Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, Or, Feminism as Repurposed by its Original Oppressors
Love is digitalized. Dating is downloadable. And our learned concepts—whether from the political-economic or social-pop culture realms—are often digested through a transient, algorithm-driven feed (thanks for making a library of memes a thing, Instagram).
So should we have anticipated the commodification of feminism, too? To be clear, I'm not producing yet another hacked-to-death piece on how the digitalization of information has divested us from meaningful content, and the internet of things has burned through our ability to make authentic human connection. (I don't agree with those statements, by the way. At least not in a broadly sweeping way.) Actually, this stream of information that we're lucky enough to be privy to (lucky, that is, so long as this stream is accompanied by a healthy amount of scrutiny, doubt, and mix of media sources) is, in my view, something that can help save feminism from the gross exploitation it has undergone in the past decade-plus.
What am I talking about, exactly? I'm talking about how words like empowerment and independence became just more ways to pigeonhole women, pat them on the head, smile, and say "there, there. Enjoy your Rosie the Riveter themes, emphatic 'girl power' headlines, and explosion of female-friendly retail products."
But that's all you get.
Jia Tolentino, the deputy editor at Jezebel, wrote a rather stunningarticle for the New York Times on the gutting of "empowerment" and divestment of any value it actually brought to those disenfranchised, notably women. She argues that empowerment—this persistent thread running through modern feminist thought—became flattened into something that could fit on a package, be superimposed on an image. Its rampant growth in this flattened form was simple to stoke: women want the same kind of identity validation and equality that men have always enjoyed in the societal space, so let's sell it to them.
The identity feminism angles after, Tolentino argues, became packaged and finite in the marketing space. Rife with campaigns for trendy workouts, emphatic encouragement to stop shaving for men, non-thong lingerie, and a dizzying array of other products, such an image indeed peddles whispers of feminist, individualistic concepts ostensibly outside the male sphere of influence. But this identity that's sold is not a living, empowering concept that actually moves positive forces in women's lives. It can't be—it's a premade identity peddled by the same socioeconomic forces that have ingrained our 77% salaries, male-serving Cosmopolitan magazines and street harassment.
Repackaged from these outwardly sexist practices, the empowered narrative sounds a lot better. But there's still a gaping hole. Kristi Coulter says it best in anarticle for Medium, "Enjoli," in which she navigates the onslaught of bullshit that produces female-focused marketing. She quips about "the magazines telling [her] strong is the new sexy and smart is the new beautiful, as though strong and smart are just paths to hot."
As though strong and smart are just paths to hot. Is there anything less empowering than that? Your identity serves one purpose, and guess what? It's not yours. Tolentino, in different language, invokes a parallel kind of faux path to empowerment that proves just as useless and circular. She notes that "today 'empowerment' invokes power while signifying the lack of it."
It sounds great. Strong, smart, independent. But once packaged and peddled, they become prescriptions, narrow identities that edge out any other possibilities for the female gender.
That's all you get.
In his Houston edition of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain interviews parents who threw their four teenage daughters quinceañera celebrations upon their 15th birthday. Bourdain learns that these girls also enjoyed sweet 16 celebrations. His response is good-natured bemusement as he says: "the girls get a quinceañera AND a sweet 16? What do the boys get?!" The father of the girls responds "a soccer ball!" Bourdain and both parents laugh heartily at this "injustice" in the form of material imbalance—as though, by marking the existence of these young females with tulle, streamers and glitter-bedecked dancing shoes, they've gotten everything their gender naturally deserves. The boys only get a soccer ball! You get TWO parties!
And yes, that soft hiss you hear is the sound of my soul turning to dust.
That's all you get.
This commodification, this emptying of empowerment, has become such that female independence is an actual joke. Standup comics heavily rely on mocking women who assert self-possession—women who assert assertiveness at all. In his Netflix special Man on Fire, Chris D'Elia spends an inordinate amount of time producing his singsong interpretation of a female voice and imitating what, apparently, all women say when they're drunk. "I'm an independent woman!" he says in the voice he's so proud of, wagging his finger to further trivialize our entire gender. The punchline, of course, is a woman being proud of her independence, her self-determined identity.
I have, of course, been remiss. Women don't just get parties that mark their age (a component of identity they'll forever be judged by, young to middle-aged to old). We don't just get bouncy tampon commercials telling us we can do anything (as long as it's atop a beach cruiser in southern California). We get self-proclaimed "nice guys" pursuing our time as they peddle the handy marketing strategies that've so generously taught them who women are and what they want. These guys may have only received a soccer ball for their 16th birthday, but they have it made—if they use these tactics and we say no, we're a bitch.
And since, as I've noted above, my soul has turned to dust and I've no energy left for rage or reflection, I'll hand it over to Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong, who flawlessly demonstrate in a post-Women's March SNL skit who actually gets to use female empowerment.
And that, folks, is all you get.