Kim Kardashian, nude selfies, and “empowerment”

As I’ve said before, I don’t think sexting is inherently empowering, but I also don’t think it’s inherently disempowering.

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Here’s Jill Filipovic with a great analysis of Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies and the vital difference between feeling empowered and actual power:

“Empowerment” is apparently not about equitable allocation of resources, or influence in politics and policy, or really power at all. It’s shorthand for “I wanted to do this and it made me feel good” (and in Kim’s case, the addendum, “plus it made me a bunch of money”). Which is laudable — feeling good is criminally underrated, and making a bunch of money sounds cool — but feeling “empowered” is not the same as real, actual power. “Empowerment” is an empty catchphrase, a term used primarily to salve over the near-total lack of power held by women and girls around the world, a kind of head-pat to keep us satisfied with subservience. Note that you never hear the word “empowered” used to describe a man. You don’t need to be “empowered” when you are, plainly and simply, powerful.

[Kim] has become wealthy and influential by playing within this system that rewards women for adhering to a narrow hyper-sexy female ideal, and why shouldn’t she? It’s not up to her, or any other woman, to curtail their own earning potential or cultural influence for some hazy idea of the greater feminist good. She didn’t invent sexualization, nor the fact that women who are considered very attractive can often profit from it. The bigger money-makers and culture-drivers in this system are men; it’s hard to blame women for getting a slice. And surely Kim does feel good and even “empowered” by her naked photo — being aesthetically pleasing to others is one way we’ve told girls and women they have value and, to some degree, power, even if that “power” is entirely dependent on men with more power and influence.

This difference between feelings of empowerment and actual power is exactly what I’m getting at in Sexting Panic in my critiques of the girl-power self-esteem training programs for girls. They’re all about helping girls feel better about themselves rather than actually changing any structural conditions. And to be clear, girls feeling more empowered is not a bad thing–no doubt it helps some girls just like all that “lean in” advice helps some women in some workplaces–but these individualistic approaches only change our feelings and are not nearly enough to actually change the balance of power.

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