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Female Empowerment gets another stupid facelift

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A few days ago, I received an Empowering Email. It invited me to spend thirty-five dollars on my feminine self-esteem. “Toss the glass slipper out!”, said the note, which promised an evening of instruction from well-known ladies on how a lady, like me, of modest prominence could exact a pay rise.

As I consider it a duty to make private time to be a fuckwit, I began to compose a reply. “The way to get a pay rise is through collective bargaining, not a sassy act of self-care,” I wrote. “The means to address the very real gender wage gap is not by the fiction of the great individual, who can never overwhelm the inhuman machine of profit. It is only achieved through the power of a union!!!!!!”

As I warmed to the socially useful work of directly telling persons they are wrong/generally objecting to the proposal that any woman born after the 18th century thought that a metaphoric glass slipper required her disposal, I looked at the sender’s address. This communication was from my trade union.

To employ, as I have been longing to do, the styling of Daily Review commenter MC Kurt: something big has shat itself. When even an organisation whose founding principle is the attainment of better labour conditions for its members offers handy hints on how I can shine shine shine my way out of deregulation, it’s time to call the plumber. Preferably one in brief attire, but I’m not fussy so long as they are signed up to the Pipies. I do not hope for a parade of positive role models, but that some bruiser is out there fighting for my right not to die in the poverty that so many in my trade now face.

Although I am tempted to take my money and spend it on the equivalent in nude yoga classes—reportedly, very empowering for women—I will not. Instead, I will continue to write to my union and tell them that I would rather be represented as a faceless worker than empowered by a glamorous individual. I imagine at some point, they will either pop me on a committee to shut me up, or eject me for crimes against female empowerment. What I will also do is continue to trace here the peculiar obsession, laid so bare in that correspondence, that folks have with the “empowerment” of women and girls.

The idea that women, or any marginalised group, can hope to overcome unfavourable conditions with the power of Me is inane.

The scholar Shenila Khoja-Moolji points out in this very readable precis of her research just how the idea of the Modern Miss has become globally indivisible from the idea of entrepreneurship. The dominant logic, in this case in international development, goes The Only Thing That’s Standing In The Way of Success Is You. I imagine that Khoja-Moolji, who undertakes field-work in Pakistan, finds this You Go Girl idea privately hilarious as she considers those other barriers to Success, which might include drone strike, crushing poverty and sectarian militia. “But the international community asks girls to take personal responsibility for their welfare,” she writes.

And, no, you sexy simpleton. I am not comparing my lot as a middle-income earner in a peaceful and prosperous nation with that of Malala. But, I am saying that the idea that women, or any marginalised group, can hope to overcome unfavourable conditions with the power of Me is inane. Sure, it is salutary to kick back with the ladies and congratulate ourselves between bubbles that we are terribly fierce, perhaps make a pact to call out sexist men. But, it’s not a strategy. Just a way to feel good.

Let’s pretend that this corporate, culturally inappropriate Wonder Woman sick was not upchucked just weeks after the UN did not, as per expectation, appoint its first woman secretary general.

Feeling good is fine. It is a practice in which I indulge at least annually. But, let’s call it what it is: self-help. I see no significant difference between the vast and popular literature that exhorts women to feel great and fierce about themselves and The Secret. For mine, the belief that You Can Change The World With A Positive Attitude is as religious as that which supposes that the universe is listening to your request for a diamond ring.

There’s just some shit we can’t change unless we do the tedious work of actually changing it. The girl in Pakistan, so curiously charged with the responsibility of social equality, does not have an advocate among those who wish to serve her “empowerment”. How, asks Khoja-Moolji, are adolescent girls going to address state corruption and the War on Terror? “No one is denying the agency of girls; indeed, I have documented such forms of resistance. However, we cannot expect girls to do this work in the absence of an authorising environment.”

Let’s ask, are “empowerment” and “inspiration” the best things to serve the world’s women?

Let’s authorise it. In our conviction that positive role models, inspiring personal accounts, nipple freeing etc. will liberate women, or anyone, from institutions that are often cruel less from human intention than they are stubborn processes, we’re authorising a very limited individual motion. Again, if you want to feel good about yourself, that is dandy. Pop over, we’ll whack on some of that delightful Taylor Shit and devise comebacks for everyday sexism. What we must not do at my joint is delude ourselves that these pleasant acts, or even those more challenging ones of attempting to reform or rebuke or ignore others, authorise a better context for our sisters.

Last week, I almost felt good when I saw a number of UN staffers turn their back on the appointment of Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls, Wonder Woman.

Let’s set aside that this envoy was created in partnership with Sony Pictures, shortly to release an “empowering” blockbuster. Let’s even set aside that she is fictional, and has the poor taste to leave her sovereign island full of women for America. Let’s not gripe about the fact that she is white, dressed in a manner that does not reflect any sort of common wardrobe, or that her spangly flag pants pay homage to the UN’s own crushing super-hero, the 900 pound gorilla that is the USA. Let’s even pretend that this craven act of corporate, culturally inappropriate sick was not upchucked just weeks after the UN did not, as per expectation, appoint its first woman secretary general.

And let’s ask, are “empowerment” and “inspiration” the best things to serve the world’s women?

In my cranky view, these pleasures serve women of the west no better than they serve sisters of the global south. Whether we are appointing an envoy who is fictional and culturally tone-deaf or the kind of girl we think might actually represent the world, we still believe that the individual has superpowers.

In the ecstasy of the moment, we can all believe this about ourselves. In the boring work of making the world less horrid, we’d better suspend that superhero fantasy.

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23 responses to “Female Empowerment gets another stupid facelift

  1. In America, many, many years ago, the merry pranksters nominated Pigasus (a presumably fictional porker) as a Presidential Candidate. And America has a variety of animals and deceased persons currently holding public office. And closer to home, when Brandis was appointed Attorney General an unnamed senior counsel remarked that we’d have been better served with a wombat as the wombat would at least do no damage. So there you go.

  2. It’s more of the same balderdash really ~ women in the workplace are ok, but it’s so much better if they are ‘eye candy’. I was told that the original creators of Wonder Woman were bondage enthusiasts, which is a whole other story. Those outfits & the figure to pour them in to, take quite a bit of time & money ~ unless you are extra cunning at the sewing machine & slaughter your own leather

    1. Unlikely, Francis. I have paid good money to our friends in the therapeutic sector to try to change myself, and we were unsuccessful. I am stuck like this.

  3. Thanks for another inspiring ripper Helen. My reminder to self after reading this: skills, safe jobs and getting paid make a difference to women.

  4. Great analysis Helen. Also, how often have we heard the story of the high achieving self-empowered woman (or other marginalised group) quickly turn on the next woman/women below her and block any path to their advancement. The self regards the self, and all too often never looks back with compassion or plain old practical help.

    1. I think this focus on “women can be bitches” is as unhelpful as focus on the individual. We should not expect any person of any sort to be less than competitive in a job market predicated on competition. Women must not be held to a higher moral standard than the environment in which they find themselves. And just to be petty: sure, women can be bitchy. But men can look at your tits instead of your productivity. The problem is the background that makes us all exercise stupid acts of power.
      When we stop talking about people’s morality and resume our focus on fair work conditions, maybe we can sort some of this shit out.
      But I really would urge you to not go down the v familiar “women can be awful, too” route. Of course they can. We are human in an impossible world.

  5. Presumably we are supposed to “lean in”, as far as our gymmed bodies and tight clothes allow us, as we ask for levels of pay that reflect our contribution? Many of the Male Champions of Change in Australia exhort women to “have a go”, “back yourselves” just BE MORE CONFIDENT ! See, it’s simple really.

  6. Helen this is brilliant! Thank you! I was reading yesterday about the most required skills in jobs – the hard skills (according to Linkedin – so maybe grain of salt). Many consisted of acronyms that meant nothing to me and that’s the point. Exclusion. Suffice to say they were almost all to do with hardware and the zeros and ones that are manipulated on hardware devices. Oh the joy! The article decried the fact that those engaged with these ‘hard skills’ unfortunately tended to lack ‘soft skills’ – you know, those old-fashioned squishy qualities like empathy, being personable, communication skills – qualities we once associated with being human and the kinds of skills that many females tend to seek out in jobs requiring them. Many women like working with humans (ok, check the ABS data – it’s true). You’ll note from the pay rates of these professions how valued these skills are. But anyhow! Who needs humans for entrepreneurship? We have robots and animated characters and Wonder Woman. What a put down UN. Can we not even muster up a real female to laud? How will WW fare in war-torn and poverty stricken countries, advocating for the needs of real people? What on earth would be her role? Finding another outfit on planet earth that fits? Yes the lure of the holy dollar even ensures that getting those chicks back into the workforce as soon as they’ve dropped that bundle is the expectation, the socially responsible thing to do and heaven help the consequences down the track. Because babies are only humans after all.

  7. “To employ, as I have been longing to do, the styling of Daily Review commenter MC Kurt: something big has shat itself. ”

    🙂 Oh to write something so pithy and witty that HR herself would put it aside to use in a future essay. I can only dream!

    As for the rest of the piece, couldn’t agree more. So much bullshit about empowerment. Like self help, it has taken on a quasi-mystical guise, as well as providing a whipping horse for those inclined and who aren’t yet empowered, by whatever definition the self-flagellating might apply.

    From the male perspective, I find particularly galling the unspoken assumption that if you are male you are already empowered. From my perspective, and those males I know, we are no more empowered than the average hamster on a wheel.

    Having recently read “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson, and after a lifetime of observation, the best way to become empowered is to take up psychopathy as a lifestyle. You’ll be widely disliked, derided, have no friends, lose your soul, but by god you will be empowered.

    I hope it is taken as a comfort to the female gender that most men feel no more empowered than they. We are more in the same boat than you might imagine, even if we are paid better (more on that some other time).

    1. Dear Dogs breakfast,

      The next time you’re feeling like you haven’t anymore privilege being a male, just remember this simple little sentence.

      The whole of our culture has been created by men for other men, and they’re haven’t been wondering whilst building western civilisation about how they could make it easier or better for the people who aren’t themselves….MEN.

      I don’t want to get angry about another man talking about how he can’t see how he enjoys anymore privilege than women or men of colour or whatever marginalised group. EDUCATE YOURSELF!!

  8. Another cracking read Helen.
    I always thought that being empowered meant that you would be blamed for not doing something that no-one had ever said is part of your job.
    There’s also a more sinister side – i.e. if one is not successful/powerful/loved/rich/valued/equal, there must be some failing on one’s own part (because, hey, it’s easy – just be empowered).
    Sort of reminds me of people and their “battle with cancer” : if you die, it’s because you weren’t fighting hard enough.
    As for your union, who thought that this “campaign” would be a good idea? And who agreed with them?

  9. Its not because we have our shit together, that we do our own thing. Its that we do our own thing, that we have our shit together!

  10. I’m wondering if anyone has told or asked the people with all the power (dare I say, white men), that they have to give it to those less fortunate than themselves… like you say Helen, it really is a wonderfully lovely thought that I, or yourself, whoever so chooses, can rise up with talent and shine and hardwork, breakthrough the concrete barriers of history and overcome their own marginalization to live happily ever after. Duck WonderWoman

    1. I am not aware of a historical event in which those who had all the stuff gave it up because they were asked or told. The stuff is always seized.
      And, while it is true that most of the world’s 62 richest people, those folks who own more wealth that the poorest 3.5 billion on the planet, are male and white, it is also true that there are loads of blokes doing it tough. Being white and male is no guarantee of enjoyable privilege.
      I really think this focus on the identity of who owns what blinds us to the fact that so few own anything at all. If 62 women of colour owned more than half of the world’s wealth, we’d still be in the shitter.

  11. “Goddamn it, Helen, “there’s more than enough patronising shit coming from men
    concerning the status of women in our society, without that patrimony issuing
    from the mouth of a ‘holier-than-thou’ female whose shibboleths seem to be paraphrased from ’70’s Cleo magazines with their emphasis on ‘new age’ awareness.

    Please keep pulling the rug out from under such pretension. Love ya work!”.

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