If you are interested in this book, you can read an LSE RB interview with Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser here.
Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny. Sarah Banet-Weiser. Duke University Press. 2018.
‘In 2018, we are living in a moment in North America and Europe in which feminism has become, somewhat incredibly, popular.’ The opening line to Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny makes the case for the book’s own pressing, and somewhat ambivalent, relevance. Charting the relatively recent rise of feminism in the public eye – who could forget Beyoncé’s iconic performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2014, where the pop star stood on a darkened stage with ‘FEMINIST’ emblazoned in glowing, unapologetically large letters? – Banet-Weiser opens by noting that feminism, long used as a derogatory punchline, is gaining new acceptance in the public realm. Today, corporations, activists and nation states alike claim their allegiance to the movement. On one end, there are grassroots organising networks such as the UK’s Sisters Uncut, an anti-austerity activist group that supports domestic violence victims by opposing government cuts to social services. Then, at the other end of the line, there’s Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 women initiative, a programme that ‘fosters economic growth by providing women entrepreneurs around the world with a business and management education’. It can be a confusingly broad church.
The feminism explored in Banet-Weiser’s Empowered is what she deems ‘popular feminism’, which involves gender equality projects widely accessible in public media – broadcast, television, advertising, online and social media. It is a place, readers will discover, that privileges some forms of expression, ideals and images over others. It is also the site where popular feminism’s obverse proliferates: popular misogyny. Examining men’s right groups, select Reddit forums and the pickup artist industry, Banet-Weiser observes how they grow alongside popular feminism projects. Empowered, at its core, is interested in the relationship between the two, drawing attention to the ways in which highly visible, popularised social movements incur their own highly networked – often less visible, but crucially no less powerful – reactive contestations. For Banet-Weiser, the stakes in identifying this relationship are high: what is it about the function and form of popular feminism, Empowered asks, that limits its own avowedly revolutionary aims?
Nothing is taken at surface level in Empowered, and this goes for the conceptual tools Banet-Weiser uses. What does it take for a feminist project, after all, to be ceded popularity in the first place? Beyond the obvious – one centred on white, middle-class, cisgendered, straight interests – Empowered notes in the chapter of ‘Confidence: The Con Game’ that popular feminism tends not to demand anything from the current order beyond a recognition that we exist.
The centrality of ‘confidence-building’ rhetoric in popular feminist movements (you have to be living under a rock if you, a woman, have not heard the compulsion to love your body, a demand extorted from you by any entity from a beauty brand to your local television celebrity) typifies the troubling inversion of the political demand made in these projects. Rather than ask for some fundamental re-adjustment to be made to the external world, ‘confidence-building’ initiatives render the woman herself accountable for her own empowerment. She is given no other tool but a loose encouragement to make an attitude adjustment in her own head. Taken to the extreme, this logic can be troubling: you, woman, are to blame, if you have not adequately made the leap of confidence required to be a competent feminist subject.
This brings us to that contested, overused word: empowerment. Popular feminism tends towards its own form of antipolitics: it relies on highly visible forms of self-assertion that often turns the qualifier to politics (identifying your values) into the actual politics itself. Take, Empowered notes, the classic feminist slogan t-shirt –‘This is what a feminist looks like’, ‘The future is female’, etc. Though not taking umbrage with the political convictions that would move someone to wear the t-shirt, Banet-Weiser sees in the trend as typifying the tendency to collapse political action into personal identification: ‘that t-shirt is the politics; the politics are contained within the visibility – visual representation become the beginning and the end of political action’ (23). It is not surprising that in our world, radical demands find their most visible distillation into easily digestible, commodifiable moments of self-branding. The myopia of empowerment as an ideal, after all, is that it does not ask what world you should be empowered to realise. Again, substantive politics are short-circuited in favour of a popular punchline.
Crucially, these examples of popular feminism are not offered up in Empowered in order to be crucified. Banet-Weiser’s aim is rather to point to how contemporary feminism’s commitment to the popularity – defined as an over-reliance on individual striving, and self-identification over collective action – anchors both popular feminism and popular misogyny in an endless feedback loop: what Banet-Weiser calls the ‘funhouse mirror’ effect in which the contestations of popular feminism are co-opted and weaponised by its opponents. Point: popular feminism makes claims that young girls need confidence. Counterpoint: men’s rights activists point to how men’s confidence has been hard done by through feminism. By pointing to how popular misogyny often turns the logic of popular feminism against it, Banet-Weiser helps us make clear the theoretical gaps in the latter’s political language, offering us the tools to dismantle the funhouse mirror once and for all.
To call Empowered a timely, relevant book would partly fall into the very trap of the attitudes it critiques: that a thing is important if it is trendy, which inevitably involves its ability to command visibility in the media spheres of the ‘popular’. And yet for all of us, these are the very waters in which we swim. As our headlines continue to be dominated by stories of girl-power t-shirts manufactured by exploited labourers and hedge funds putting up attention-grabbing ‘Fearless Girl’ statues only to reject internal company measures to address gender imbalances, Empowered serves as both a refreshing alleviant and galvanising call-to-arms against the cloying, almost inescapable feedback loops of politics centred around knee-jerk popular visibility. We deserve better feminisms.
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Rebecca Liu is a writer in London. She holds an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge, and previously studied history at the University of Chicago. She is an editor for King’s Review, a magazine of academic journalism, and tweets at @becbecliuliu.