Why celebrities prefer empowerment to feminism


Scarlett Harris

Blake Lively found working with Woody Allen 'empowering'.

Blake Lively found working with Woody Allen 'empowering'. Photo: Getty Images

We've been hearing the word "empowerment" bandied about a lot lately, from generic Instagram posts to Kim Kardashian's defence of her nude selfies to Blake Lively's work with Woody Allen. The problem with "empowerment", or at least the unit of language, is that it's mostly uttered by celebrities and other public figures in response to the tired question, "are you a feminist?", or by those who aren't that well versed in what empowering women actually means.

In the lead up to the Australian election, leaders of both major parties were jostling to call themselves feminists when their policies are anything but. Meanwhile, in the US, Ivanka Trump asserted that her father and presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump empowers her and the select few women "he has employed at the highest levels of the Trump Organisation".

With celebs and pollies muddying the definitions, what does empowerment mean? Technically it is "giving power or authority to" someone, but how it has come to be defined in popular parlance has almost voided it of this meaning.

Jill Filipovic says the watering down of the word signifies the empowerment of the individual: "It's shorthand for 'I wanted to do this and it made me feel good'." Certainly Kim's selfies and Blake's work with a Hollywood director, who also happens to be an alleged child molester, seems to fit this description.


Aminatou Sow, founder of Tech LadyMafia and co-host of the 'Call Your Girlfriend' podcast, agrees, saying "People are always trying to sell you empowerment instead of feminism," before drawing a distinction between the two. "By all means, people should feel good about themselves. But that doesn't mean you're participating in a political movement, which is what feminism is."

Empowerment is sold to women in the form of control underwear, leaning in and yoghurt commercials, which 'Bitch' magazine founder Andi Zeisler writes about in her new book 'We Were Feminists Once', but advertisers steer clear of more radical notions of equality at the risk of alienating their consumers. 

This distinction matters. It means that when Kim poses nude or Demi Lovato clunkily tweets that she supports "women empowerment" it doesn't mean as much as when they explicitly align themselves with feminism, which they have both done in the past.

Being a feminist means doing more than paying lip service to it, though. It's about creating pathways and opportunities as well as dismantling traditional notions of femininity and womanhood.

Aminatou Sow returned to the topic, with her 'Call Your Girlfriend' co-host Ann Friedman, on an episode of their show. "[Empowerment is] often meant to be, from a charity or foundation perspective, liberating because it's really broad," Friedman said. "We work in all these different ways to [achieve] this goal, but I think at the end of the day it's like, do you want to get more women in elected office? Do you want to see more women have access to healthcare? How you are defining what empowerment means is the next step you have to take if you see that word."

Sow agrees, saying, "Do you want to empower women or do you want to free them, because those things aren't the same. If you're trying to enact change for everyone, [empowerment] is not a good frame."

Conversely, celebrities talking about "empowerment" can act as a loophole through which they can discuss feminist issues without drawing the ire of misogynists or the exclusion of the feminist community. It can introduce feminist ideals to fans who are just starting to notice or care about gender inequality through a more palatable, less aggressive veneer.

Empowerment requires less commitment than feminism, because only misogynists think that women shouldn't be "empowered".