On 21 January, I marched through London with 100,000 other people, to stand in solidarity with those being attacked by the Trump administration and to send a clear message that we in Britain will not align ourselves with misogynist bigots. In London, the atmosphere was electric: pussy hats were everywhere that I turned, the signs and chants were creative, and the sound of thousands of feet pounding the pavement towards Trafalgar Square was deafening.
In the days after the Women’s March, the media were buzzing with praise, with articles declaring that it “really felt like a movement” in a strong show of solidarity for people who are being marginalized by Trump – and through her silent complicity – UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
Interviews highlighted women who felt empowered by the marches, with ABC News featuring the “10 most empowering quotes” from the demonstrations. The night before the march, Glamour magazine published an article about the “empowering” images that women were sharing on social media of their shoes, representing their intention to march the following day. The photos were circulated with the hashtag “#MarchingShoes” and motives such as “body autonomy”.
Whilst the positive coverage of these marches is much needed and the motivation of the marches should not be faulted, I cannot help but feel that the language of “female empowerment” has the potential to damage the protestors – and more broadly, feminism’s – fight against Trump. To create a successful movement opposed to fascism, the Women’s March need to consider distancing themselves from this rhetoric. The term “empowerment” is often used within mainstream discussions of women’s rights, acting as feminism’s cooler – and less angry – younger sister.
In the 1990s, the Spice Girl’s famously claimed that they could “give feminism a kick up the arse.” This came in the form of Girl Power, described by Scary Spice as “spreading the positive vibes, kicking it for the girls and having a laugh”. Instead of representing a serious movement for fundamental change to gendered norms, Girl Power encompassed a non-threatening and individualized form of “empowerment” based upon “consumer choice”. It relied heavily on commodities as the source of women’s power rather than the “power to create, to think, and to act“.
Young women were encouraged to empower themselves with products that were arguably deemed as “out of bounds” by feminists such as Barbie, make-up, baby-pink clothes, high heels and cosmetic surgery. TV shows such as Sex and The City reinforced the notion that women could achieve liberation via fierce individualism and constant consumption. The show repeatedly depicted Carrie’s financial independence as her main source of “power”, suggesting that shopping for the latest women’s brands – especially shoes – was the solution to her problems.
Today, the Girl Power rhetoric has been regurgitated in the form of “female empowerment” via celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Khloe Kardashian. Swift has been hailed as a trailblazer of “empowerment” for women. Swift’s “girl gang” of (mainly white) Victoria’s Secret models are presented by the media as encompassing female friendship, with pictures of the “squad” posing on yachts and beaches being consistently labelled by the press as “powerful”. Just as the Spice Girls capitalized on the notion of “women sticking together”, much of Swift’s brand of feminism is based upon idealized notions of femininity that post no threat to current gender norms.
Indeed, Swift’s brand of “empowerment” is seemingly only accessible to women who are white, wealthy, and/or hetero-normatively attractive. Power is promoted through conditioning of the female body, with diet and exercise in order to feel powerful — an injunction reinforced by reality TV shows like Khloe Kardashian’s Revenge Body, in which “overweight” contestants are given professional help to achieve their “dream” physique to spite someone who has wronged them. This is an “empowerment” which aligns itself with neo-liberal rhetoric of consumption: you may feel deeply concerned about Trump’s abortion policies…but at least you have the “freedom” to buy shoes and go to the gym!
This discourse has the potential to entrench damaging narratives and ignore the lived experiences of many women. This is why the Women’s March must distance itself from that language of empowerment, otherwise the trap that awaits the Women’s March is a “fad” –– like the 90s crop-top – designed to make the individual “feel good”. To succeed, the Women’s Marches need to be presented as a collective force that speaks for all women’s experiences, rather vague terms of “empowerment” that may work for the individual but offer no real threat to fascism. We do not need to settle for a watered-down version of feminism that is usually only applicable to white women in boardrooms. We must resist the temptation to look inwards and instead focus our efforts outwards.