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.