I sat on my bed finishing another Murakami. My literary choices were rather predictable these days, though I did plan to spice it up by throwing Hawking into the mix. It was only half past nine at night, but fatigue was slowly dawning upon me. A long day of traveling from Singapore to Shanghai some days after the holiday season, lugging 30kg of clothes and food, mixed with the comfort of snuggling under the duvet after a long hot shower, had made me a very sleepy but happy camper. Happy that I could finally enjoy some alone time again, even though I had enjoyed spending the last few weeks with my family and friends. I thought of a repetitive soundtrack to play as I wrote. My choice fell on Jóhann Jóhannsson.
It had only been a little over a month ago that I was in Tokyo. Having moved to China, flying to Japan becomes much less tedious. It so happened that a few friends from around the world were converging in the city at the same time, some without my knowing. Had it not been for Instagram, these new and old friends would not have known that I was in the city, nor I of them. Despite all the downsides of social media and the Internet in general they do bring people closer together when used wisely.
As I was writing this I scoured the web for various other reading materials when I chanced upon this article about Dior’s ‘empowering’ campaign. I laughed.
First of all, it’s just another set of boring pretty clothes that doesn’t defy any beauty norms. The choice of models, pretty as they are, doesn’t inspire anyone to make a change, not even to be a patriarchy-smashing keyboard warrior. There’s literally nothing in those images that stirs up the imagination, let alone give anyone the faculty to change their life situations. What baffled me most was how Dior’s PR team allowed such blatantly empty copy to be used for a lackluster set of images. Either they were taking their customers for fools, or their audience isn’t as intelligent as I’d like them to think they are.
And what in their definition is empowerment? Really, what is empowerment anyway? The word has been used so often it has lost its purpose like a dull knife that can barely cut through butter. Especially when it’s been slapped on every lackluster product in the market, Dior’s pseudo-feminist T-shirts included.
In my quick research I found an article that decried the word all the way from 1991. That’s twenty-five years ago! The difference between that article and the hullaballoo we are getting now is that back then the word ‘empowerment’ was used to give the oppressed and/or minorities the individual power to change their economic and social standing, by politicians of the left and right. Today, it’s been coopted by marketers who have noticed that since the 90s, the biggest growing group of consumers are, you guessed it, women.
Dove did it. Aerie did it. It is not surprising that today the concept of empowerment is sold mostly to the female market by corporations. In the words of a BCG executive, “I have literally invented billions of dollars of product that is based on listening to women.”
On one hand it’s great that corporations are trying to tune into what women need. Today I am grateful that Nike makes amazing sports bras that keep our breasts in place while we do strenuous physical activities, that it’s easier and more hygienic to use tampons that come in plastic casings, and that sanitary pads are thinner than ever. All of these inventions have enabled women to pursue our ambitions and attempt to equalise the playing field between men and women in a patriarchal society. As a side note these empowering products are invented so long as they don’t impede on the liberties of men. So far male birth control pills are still non-existent.
The worst culprits are the ones who slap 'empowering’ slogans on empty campaigns purely to move products off the shelves. Yes, trousers were once a nifty invention that moved Victorian women from their domiciles to the outdoors on bikes and horses, but most of society whom marketers sell to have moved past that now. To use that on clothes that have become ubiquitous, nay, have to be mollycoddled even, is just blatant laziness. Empowerment has become another buzzword co-opted by consumerism, such as buying diamond ring for oneself (De Beers, 2004), never mind that the diamond industry is oppressing the labourers. It provides women with a moral superiority to consume beyond a simple, ‘yes I need this’ or ‘yes I want this’. Just call a spade a spade.
Between diamonds and tampons there are various acts of consumption that are not exactly black or white in the empowerment camp. Is it empowering to be sexually promiscuous, or to be aggressive on the internet, or to take up pole-dancing classes because women are doing these for themselves? Are they really? The answer is never a straight yes or no. In the next two segments I will be exploring the fluctuations of women’s rights and social status throughout history, and in light of this, I’d like to argue that while it’s tempting to dismiss all consumerist activities that tout empowerment, there may be a grain of truth in this rhetoric.