Decoding Empowerment

by Megan Mulligan

Photo Courtesy of Twitter

 

Pop culture advertises “powerful” female characters and “inspirational” songs and stories. By capitalizing on liberal, feminist ideas for plotlines and headlines, pop culture heralds things as empowering before audiences can absorb the material, presenting empowerment as if it was a genre rather than an opinion.

 

What is empowering to one person is not the same as what is possibly empowering to their best friend, or their grandmother, or their ex-boyfriend’s eighth-grade soccer coach.

 

Empowerment mainly depends on how one perceives themselves within society (as a person of color, as a disabled person, as a member of the LGBT community, etc.) and how they perceive that group’s place in society. A woman of color may feel underrepresented or stereotyped; someone with disabilities may feel misrepresented or that they exist only as a token character.

 

An “empowering” character, song or statement attempts to challenge “the norm” and give those not typically represented encouragement or opportunity to break from stereotypes or the status quo.

 

Beyoncé’s latest album “Lemonade” and its video accompaniment, as well as prominent speeches from Meryl Streep and Michelle Obama, are some of the “empowering” moments from the past year. These women describe or draw from their personal experiences in order to inspire different groups of people.

 

In the case of “Lemonade”, it draws directly from the female African-American experience and from Beyoncé’s personal struggles to develop a narrative of pain and triumph.

 

Beyoncé also embodied her support for social justice and liberation movements with her Black Panther-inspired costumes at her Super Bowl Performance in 2016.

 

“While some music is empowering, especially with words,” said Gabi Turi (COM ’19), “if a musician does not back up what they sing or play, it means nothing.”

 

Streep, in a speech at the Golden Globes on Jan. 8, celebrated diversity in Hollywood and stressed the importance of empathy and compassion in life and entertainment. She also, without mentioning by name, criticized Donald Trump.

 

Headlines the next morning called the speech “empowering,” and many protesters at the Women’s March on Washington cited her speech as a moment of inspiration. Cosmopolitan.com, however, published an opinion article shortly after that said Streep was “boring,” not brave.

 

The article said she followed an apparent “Mad Libs” of speeches that often criticizes Republican policies, and instead of being daring or empowering, Streep fell into a “cookie-cutter” mold.

 

However, Streep criticized a figure already considered “bad” in liberal-leaning culture and furthered the calls to action reverberating around the country. She did not state Trump by name. Instead she referenced policies and statements from him already well hashed in public discourse: building a wall and deporting undocumented immigrants, or claiming the press is dishonest.

 

In short, Streep’s speech met the standards for “empowerment,” but did not work for some because it wasn’t original or new—it was the same as every other “inspirational,” anti-Trump speech before it.

 

Empowerment, in this case, could not be served in general terms. This highlights the fact that, to be “empowering,” a character or statement has to directly channel a personal struggle someone has, and present it in a positive light.

 

For example, by quoting Carrie Fisher in her speech, Streep may have gained attention from people who were inspired by the late actress and mental health advocate. People who did not find the speech empowering were likely not seeking validation in that form.

 

Similar speeches, from Blake Lively at the 2017 People’s Choice Awards and Michelle Obama before Inauguration Day, call for “girl power” and encourage young people to make change.

 

These speeches argue that popular culture, and society in general, are best when they are the most inclusive. Things become “empowering” when it does that—which gives viewers or readers power and inspiration where they felt they had none. 

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