The linguistic term for the phenomenon in which words lose their power after being deployed frequently and imprecisely is semantic satiation. It’s been studied in cognitive behavioral circles for decades; it’s the sensation of a term going slack in the mind, definition gone limp. This is happening to “feminism.”
What does that even mean, is a sentence I find myself uttering more and more lately, disturbed by a circus of symbols without definition behind them. Imbuing meaningful words with meaninglessness is most rampant in the realms of business and tech, and this is because it is easer to market and sell goods when a consumer buys the feeling of the word, rather than the substance of it.
The term “empowerment” was, as Jia Tolentino wrote in April of last year, deployed as one of the strongest offenders, but in the time since women have had to learn to combat such a deluge of phrases and rebrandings that “empowerment” seems quaint, cublike. “Wellness” is the rebranding du jour, deployed most often to sell diets; this week Amanda Hess published a piece in the Times about efforts to make the term “anti-aging” friendlier to women who are aging, which is to say every one of us. The new kind of word that means nothing—or dresses up its actual meaning in friendlier terms that appeal to our innate desire to purchase it—is something like “radiant,” Hess writes. This passage struck me the most:
The implication hiding beneath is an unsettling one. You may think the stigma against older people is social, a construction of our culture and what it chooses to value. The ads suggest otherwise: Youth, they seem to say, is simply natural.
“Feminism” as a word is similarly under siege, which should be no surprise, since so are the most basic of feminist tenets—abortion, birth control, equal pay (or—for many—the illusion of it), and, most fundamentally, our ability to vote. Capitalism wants it, it wants you, girl power is in, “feminism” is in, The Future Is Female, women be shopping. What does any of it even mean? And why am I being pressured to buy a membership?
During New York Fashion Week—which is in itself a capitalist construct but, increasingly, dispenses with the long-held pretense that its art trumps its consumerism—designer Stacey Bendet’s brand Alice + Olivia invited eight woman artists to interpret an imaginary Chelsea Hotel, creating a model of the art hub in which to present her Spring 2018 collection. It was a meaningful act insofar as women in art are historically marginalized, and their work made “a room of one’s own” as literal as a runway could allow, but the words describing it were meaningless. For example: “For this season, one of my trends was this high-low of girls feeling really romantic, feminine, and free-spirited but also tough,” Bendet told Harper’s Bazaar. She presented models in pretty white ruffles and vampy heels in front of a wall painted with the word “FEMINIST” on it, over and over. It may have conjured a mantra, but it ended up looking more like a step and repeat, one of those signs behind a red carpet branded with the event name and its sponsors, MOTOROLA and REGAL CINEMAS and SOULCYCLE and GOOP, or whoever. It was structure without substance, an aesthetic realization of semantic satiation. What does it even mean?
This is not about one designer, or even one corporation, but it can feel like the fate of feminist philosophy—if not the movement—is in peril when we are being sold the idea that gesturing is a sufficient substitute for action. This is a purposeful tactic, and underscores the necessity of defining, insofar as best we can, who we are and what we stand for. And so then What does it even mean no longer is a rhetorical question, but a pressing one that demands an answer right this minute; the answer is malleable and individual, but to be able to define it is to have power—true power—and our only defense against the murky but marketable unknown.