the problem with empowerment
Let me preface this piece by saying that I am a feminist. I believe in the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. I'm here for equal pay, know that intersectionality is a thing, and believe in the empowerment of women (among other "feminist issues").
However, empowerment as it is often conceived and conceptualized today is problematic.
Earlier this week, Mic ran an article about a reimagined Girl's Life cover. One that took what was deemed to be a disappointing cover and improved it - made it empowering for girls by making it more educational, instead of being rooted in "unattainable standards" that girls and women are often subjected to. The change was sparked by the comparison of two magazine covers (see below).
I don't think anyone could argue that the differences in content between these two covers is okay. There is absolutely no reason why the boys' magazine should be full of career advice while the girls' magazine is focused on relationships, waking up pretty, and fashion. I think we also can all agree that representation, as well as, the messages portrayed by the media matter. They have a profound impact on what people, in this case young girls' and boys', believe about themselves, feel they can achieve and decide to deem important. So, I commend the creation of another cover for girls. A cover that discussed career options, how to be healthy, and community service (see below).
But, I'm left wondering, how come when it comes to the empowerment of women and girls, things often seem to operate in a binary that actually doesn't leave many options open for women and girls. Why does a magazine cover have to be completely about ones career/academic/health/community service options or solely focused on fashion/relationships/friendship?
Why can't we promote both?
As a young girl, I grew up reading plenty of magazines with covers just like the one on the left. And I turned out to be better than just fine. Granted, my parents probably supplemented my reading with other materials and/or those magazines had more to them than met the eye. Regardless, I ended up attending some of the best universities in this country. I also fully understand the importance of dressing for my body type and what constitutes a "good" kiss.
Isn't that a good thing?
I worry that by promoting and perpetuating this binary, we teach girls that they have to be one or the other, completely career-minded, or seemingly vapid because what, they have an interest in fashion or how to be a good best friend?
The reality is that life, especially as a woman is full of grey areas. Nothing is black and white. We would do well as a society to teach our girls how to navigate that spectrum. To teach them that it's okay to care about what they wear to work as much as they care about how they perform on the job. Also, boys should not and do not get a pass here. Their magazines should teach them how to treat women and interact with society around them. Grooming is just as important for boys as it is for little girls'. Also, I mean, I love a man in a well tailored suit and feel like we should teach them the importance of dressing well early.
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I get it. But, I guess what I'm saying is, we should be teaching our girls that they can do both. Because if we don't, aren't we still "shrinking them"? Boxing them in? Not allowing them to be their full selves?
We should be teach girls that being well-rounded is a good thing. That they can be smart and pretty. That they ARE smart and pretty and that one is no more important than the other. And, we should not let our boys' off the hook. They should be well-rounded too.
Sounds to me, like both magazines and society at large has some work to do.