The Problem with "Empowerment"


In "celebration" of Women's History Month, TV Line have posted a list of TV's 15 most empowered female characters, and their 10 most hapless counterparts. The list compares characters who it deems "firmly in control of their personal and professional destinies" (such as post-Season One Daenerys Targaryen) with those who "allow the men in their lives and society as a whole to define their goals and values, and too often wind up playing the role of the victim" (aka Sansa Stark). In other words, the list compares the rare, privileged few with female characters who, like many real women, are forced into difficult situations, and claims that women in this position just need to buck up and get more "empowered" for their lives to improve.

Interestingly, while two actual women appear on the list of 10 "least empowered," no real women are on the list of "most empowered." I wonder what that says about reality.

In saying that a female character must be "empowered" to be good or interesting or worthwhile, they're putting a burden on female characters that (white, straight) male ones never face. A white, straight male character is "empowered" automatically, whether he is king or servant or bar-tender Nick Miller. His feelings are his own, his conflicts are his own, and we admire his struggle, however it plays out. A female character, by nature of her gender, is not empowered by default. She is placed in a lesser role, and faces challenges that her male counterpart does not. By demanding that a female character must be "empowered" to be worthwhile, we're basically saying that a female character must single-handedly overcome all the biases and structural impediments around her. This either requires that a fantasy world completely ignores the gender imbalance we see in our world (potentially interesting, but not "empowered" in the way we're talking) or that the female character be some kind of flawless, invulnerable and so inhuman badass who tosses everything "feminine" aside.

Because let's face it. No female character in a show like Game of Thrones is truly empowered. Cersei struggles with the power she's worked so hard to get, and is constantly (and justifiably) afraid that she will lose it all. Arya may know how to use a sword, but her identity is still taken from her, piece by piece. Daenerys, for all her effort, can't seem to get anywhere or make anything stick, must play within people's expectations of her gender, and is gradually losing her mind. And no one ever listens to Cat, no matter how right she may be. They all fight for themselves and the things they believe in in their own ways, and none of them are "weak," but they cannot overcome these restrictions entirely. People may see Arya and Daenerys as "empowered" because they fight in obvious, weapon-(or dragon)-wielding ways, while "feminine," "unempowered" characters like Sansa only fight with their wits, resolve and determination. Yet neither of these groups is stronger or more successful than the other, and both would fail miserably if their situations or strategies were switched.

Saying that female characters need to be total un-feminine badasses to be "strong" or "feminist" not only puts the burden of overcoming sexism firmly on women's shoulders, but also demands that reality is ignored in favor of an equally sexist "dream world," in which unsurmountable impediments don't exist, where those who fight always win, and where the "feminine" disappears into supposedly superior and stronger "masculine" traits.

And that isn't the sort of "empowerment" I want to see.