Get a lipstick, get a job? The bare-faced cynicism of the ’empowering’ makeover

Has any woman, in the history of anything, ever thought to herself “if only I could be more empowered“. Empowerment – that ambiguous, Oprah-esque substitute for genuine power – strikes me as pretty low on a woman’s list of priorities. Choice, freedom, respect, yes, empowerment, no. And yet we’re still being told that it’s exactly what we need.

Empowerment is liberation turned into victim-blaming. Once you’re “empowered” everything’s in your hands and privilege ceases to exist. Empowerment is part of the reason why no one believes in workplace discrimination any more. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we no longer entertain the idea that employers might still be sexist. These “empowered” women, well, they make their own beds and they can damn well lie in them.
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“Useful” sexism: A real feminist headfuck

Yesterday afternoon I was in Asda with my kids, who were driving me completely and utterly mental.

Having written an opening line like that, I would now like to describe a series of suitably extreme activities – setting fire to the cheese aisle, disputing the Asda price promise, even deliberately not choosing items from the “chosen by you” range – such as would merit the high levels of distress and frustration I was experiencing. Of course, there was none of that. It was just the usual crap – pushing the trolley in the wrong direction, running off down the booze aisle, spending too long pressing the button on Daisy the Cow.* On a good day I would have responded to it all with self-congratulatory liberal-parent nonchalance. Alas, yesterday was not a good day.

So there I was at the checkout, the mad shouty lady yelling her head off, when it suddenly crossed my mind that I ought to apologise to the rather startled man working on the checkout. So I said sorry and he just smiled and said “they’re just typical boys being boisterous”. And of course, my first thought on hearing that was “hmm, that’s a bit sexist”. But then I had a second thought, which was “actually, it’s quite good if he assumes all this is down to my kids having penises rather than, say, my complete and utter inability to organise a simple trip out to purchase cistern blocks and wine” (oh yeah, we had a wild evening planned).

This was, of course, yet another instance of me being confronted by the feminist headfuck that is “useful” sexism. Someone’s being sexist, but it benefits me and I can’t see it immediately harming anyone else (for instance, my sons didn’t give a toss. They were too busy dismantling the sun cream display). So shouldn’t I just let it go? After all, I’m a woman and I’m normally on the losing side. So don’t I deserve a break every now and then? Does this stuff really matter?

I decided that in this instance it didn’t matter. I was too stressed and the man had been on the till for god knows how many hours so I hardly wanted to have a go at him. Still, it got me thinking. Surely there are instances where it does matter. What should we do about them?

The most obvious example of this is, I think, provided by breast cancer campaigning. Usually focusing unduly on a woman’s tits is just sexist and bad, as is suggesting that all things associated with women should be pink, overpriced and superfluous. And yet both of these things have provided a focus for campaigning and made a lot of money for cancer charities, not just those looking at breast cancer alone. So how bad is it really? Is it just churlish and blinkered to ask questions?

Questions have of course already been asked, first from “what about teh menz?” whingers, who use discrepancies in cancer funding to suggest that the pendulum’s swung too far (don’t we all just love the pendulum of misogynist-misandrist doom?). This is to completely ignore that a) extra funding into breast cancer is based on the successful exploitation of anti-feminist stereotypes, b) other “female” cancers do not receive the same special treatment and c) male-focused funding drives, such as Movember, can also be successful (if still really bloody irritating). More interestingly, criticism has also come from female cancer sufferers themselves, who feel that, on top of dealing with horrendous symptoms, treatments and a potentially curtailed lifespan, they’ve been co-opted into some Barbie pink smile-a-thon without their consent. Strong protests against the “pinkification” of cancer have come from the performance artist Tutu with her Punk Cancer campaign, and the American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Smile or Die in rebellion against the “positive thinking” foisted on those who have little to be positive about. It’s incredibly important to listen to these voices, as it can show how, far from easing suffering, the well-meaning “positive” exploitation of stereotypes can still make people’s lives a misery. But what about those of us who can’t speak from immediate experience? How should we respond?

The next time someone asks me to sponsor them in this year’s Race for Life in memory of their Great-Aunt Mabel, what should I say?

“I’m sorry, but I won’t be complicit in the potentially damaging reinforcement of sugar-coated stereotypes. Haven’t you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book? I mean, neither have I, but I read a review of it in the Guardian, and it sounded good, so that’s why I won’t give you any money.”

Should I go for the middle ground?

“Okay, I’ll give you a fiver, but only if you don’t wear that pink wig. The pink wig’s just trivialising the whole thing, and yes, I know you’re the one with the dead auntie, but I’m a feminist intellectual and that’s my final offer.”

Or should I just do what I usually do i.e. mumble something incomprehensible even to myself, then scan the sponsorship list and offer what appears to be the going rate?

I think I’ll take the last option. I believe in choosing my battles, or rather, I believe in it as a principle, I just haven’t a sodding clue which ones to pick. And as for Asda, maybe the sheer triviality of it means I should have done more. Perhaps, rather than have a go at the poor bloke, I should have pushed the boat out and gone along with him. “Yeah, boys are a total fucking pain. I think I’ll get mine chemically castrated.” Do you think that would have challenged his preconceptions?

* For some reason, our local Asda keeps a life-sized plastic cow next to the dairy produce section, along with a button you can press to make it moo. My boys have somehow assumed that Daisy the Cow does in fact own Asda. I have not disillusioned them. One day they will have to learn of the existence of Wal-Mart, but not yet. They are innocent and it is too soon.