Before diving into this article, I want to recognize my position as a white, able-bodied, cisgender female. The intersections of my identity have allowed me to lead an extremely privileged life, one for which I am very thankful. This article is meant to be observational and contemplative rather than argumentative – I’m seeking to direct attention rather than to assume some almighty white savourist role. I still have a lot of learning to do as a feminist and as a member of global society. If you have any questions, concerns, or inquiries about this piece, please do not hesitate to reach out and I would be happy to chat.
In this article, I’m going to use GRL PWR as a case study to investigate the commodification of white liberal feminism in Western culture. Here we go.
It’s no question that the feminist movement has increased in popularity within Western culture in recent years. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last decade can attest to the fact that female empowerment has become a central theme in Western pop culture. We have paid witness to a positive change in that (some) societal disparities have begun to be uprooted and challenged.
There are certain feminist messages or “mottos” with which we’re all familiar at this point: The Future is Female, Pussy Power, Smash the Patriarchy, We Should All Be Feminists, Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Human Rights, et cetera. Girl Power (or GRL PWR) is among these popular idioms and this particular idiom, I would argue, is one of the most staple messages of this movement – a thesis statement of sorts.
GRL PWR is everywhere – on t-shirts, posters, agendas and planners, phone cases, graphics, stickers, and pins. It’s rampant on social media platforms – evident in Instagram pics and hashtags and bios, for example. Now, I’m 100% behind empowering girls and women – no matter their race, ability, gender, sexuality, expression, or religion. But I don’t think GRL PWR – in the way it has been consumed in our society – is always about supporting ALL girls and women. I think GRL PWR appeals exclusively to a privileged subset of feminists.
Let’s ask ourselves: How is GRL PWR being consumed, and by whom? Who does this idiom appeal to and who does it exclude?
I think the prevalence and commodification of GRL PWR reflects the fact that the vast majority of attention within feminist discourses has been allotted to white liberal feminism, the emphasis being on societal inequalities as they exist between white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied men and women. The experiences of people who deviate from that privileged experience –women of colour, trans and gender diverse individuals, and Indigenous women, for example – are erased. GRL PWR is socially rewarded. It dominates and even monopolizes feminist discourses, to the exclusion of other feminist messages that reflect other lived experiences.
Let me juxtapose the GRL PWR message with trans activism as an example to (hopefully) convey my point. Would the same person who wears a GRL PWR pin be as willing to wear a Fight Transphobia pin? I would say, in many cases, no. Is it because that lived experience of being trans doesn’t “resonate” with (i.e., is not “applicable” to) that person? I think it’s more likely because the stigma surrounding certain positionalities is still so rampant, and yet it’s cool and fashionable to adorn GRL PWR. Why is trans activism – and other forms of activism that empower people who are marginalized in society – less prevalent?
So, while I might notice a trend towards liberalism and female empowerment via the commodification of idioms like GRL PWR, I’m perceiving that shift because of my identity – because I’m white, able-bodied, cisgender. My feelings of inclusivity are informed by my lived experiences/positionality and by the systematic prioritization of the “oppression” (I feel like I must use quotes here) that I face. The intersections of my identity are situated within the epicenter of privilege, and that allows me to benefit from modern feminism’s near exclusive focus on a certain kind of oppressed person – the white woman. And this person, I think, is to whom GRL PWR really appeals.
A message to fellow feminists who are white: I’m not saying that, if you adorn GRL PWR stickers or pins, then you’re doing something wrong. I’m not saying that you weren’t already aware of this stuff. I’m not saying you are claiming to be ~so~ hard done by. I’m not saying that if you don’t adorn Fight Transphobia stickers than you don’t believe in fighting transphobia. All I’m saying is that we need to recognize that GRL PWR, in and of itself, only appeals to a subset of the people that feminism should empower. We must exert an active effort to make sure we’re always cognizant of our positionality in the world. Look inwards. What kind of feminism are you identifying with and/or consuming and why?