PHOTO: The Women’s March in Washington, January 21, 2017
Milly Morris of the University of Birmingham writes for EA:
On January 20, a fascist took office in America.
Is fascist too strong a word? I don’t think so. This man used his wealth and status to dehumanize and intimidate those who are different to him. He sneered at the disabled and invited violence against people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. He aimed to exert control over women’s bodies, whether this be through sexual assault or by attacking their reproductive rights. Now any media outlets who criticize this behavior are labelled as “fake news” or “corrupt”. This man’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, suggests that the American public should only believe the news that comes directly from The White House.
To refer to Donald Trump as anything less than a fascist has the potential to normalize his language and actions while “gaslighting” the all-too-real fears of vulnerable individuals, making them doubt what they see, hear, and know.
On January 21, 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. We were not the only ones — Women’s Marches took place all across the US, the UK, Europe, and the seven continents, with researchers in Antarctica holding signs such as “Penguins for Peace”. 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”.
The Danger of Girl Power
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. For example, in the 1990s, the Spice Girl’s famously claimed that “feminism has become a dirty word….We can give feminism a kick up the arse.” This “kick up the arse” 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 eavily 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. Carrie – the show’s main character – struggled to get out of an emotionally-abusive with Mr. Big, often causing her to be presented as “passive” and “weak”. The show depicted Carrie’s financial independence as her main source of “power”, repeatedly suggesting that shopping for the latest women’s brands – especially shoes – enabled her to “fix herself” when she “felt broken”.
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 for empowerment” for women due to her string of hit songs about her ex-boyfriends and her presentation as the leader of a “squad” of models. The “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”. Vogue noted:
Swift is using her power posse for good, broadcasting a girl-empowerment message of unity and friendship, all while having fun and picking up some stylish tips from friends whose fashion goals are in league with her own.
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. In her music video for “Bad Blood”, she and her friends are “wielding compact mirrors and kicking their opponents in the face with stiletto shoes” . Swift’s brand of “empowerment” is seemingly only accessible to women who are white, wealthy, and/or hetero-normatively attractive.
Swift’s feminist “empowerment” is accessed by embracing normative portrayals of being “feminine”, just with a “Go Girl” attitude. 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 a 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 is a rhetoric of empowerment which 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 awaits that 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 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.
Women’s March in Boston, January 21, 2017