• Mon, Mar 28 2011

Are You Feeling Empowered Today?

Personally, I’m feeling kind of sleepy. I’d say “hungry” but no, not so hungry right now. I couldn’t tell you whether or not I’m feeling empowered because I’m pretty sure that term is ludicrous.

Which is surprising, because apparently it applies to every woman who does anything. Oprah is a strong empowered woman. So are ass-kicking schoolgirls in pigtails and fishnets. Here is a conversation I overheard at the bodega (why I’m not hungry!) this morning. “Are you coming from yoga?” “Yeah, it’s really helping me become more empowered as a woman.”

Lady. You are doing some sun salutes. I suspect muscle tone and empowerment aren’t the same thing.

Let’s find out. Let’s look at the technical definition of that word. Apparently, it means “increasing the spiritual, political, social, or economic strength of individuals and communities. It often involves the empowered developing confidence in their own capacities.”

Which is great. That sounds like a terrific word. Except it’s never used to apply to men.

And yet, more an more often I feel like what it translates to is “you have a vagina! Kudos to you for getting out of bed this morning!” I guess I feel that way because – and I’m stealing this example from the lovely and empowered Molly Crabapple – no one refers to Spiderman as a “strong, empowered man.” And they probably should – because he’s developing confidence in his own abilities, right? I saw Spiderman, Turn Off The Dark. I definitely remember empowerment!

But we almost never talk about male empowerment, perhaps because it’s already assumed that men have confidence in their own abilities. Oprah is often referred to as “an empowered woman” but you don’t really hear people saying that Piers Morgan is an “empowered man.” Perhaps because Piers Morgan is Piers Morgan, but that’s another conversation altogether.

Since it’s almost always used to reference women, it becomes a little bit of a backhanded compliment. It seems like, quite often, when people talk about a woman being empowered, they’re saying that she’s wildly exceeded the standards set for a member of her gender. Maybe we don’t need to constantly address men’s developing confidence, because we just assume they had confidence to begin with.

By the same note, men don’t seem to feel a need to form clubs and constantly remind themselves how “empowered” they are (for going to yoga). It seems like men just assume that developing confidence in your abilities is a natural part of life, and not something that needs to be mentioned, constantly, as if it were surprising that an individual might be empowered at all.

To be fair, the standards of what a woman is capable of have changed radically over the past 70 years. Mildred Pierce (currently being played by Kate Winslet!) for instance, goes from being a housewife to a successful entrepreneur. She certainly developed more faith in her own abilities in the process, and did so in a time when women were thought to be lacking in power. It makes sense to say that she was an empowered woman.

But in an era where young girls are frequently reminded that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up – well, wouldn’t it make sense to assume that some of them have a good deal of confidence going into life? As much as their male counterparts? Do we need to assume that every woman who is, to any degree successful, has had to undergo a significantly greater process of emotional development than her male peers? I’m reluctant to believe that all woman and naturally mousy and shy, and have to work really hard to overcome those natural traits.

I’m not saying that individuals shouldn’t be commended for gaining faith in their capacities. I actually think that Oprah does seem like someone who had to develop more confidence in her abilities over her lifetime – but then, I think Piers Morgan probably did, too. And constantly reminding women that they’re empowered seems like a reminder that, at our base, we are supposed to be powerless.

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  • Jill

    Try this article, a friend shared it with me yesterday. It makes a clear point, though I wonder whether I only agree with it because I find it encouraging.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heidi-grant-halvorson-phd/girls-confidence_b_828418.html?ref=fb&src=sp

  • Eileen

    Eh. This is how I used to think. And women as a whole have come a long way in the past few decades. But even if we’re not naturally shy and mousey, we do have to overcome more than our male counterparts because we’re still part of a society that thinks we are. Men still have more power, socially – although I won’t deny I’m sick of the word “empowerment.”