My “empowerment” is not for sale

Last weekend as I walked through Grand Central Station here in NYC, I noticed this ad for Jones New York, a clothing line that evidently caters to professional women.

The features findings from last year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, to which our own Courtney contributed. The report, which Maria Shriver co-wrote with the Center for American Progress, found that for the first time in US history women now make up half of the workforce.

And so, Jones New York has come out with this ad campaign, which features a bevy of thin young (mostly white) models dressed for corporate America. You can see more images from it here and read an interview with the stylist here.

The text reads on the ad I saw and photographed with my not particularly high-quality camera phone reads: “Women as half of all workers changes everything… Jones NY, empowering your confidence.”

Now, in no way do I meant to belittle Jones New York, who by all accounts does a good deal of work with non-profits and other admirable organizations, and whose simple yet stylish black pea coat kept my top half warm through several New Jersey winters.

But I’m really skeptical of their use of the word “empower.” In fact, I’m skeptical of the use of the word “empower” by anyone who’s got something to sell me. Especially if they’re using a bunch of conventionally beautiful, tokenly-diverse fashion models to do it, and especially if they’re only interested in empowering women who do certain kinds of work and can afford to spend a certain level of money on their work wardrobes.

And look, I get it: clothes really can make you feel empowered. A great suit can make you feel confident heading into an interview or a presentation (or a court hearing). An awesome pair of heels can make you feel unstoppable (ironically, they will also stop you from running away should the need ever arise). And I get that it’s a sign of feminism’s success that people want to sell it to us as a product. If feminism sells, that means feminism is popular and appealing and that is great for us feminists.

But, generally speaking, fashion is not a particularly empowering enterprise for the women who consume it. It’s an endless cycle of things to be bought and worn for a few months and then replaced by more things that will be worn for a few months and then replaced. Not to be confused with style, which is individual and about doing what feels right for you, fashion is about buying the right thing at the right time because someone else – a designer, a model, a retailer, a magazine – told you that you should. To quote Full Frontal Feminism, by some lady somewhere, “this isn’t to say it’s wrong to want to look ‘hot,’ and to go along with the status quo from time to time,” or to buy and feel awesome in the silver spandex bodysuit or jeggings or whatever else is fashionable this nanosecond, “but let’s not call it empowered. Call it what it is – fun and easy.”

Why does it matter that we be on guard against retailers and advertisers using our own political language to sell us stuff? Because chances are, they don’t really care about our politics. They care about our pocketbooks. The language of “empowerment” and “girl power” has been happily, profitably and harmfully adopted by the market, with advertisers using it to sell us everything from beauty treatments to the Spice Girls. One could argue that, on the whole, few items on the list have been empowering for women.

Bottom line: if you want to buy something because you think it’s going to empower your confidence, go right ahead. I’m in no position to tell anyone how to spend their money. But if someone with something to sell tries to tell you what empowerment looks like – even if they’re affiliated with a really fantastic piece of research done by a really fantastic organization – you should be skeptical. Especially if they’re telling you that it looks exactly like their product.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted August 11, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    While I do agree generally with your sentiment, (believe me–no one gets more bristly at the totally empowerful lipstick BS I see a lot of) I feel that Jones New York does a lot of women a good turn by making affordable clothing that actually fits and looks good on women who aren’t a size 6 or less.

    If this were the Gap, or Ann Taylor, or any other number of stores that seems to believe that a woman shopping size L or XL still have an A cup, or that having a round bum _must_ mean that your legs are as thick as the trunk of the mighty oak tree, or that your shoulders will be only half the size of your hips, or that you can have boobs but no ribcage–I would laugh so hard at their little “empowerful” BS I would be at risk of chocking on my own bile. But despite their conventionally thin models, shopping at Jones has consistently given me clothing that fits and looks good — both for professional and personal stuff. And the clearance rack deals are pretty helpful, too.

    Let’s set aside the soul-crushing task of clothes shopping when you’re dress size is in the double-digits, and how going to a place like Jones NY (where you can get a little black dress that doesn’t look like a sack cloth) can be a very good thing for women who are constantly instructed by clothing retailers that their bodies are defective. If for no other reason than a woman looking for a few professionalwear outfits that fit well, don’t cost a whole lot, and don’t play up the “if you can’t be sexy in the workplace why bother” BS can get those clothes at Jones.

    I don’t mean to write this long loveletter to Jones, I’ve heard that Talbot’s is the same way, but I just want to give credit where it’s due to clothing retailers that understand that not every woman is shaped like their models.

  2. Posted August 11, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    The reason one has Quaker oatmeal or Quaker State oil is a direct reflection of what you describe about Feminism. Part of the Testimony of Integrity is a commitment to Truth and trustworthiness. Friends who were businesspeople could be relied on to be given a fair price and not cheated. This is why they became very successful.

    But some enterprising soul decided that he/she could use the name and the reputation attached to make money, completely without our permission, and entirely out of its proper context.

  3. Posted August 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    While I somewhat agree with your statement that using feminism to sell things is gross, I disagree that this particular ad is a negative for feminism. Yes all the models are tall and thin and mostly white. But you’ll see exactly the same thing for men’s fashion. In fact I like these ads, in that they present a powerful woman who isn’t powerful because of her sex appeal. It isn’t her cleavage or her butt or even her tanned legs. These women look powerful. They aren’t tan either (like a powerful businesswoman has time for that, and we’d hope she’s smart enough to not risk the cancer). They are wearing modest fashions with broad shoulders, long black coats. You’ll notice the shots are low-angle, to further the impression that these women are high up, that they’re powerful. Yes, they are expensive clothes, but that has nothing to do with feminism. It has to do with money. It’s true fashion is generally anti-female (why should my clothes be tighter, more uncomfortable, more expensive, and just downright painful–hello heels–than a man’s?) but I’ve always viewed Jones NY as a pro-female empowerment brand rather than a brand to show off my chest. This is a great leap forward from the ads showing that to be powerful we have to be sexy and have a huge chest, a killer tan, and totter around in ridiculous shoes. I very much enjoyed your analysis, but I do have to disagree with the sentiment.

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