by Marina Fuser
Patricia Arquette’s speech upon receiving the Oscar for best supporting actress (Boyhood) was met by an enthusiastic round of applause, sighs and tears of joy by an audience that is rather favourable to gender equity. Nevertheless, the reception of this discourse involved much suspicion and skepticism in Feminist circles due to the radical dissonance between her privileges as a white, upper class, prestigious actress and the everyday lives of most women, and as such it is a particularly sensitive issue with regards to women that still occupy marginal positions in society.
With impeccable self-confidence and the majestic pose of a powerful woman who had just been awarded the trophy that consecrates the peak of her career as a Hollywood actress, Arquette defends:
“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights… It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Based on her speech and on Reese Witherspoon’s appeal for the paparazzi to ask actresses more relevant questions than those on their attire, the highlights of the starry night emphasized the expression “women’s empowerment” with big caps.
But what exactly does “empowerment” mean? It is a term which was employed by Black Feminists around the 1960s, among which stood the pioneer Kimberle Crenshaw with her “politics of empowerment” (Crenshaw 1993). This consists of recovering power from the elites of patriarchy to the standpoint of subordinate peoples. In Feminist Black consciousness-raising groups, “empowerment” was a key word against the silencing of Black voices in White Feminism, and also against sexism and homophobia in the Black movement. It also means to reclaim a self-esteem crushed by Patriarchy and the slavery establishment. It is a collective act of resistance, which produces links of solidarity among women in the Black movement and among Black women in predominantly white Feminist spaces. Empowerment has nothing to do with “giving power”, as many international development corporations and NGOs distortedly promote, thus emptying its political content, as if women were passive and needed to have their power vertically validated. Empowerment is about encouraging women to find their own voice, and to understand themselves as autonomous subjects, rather than to be subjected to power structures. It is a strategy of resistance marked the history of the Black Panthers, among other historical icons of Black Feminism.
In a private discussion in a social media platform (Facebook), the political scientist Mabelle Bandoli was quite emphatic:
“Empowerment is to reclaim power at all levels. Emancipation is not possible without taking over power (including political-institutional power). Collective emancipation is not possible without individual emancipation, without self-esteem, without the on-going and sensitive exercise of self-determination. In knowing that given material conditions (including in producing an reproducing culture) take away our agency of both our individual and collective histories.”
Her discourse, narrated on the first person, affirms that her intervention in social movements required
“a personal effort of investing on the self-esteem and the self-confidence that have been confiscated from me my entire life”.
There does not seem to be a dichotomy between empowerment on a personal level, as a means of reclaiming marginal self-esteems (i.e. woman, black, queer, trans, etc.) and the act of empowering as a group or a block that seeks to gain spaces in a permanent act of deconstruction of micro and macro powers- that is to say, power experienced as finding one’s own voice, and power on a broader political scale (how far can one’s voice reach and what are the political resonances of this voice?). Power, as employed by feminist groups of women of colour, does not mean to sustain or to invert the pendulum of dominant-dominated relations, but rather to unmake power from within its structure.
The sociologist Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès asks herself whether, facing the twisted, institutionalized approach to empowerment, we should dismiss the term altogether. Her answer is negative:
“While these empowerment initiatives may be quite varied and are implemented in specific cultural contexts with varying degrees of success, they all began with collective, grassroots action, engage in raising critical consciousness among individuals about their conditions, and aim to transform inequitable power relations. In this way they reconnect with the original conception of empowerment and reject the individualist, de-politicized, vertical, and “instrumental” definition of empowerment imposed by international development organizations” (Calvès 2009).
A neoliberal agenda instrumentalises feminist discourses, giving it a rather docile tone with well-established limits. While it is positive that the institutionalization of women’s empowerment has produced, for instance, mechanisms to fight domestic violence, the latter of empowerment goes beyond repair work (which by all means, is important). I believe that it is key to recuperate a path of empowerment that engender a project of social transformation which make way to the rise of autonomy and engagement with the deconstruction of canons and instituted power relations. In cinema, the Academy occupies the maximum level of instituted power, through The Oscars ceremony as its main rite of revalidating power and the consecration of the star-system which sustains it. In spite of the gradual dismantling of the Hollywood Empire, speeches of the award winning stars can reach homes that feminism has yet to enter. The role of celebrity activism can, indeed, open up a space for raising awareness to social, economic and political issues, but the star-system’s hyper-visibility can be rather superficial, while the subjects of their discourses remain invisible and voiceless. Their discourses validate women’s empowerment, yet this validation comes from the top of a pedestal. The ambiguity of these discourses relies on the fact that these discourses can produce impact in the way in which society views gender asymmetries, and it can indeed be beneficial to social change. However, in doing so, they are also validating the canons of a highly exclusive, white, male dominated structure which is the Academy itself.
Another example of a progressive discourse in the same spotlight was John Legend’s speech upon being awarded with an Oscar for his song “Glory” (Selma), was quite audacious, by revealing an uncomfortable truth. To affirm that they live in the most incarcerated nation in the world, and that “there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850” was quite remarkable. That, which should have been obvious, is finally enunciated in the main ceremony of showbiz, precisely since the riots of Black movements have blasted throughout the US after Trayvon Martin’s shooting and further cases of police violence towards African Americans.
As marketing-oriented as star’s empowerment discourses may seem (which I personally cannot evaluate), I am not against Patricia Arquette’s defence of equal wage, nor do I oppose Reese Witherspoon’s protest. I am actually favourable to these discourses, because they can potentially open up gaps and windows for a deeper reflection on the condition of Other women. What has to be clear is that these stars do not represent feminism. In fact, no one does, although their level of hyper-visibility could suggest otherwise. Among flashes and glamour, this neoliberal approach to empowerment is miles and miles away from the real condition of most women in and beyond US borders, whose main concerns are more dramatic than any inconvenient question that paparazzi can possibly ask. By all means, the issue is not the Hollywood divas’ appropriation of women’s empowerment, but awareness to its limits, since these stars live in an unreachable galaxy. Way too many privileges walk on that red carpet…
CALVÈS, A. E. (2009) Empowerment: The History of a Key Concept in Contemporary Development Discourse. In: Revue Tiers Monde, Vol. 200.
CRENSHAW, K. (1993) Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Colour. In: Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43.