On Empowerment Trends and Judgment

In September, I attended a conversation panel featuring Roxane Gay and Andi Zeisler at the Hammer museum, as part of the Hammer’s new program #BureauofFeminism (PLUG: this program also includes the queer performance salon SORORITY—happening next month, Dec 3rd “The Woods” and Dec 4th “The Internet.” I will be performing Dec 3rd). So the panel was great and I didn’t think it was possible to love Roxane Gay more than I already did and yet somehow that happened. But the most relevant-to-this-blog-post moment was that at some point early on in their conversation, Zeisler was all like “my recent book,” etc, and I was like- WHAT RECENT BOOK, ANDI ZEISLER? just feeling super out of the feminist loop (as we so often do, am I right?). So I immediately went home that night and requested her new book from the library, because I believe in libraries and I am cheap.

Anyway, fast-forward to today, I finally finished We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. It has given me a ton of food for thought, which is lucky for you because I’m dying to share some of my mental digestion (and yep, I definitely recommend that you read this book).

Here’s what’s on my mind:

In a world of “YOU DO YOU, GIRL,” we have arrived at a precarious place in the pursuit of equality where the existence of options has been misidentified as feminism. Seemingly, the fact that a choice exists means that we’ve succeeded. Like, look at all these fresh juicy choices: I can choose to wax, or choose not to! I can choose to wear fancy underpants, or choose not to! I can choose to bleach my asshole, or choose not to! Amazing! All choices are amazing because they exist! High five! Congratulations, feminism! We’ve done it!
I mean, choices are cool and all, but let’s not confuse the idea of what choice means in regards to an issue like reproductive rights, with what choice means in situations like “What shower gel should I buy?” These are not the same freedoms, these are not even in the same universe of considerations.

And yet, capitalism and social media have leveled the playing field so that it’s not always clear that one instance of agency may objectively hold more importance than the other. Enter the empowerment epidemic. I have been thinking about this idea over the course of the last few years, and I was so glad to see it brought up in Zeisler’s book. Empowerment is so hot right now. It’s EVERYWHERE AND EVERYTHING. Empowerment is like feminism’s more attractive, less threatening little cousin. Eating chocolate? I AM SO EMPOWERED. Hair dye? LORD I HAVE NEVER FELT MORE EMPOWERED. Photos shared online where I look sexy cuz I’m in my underpants because I CHOSE TO BE AND I CHOSE TO SHARE THIS? I AM SO TOTALLY EMPOWERED, RING THE LIBERTY BELL PLEASEEEEEEEE SOMEONE TELL HISTORY WE’VE DONE IT FOR REAL THIS TIME.

I’m not saying any of these acts are wrong (more on chronic judgment avoidance in a minute). I’ve done them all, myself. Rather, why must everything be validated by the label of empowerment? Why do we have to use the proclamation of empowerment to help ourselves feel better about our decisions?

Oh, right. Because if I tell you that something makes me feel a positive emotion—then, in theory, as current empowerment culture dictates: whatever choice (within reason) that led me to this positive feeling is now free from scrutiny and judgment. “YOU DO YOU, GIRL!” we say, patting each other on the back as we spend money to fix superficial problems that weren’t even problems in the first place, as we go to incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable lengths to be noticed and SEEN and by being seen, maybe heard, trying all the while to make ends meet in a society where every paycheck is a reminder that we are worth less than our white, male peers.

The campaign of empowerment, while not without some positive influence, has provided an overwhelmingly false sense of forward motion in feminism. We are NASTY, empowered women. We know this because our shirts and mugs and tote bags say so! HA, patriarchy! WE ARE MAKING FUN OF YOU, SO WE WIN! Sporting a feminist piece of merchandise (especially when the money is funneled to support a good cause) is a totally ok choice of material accessory. But we’ve got to acknowledge that a screen-printed quip is a fraction of an impulse. It is part of the breath that comes before the first sentence is spoken. It is not the closing statement.

Here’s the thing: scrutiny and judgment, somewhat faux-pas in empowerment circles, are actually healthy and vital. To clarify: it’s not ok when judgment results in rape or death threats, leads to racist/homophobic/sexist harassment, violence, or in any other way tears apart our lives or make us unsafe. But like, just dictionary-level scrutiny, and basic judgment? It’s… it’s ok. Scrutiny is what people do to try to figure out if they think our ideas are valuable. Judgment is what people do to make sense of what we’re expressing, to help determine boundaries, goals, and ethical standards. Judgment is our real-time Sorting Hat for everything we witness in life. We need both scrutiny and judgment in order to have dialogue and contribute critical thought to society. It’s how brains work.

But today’s empowerment trend has become synonymous with “Don’t judge me!” sometimes phrased as, “Does this make me a bad feminist?” aka—“If I’m asking this maybe-rhetorical question first and thus showing slight insecurity in my actions by doing so, then I’m already on my way to judging myself which means if you judge me it won’t sting as much since I kinda beat you to it!”

We are afraid of the dialogue that happens when someone scrutinizes us or doesn’t fully support something we have said or done. Which is, you know, a pretty reasonable fear, because disagreements suck and make us feel misunderstood and as a group lacking equal rights, disagreements with someone who has more power and privilege than us can leave us with even less opportunity and resources than we started with. That said, the emotional horror story, the real gut sinker inside of ourselves is that the experience of respectful disagreement can cause us to self-examine and possibly shift a little as a result. But this ain’t the psychological self-improvement golden era of the ‘90s so NO ONE WANTS THAT. NEVER CHANGE, they say in the 2000s. YOU ARE PERFECT THE WAY YOU ARE DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU OTHERWISE!

There is another descendant of the scrutiny/judgment fear, similar to the empowerment epidemic, that reveals itself by unnecessarily claiming feminism at every possible moment.  I’m pretty sure it’s responsible for like, 95% of the “feminist” “articles” I see shared on social media. 50 Reasons This Random TV Show Is Feminist! This Famous Man Is A Feminist Because He Made A Public Statement About Women That Wasn’t Sexist! Check Out This New Feminist Lipstick! Look At This Cute Feminist Baby It Can’t Speak Words Or Express Shitty Thoughts Yet So We’re Just Gonna Label It Feminist Until It Grows Up And Proves Us Otherwise!

The absence of misogyny is not the same as feminism. Are they related? Potentially. But one is a basic foundation of respect and the other requires actual equality. You can refrain from saying something overtly disrespectful to me and still refuse to negotiate my starting salary.

Related: if someone is an outspoken feminist, it does not mean that every action they do is inherently feminist. I KNOW. I’m throwing you a lot of shit to juggle simultaneously and it’s overwhelming.
But look here. Let’s try an example: I am vegan. Like feminism, this identity is important to me and informs and influences many aspects and values of my life. In fact, they are related. But if I take a crayon and draw a doodle, the doodle is not automatically vegan by association. Now, if the doodle is a doodle of the inside of a slaughterhouse and a basket of kale, then, sure, there is just reason to mention an association to my veganism. But who doodles like that??

This is how we’ve come to congregate shamefully around our “bad,” “guilty” pleasures. The false concept is that true feminist identity is so all-consuming that it's leaking from our pores at every possible moment (sometimes it really is, though!). This concept is capitalized upon as we complete unremarkable tasks like shampooing our hair, now purchasing products based on “empowering” commercials. This capitalist expectation of feminist empowerment is so demanding and unrealistic, it is so either IN or OUT, and it so definitely does very little if anything to promote actual feminist achievement.

I recall a harassment that took place in Seattle once, where I was walking on the sidewalk and a dude slowed down his pickup while going through a busy intersection to lean out and yell at me: “ARE YOU A BOY OR A GIRL OR WHAT.” He then gunned his truck loudly and zoomed off. The most frustrating part of his harassment were the last two words: “OR WHAT.” Phrased almost like a question but with no intention for an actual response, these words let me know that I not only provoked the question because of my queer existence in a public place, but that as part of this provocation I also carried the responsibility and expectation of providing an answer. 

ARE YOU A FEMINIST OR WHAT. This is the fear, this non-question. By this statement even being directed in our direction, the point is: your identity is up for debate and it’s your responsibility to prove yourself. Like, in order to take simple pleasure in a TV show whose plot makes no actual sense and whose characters are problematic, we feel that we must confess our feminist sins amongst each other in hopes that we are not alone in our complexity as a human being who is capable of many different tastes and the occasional contradiction. Don’t tell the non-feminists! Word might get out that I once spent a weekend at a Twilight-themed resort outside of Forks, Washington and IT WILL RUIN ME (I really did that though and oh my god I’d do it again in a heartbeat).

But even if you DID judge me for my Twilight weekend… that’s okay. Because I DEFINITELY judge you for watching Game of Thrones. OH SNAP I SAID IT.
But seriously, it’s just… I don’t think it has to be a huge deal, some of these tastes, some of these judgments, some of these products we are pressured to feel constantly empowered by. I don’t NEED to feel empowered by poorly written vampire young adult fiction. I did not pick up the book expecting or seeking a feminist manifesto. I just… there are such bigger issues to think about. Like, actual power. Who HAS power? And how is that power preventing equality? And that’s what I’m really trying to get across: Our insecurities and fears, mixed with just a few small cheers of vapid inconsequential empowerment can be a serious threat to what feminism is actually seeking to do. Which is, SAY IT WITH ME NOW: equality.

I also think it’s okay to scrutinize everything I’ve just said. Please scrutinize it. Judge the hell outta everything I ever do. I mean you will anyway, because that’s what we do as humans, but I’m like, giving you explicit permission to do so. Because that process will only provoke thought and self-examination in us all. I encourage it. If we cannot acknowledge the importance that our judgment plays in progress, we won’t get very far. We will reach our fear and dress it up in empowerment and fail to realize we never even left the house.