“Girls can’t,” says Ellen Degeneres. “Sometimes you hear it, but more often you feel it.” Cue soaring inspirational music; cue flashing text and backgrounds; cue a stream of celebrities, Katy Perry, Janelle Monae, Queen Latifah, telling us that, actually, #GirlsCan. It’s almost enough to make the jarring corporate slogans feel organic, like when Katy cries “C’mon Covergirls!” or Ellen ends the piece by encouraging us to ‘Make the world a little more Easy, Breezy, and Beautiful.’ Covergirl is no longer just a makeup brand, it’s a source of empowerment for women.
This is the world of ‘femvertising’ where women are sold #empowerment with the rather large caveat of first having to buy the right products. Huge companies like Pantene, Always, and Dove have tapped into this market in the last decade, feeding off a groundswell of feminist sentiment and seemingly less concerned with female advancement than with the appearance of it. In the words of journalist Nosheen Iqbal, the advertising industry “once bent on selling us sex is now selling us its disgust with sexism.”
When anything and everything is labelled ‘empowering’ it can be difficult to discern what empowerment actually is and what forms it can take. In June we posted an interview with a Kenyan woman called Naisiae who spent only four years at school. Her teacher spoke only English and she had no time to practise schoolwork at home due to obligations on her family farm. As a result, she is unable to read. When asked why she thought reading was so important, she spoke of independence and empowerment: “When you can’t read, you can’t really do anything for yourself. You will always have to rely on someone else.”
If a person cannot read, the roads to advancement are essentially blocked. They cannot partake in higher learning, their job options are severely limited, and their financial interactions are fraught with difficulties. For a woman, the effects of illiteracy are compounded. She is more likely to be married as a child, less able to leave a destructive relationship, and more likely to have more children than perhaps she wanted. If we cannot read, commercial empowerment platitudes fall very flat indeed.
If we truly care about women and girls’ empowerment, we need to recognise the hard realities of disenfranchisement, and work from the roots to correct this. Illiteracy is undeniably a huge obstacle to independence and it is here that we need to start.
by Madeline Smith