decision women make, no better or worse than any other. To conflate the two as markers of female empowerment (as if the mere circumstance of being entitled to spend money on a beauty regime that's achieved near blanket social sanction is revolutionary) is pretty dismissive of the vast capabilities of women.


So how does this come back to Jackie O and the complicated task of knowing when to accept choice, when to critique it and when to celebrate it? When do we acknowledge it as a feminist act, and when do we decide that it’s simply a choice - no better, worse or more admirable than any other? There are no easy answers, but a good indicator is intent. The choices that Jackie O makes to sustain her own radio career may be good for her, but they perpetuate sexism on a mass level. Jackie O’s powerful presence in broadcast media might be a win for feminism - but the choices she makes once in that industry might be the complete opposite. Shaming women (or your child) for gaining weight does nothing to further feminist interests, nor does sitting by giggling while your male co-host brutalises a woman on air because he didn’t like her review.


Being able to determine our own choices and destiny might be one of the pillars of feminism, but we owe it to ourselves to be a little more intellectually rigorous about how we champion those choices and analyse them. A choice is just a choice - it’s what we do with it that counts. Critically examining the choices of some women isn't a betrayal of the sisterhood (unless that criticism is spawned from conservative ideas of how women are 'supposed' to dress/behave/work/speak/fuck). To argue as such presumes a world in which women are all so delicate that every choice we make needs to be accompanied by a ticker tape parade. If the only thing standing between us and real liberation is the bravery it takes to purchase a Brazilian, a new set of breasts or the right to cover ourselves in cream and wrestle in a tub of jelly, then what exactly is it we’re fighting for?