Friends, gal pals, girlbosses, lend me your ears! I come to bury “empowering”, not to praise it. Yes, we are gathered here today for the funeral of the word “empowering”, which finally died a death on primetime television last night. The final nail in the coffin came when it was used as a team name on The Apprentice, a graveyard of corporate jargon, aggressive yet bland abstract nouns and simply meaningless terms like “synergy”, “velocity”, “revolution”, “endeavour”, “instinct” and “sterling”.
The naming came after the traditional dissolving of the original gendered teams – once the girls have been routinely disgraced as a squabbling catty cohort that dirties the very name of corporate feminism itself and the boys usually denounced for misleading customers with fraudulent promises and vaguely concealed aggression, the sexes are merged and the new mixed teams christened. “Has anyone got a name that they’re itching to, like, share?” one candidate asked. “I had Empower? Like, empowering each other…” suggested another. “Team Empower…” came the collective murmur. “I like it! I like that!”
I cannot fathom what the word might mean, in this context, to the candidates, or what image they might hope it to project. A few seconds later, a man screwed up his face in petulant rage after hearing a woman would take a leadership position over him. (“Because I’m a boy? I wouldn’t overlook my skillset because of what’s between my legs!”) Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead, scribbling on the sky the message EMPOWERING IS DEAD.
Of course, the case has been terminal for quite some time. The word empowering has steadily lost meaning over several years, and seems to now most frequently appear in digital advertising. Things I have recently seen described as empowering include a yellow hoodie, shapewear, the $3 billion technology company Automattic, lipsticks, a generic fashion editorial for a high street brand, razors, rope bondage, working with Woody Allen, losing weight, and the animated children’s film Chicken Run. (Ok, maybe you can have that last one.)
I only marginally managed to resist the urge to slam my head against the wall when watching a recent interview with a glamorous, upper-middle class British actress in which the interviewer managed to say the word at least once every minute: “For me, you’ve always been a very empowering force on screen”; “You’ve gone through a journey of empowerment in your life”; “What’s been the turning points in your own empowerment?”; “You are a very empowering woman in your own right” and, finally, inevitably, exquisitely: “For more empowering content, please subscribe…” In 2019, “empowered” seems to be a sexier synonym for “self-confident”, “high-achieving” or even “composed” – empowerment is merely another ideal to sell back to women without altering their societal position. According to the candidates of The Apprentice, it might not even mean that any more.
The limitations of the word, and what is sometimes called “empowerment feminism” – a watered-down, individualistic, capitalistic version of feminism with an emphasis on personal success that is detached from its original structural and collective aims – are hardly underexplored; there is a rich vein of critic from activists and academics, and even popular commentators in major journalism publications have bemoaned its rise since at least 2013, when the debate over Sheryl Sandberg’s book of “empowering career advice”, Lean In, was raging. Many conclude that a vaguely empowered-feeling individual is a lot less threatening to existing power structures – and a lot more appealing to corporations – than a marginalised class of people becoming tangibly, meaningfully empowered.
The term “empower” has a long history and shades of meaning, but was traditionally defined as investing legal or formal power. As the feminist academic Srilatha Batliwala explains, the feminist connotations of the term empowerment emerged from 1970s feminist discussions in the global south (particularly as feminists began to combine their own critical approaches with the 1960s theories of “conscientisation” developed by Paulo Freire – who argued that oppressed peoples needed to become conscious of their own oppression in order to resist it).
Barbara Bryant Solomon’s 1976 book Black Empowerment explored the concept from a social work perspective, and defined the term as a process that “aims to reduce powerlessness that has been created by negative valuations based on membership in a stigmatized group”. Empowerment, in Solomon’s view, was an attempt to correct a structural problem, and so it must necessarily involve “identification of the power blocks that contribute to” structural powerlessness, as well as devising strategies that aimed to either limit those “power blocks” or reduce their effects on the marginalised. Batliwala’s own 1994 book Women’s Empowerment in South Asia similarly defined empowerment as something that involves an awareness of and resistance to structural gender imbalances.
It’s tempting to see the bastardisation of the term, then, as an incredibly recent phenomenon – but it has a history almost as long as that of the original concept itself. Andi Zeisler, the author of the 2016 book We Were Feminists Once – an examination of how capitalism rebranded and co-opted feminism – sees the dilution of the term “empowerment” as occurring when “the idea that female consumers are empowered by their personal consumer choices” caught on during “the rapid, near-overwhelming expansion of consumer choice that began in the 1980s” and peaked in the mid-Noughties, when the word “became more deeply entrenched everywhere— feminist discourse, consumer marketing, corporate culture” and what she calls ‘empowertising’ exploded. “’Empowerment,’ like ‘feminism,’ was once a word with a definition,” she writes. But in the space of a few decades, the term has changed “from a radical social-change strategy to a buzzword of globalization to just another ingredient in a consumer word salad.”
So perhaps the word empowerment has been dead longer than Queen Anne. The commercial dilution of the term has provoked a long and healthy tradition of exhausted eye-rolls. The satirical newspaper The Onion ran the story “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does” back in 2003. (“From what she eats for breakfast to the way she cleans her home, today’s woman lives in a state of near-constant empowerment.”) A 2011 episode of The Simpsons poked fun at the concept when Lisa called Marge’s decision to dye her hair “empowering” because “as a feminist, virtually anything a woman does is empowering”. In 2013, Hadley Freeman wrote in the Guardian that the word “is, as we say in the linguistics world, bollocks”. In 2012, Forbes called the word “the most condescending transitive verb ever”.
In 2015, Rookie magazine critiqued the beauty market and “the feminist-lite language of empowerment it has co-opted”. In the New York Times Magazine in 2016, Jia Tolentino explained “How ‘Empowerment’ Became Something for Women to Buy”, arguing that “consumption-and-conference empowerment dilutes the word to pitch-speak, and the concept to something that imitates rather than alters the structures of the world. This version of empowerment can be actively disempowering: It’s a series of objects and experiences you can purchase while the conditions determining who can access and accumulate power stay the same.”
The clinical, chrome wasteland of The Apprentice boardroom seems a particularly fitting place for the word empowering to die. The consumer empowerment of the early Noughties was, in Zeisler’s words, a fantasy in keeping with “the neoliberal ideal in which individuals operate independent of cultural and economic influence, proving that all you need to succeed—or, in liberatory terms, to achieve equality—is the desire and will to do so.” Like corporate feminism, The Apprentice believes in a glossy, branded world in which the only impediments to freedom, wealth and status are psychological. This is the perfect storm of bootstrap individualism that bolstered Alan Sugar, Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump.
If The Apprentice is a scripted microcosm where empty, blustering confidence in the name of maximum profit is king, then it’s the perfect burial place for a hollowed-out, smoky-eyeshadow-and-mirrors term – one that believes a bold lip and a can-do attitude can rescue individuals from precarious social structures. Do not stand at its grave and weep.