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Girl power empowerment t-shirts
Empowering slogan t-shirts from Missguided and Boohoo

The word ‘empowerment’ has literally lost all meaning

Today, everything is apparently ‘empowering’

Last Halloween, I went as the terrifying ghoul of global capitalism exploiting the labour of poor women to cheaply sell us empowerment. In other words, I wore a made in Bangladesh t-shirt printed with the slogan EMPOWER WOMEN that cost me £2 from a high street retailer, some symbolic chain earrings, and a blazer (to represent the interests of big business, obv).

In a few short years, ‘empowerment’ has lost its power. Today, literally anything is ‘empowering’. A few recent examples from my inbox: a campaign for Magnum ice cream featuring Bella Hadid. Some swimming costumes. Protein powder. A luxury activewear brand. Jessie J’s new single. Low-cost internet brands like Boohoo and Missguided have been found to be selling clothes made in UK sweatshops where people are illegally paid £3.50 an hour, yet have marketing strategies that are all about empowerment – and happily flog t-shirts with phrases like ‘girl power’. 

It’s a future I would never have believed back in 2012, when I was sat at the table of my university’s feminist society at our Freshers’ Fair, trying unsuccessfully to lure incoming students to join our ranks. I’m sure that ‘empowerment’ was a word I used to try and convince people that feminism wasn’t just a club where we hung out and talked about how much we hated men. The responses I got, as I sat in my patched-up, riot grrrl-inspired denim jacket, were mostly bemusement, trolling, and brief, uncomfortable eye contact with people before they shuffled quickly past.

In many ways, I’m thrilled about how things have changed for women since then – that calling yourself a feminist no longer carries such a bad rep. That a movement of women (and some men) would rise up against sexual harassment and assault, toppling powerful predators from their positions of power. That intersectionality is a word that many people understand – even if they’ve never heard of Kimberlé Crenshaw.

But today, I am exhausted by ‘empowerment’. I am exhausted by a culture of consumption which has entirely forgotten that there’s more to feminism than buying shit to feel good about yourself. Pieces on both Nylon and i-D today praise an ‘empowering’ acne coverage tutorial video created by Fenty Beauty, with the male author of the latter going on to note that “By the end of the seven-minute video (model) Ysabelle looks fresh, dewy, and noticeably more confident”, and that covering acne with concealer “has nothing to do with the male gaze”. Disclaimer: I have nothing against make-up and can personally pay testament to the mood-boosting power of a red lip – but come the fuck on. Covering acne with concealer is not an empowering act that rejects the male gaze. It’s what beauty standards have told women they have to do for decades.

Empowerment is no longer about consciousness raising, or activism, or using your position to lift up and advocate for others. Empowerment today is a bodycon jersey dress made by people paid below minimum wage. Empowerment today is a video of Bella Hadid seductively eating a Magnum. Empowerment today is something you gain through what you buy, what you wear to work out in, what you eat. That’s not empowerment. That’s purchasing power. That we can be a better, more liberated version of ourselves if we just buy this thing we don’t need that was probably made by women who are not empowered themselves is not feminism. It’s a con.

“That we can be a better, more liberated version of ourselves if we just buy this thing we don’t need that was probably made by women who are not empowered themselves is not feminism. It’s a con”

And it’s a particularly problematic one, at a time when there is so much to fight for. A self-proclaimed pussy-grabber is in the White House. A man accused of manipulating vulnerable women into joining his sex cult is still making music. Funding is being slashed to women’s shelters and rape crisis centres. A movie which grotesquely depicts male violence against women is debuting at the most prestigious festival in the world – which has only had 82 female directors show films compared to 1,645 men. This week, Ireland is set to vote to repeal its medieval, draconian anti-abortion laws. And that’s only in the West.

I’m sure the marketing machine will soon move on to the next hip thing – whether that’s more cringe-inducing attempts at tapping into generation #woke (if you feel like clawing your own skin off, check out this Diet Coke advert) – or trying to exploit the kool niche of queerness. Don’t get me wrong: the personal is political, and self-empowerment is a real and important thing. But when we’re sold the idea of power as a purely individual force rooted in buying stuff rather than a collective one with the potential to drive forward change, all that results is a kind of tokenistic personal brand politics that doesn’t go much further than the square crops of our IG feeds. This year, we’ve seen what can happen when we come together and fight for each other. A group of models writing a charter to advocate for their rights. Irish women fighting for autonomy over their own bodies. Black actresses speaking out against racism. That’s what empowerment looks like. Not a £2 slogan t-shirt.