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The Empowerment Dilemma

Empowerment is the big buzz word for women, whether she considers herself a feminist, a traditionalist, or “other.” But just like everything else in the world, enough people are working to cash in on the concept that it would probably benefit you to think a little bit about what exactly that word means.

“Empowerment” is an interesting word. Not the least because we could be using it a little narrowly.

The Brass Tacks: Defining Empowerment

Empowerment has come to primarily mean having more agency yourself, the ability to control your own life and circumstances, but the usage can also extend to giving someone else that power, often power to act on your behalf. The question you must ask yourself is, “Am I more in control of my life and living it as I desire, or am I ceding responsibility for those choices to others?”

Why is this important? Because empowerment requires an increasing self-knowledge, and a sense of responsibility toward others. When you work to empower yourself, it’s perfectly possible that you are either disempowering others, or giving away certain rights and responsibilities in order to make a quick, mostly superficial gain.

When the women’s movement picked up steam in the 60s and into the 70s, there was the kind of conflict we see now between women who, quite naturally, wanted different results from their empowerment. But by the 80s, we were witnessing women holding a sense of entitlement and, yes, empowerment never seen before in history. It’s easy to forget in the flurry of shoulder pads and novelty pop songs that women in the 80s were working more diverse jobs, holding more responsibility, making more money, and were more prominent in many of the arts than at any previous time in history. In the media, we were treated to more diversity in ethnicity, age, and look.  The badass women of the 70s made it okay to have a voice, and by the 80s, most women were trying it out for themselves.

And then the world struck back. By the end of the 80s, I saw the death of the women’s movement, the trivialization of feminism, and a return to the idea that a woman’s only worth came from her youth, good looks, and compliance.

We have the chance now to continue on the path set in the 80s, before the return to darkness, but only if we understand what empowerment means, and what it DOESN’T mean.

What Empowerment Isn’t

Empowerment is not the ability to use the existing system to manipulate others. It is not the ability to work out, use lots of makeup, and make people do things for you because of how you look. It is not the ability to commodify yourself for the sake of material gain or positive response by molding yourself into the image that an exploitative system suggests.

Empowerment is substance, not surface.

I read a post today about a woman who wanted to know how to stop her daughter from sending nude selfies to boys when, as she put it, “Kim Kardashian does it.”

It broke my heart, and even more to read the responses that put a huge amount of guilt and blame on the mother for not being a good parent. If anyone understands the enormous pressure to commodify one’s self for the sake of popularity or other gain, it’s kids growing up in the age of pervasive social media.

Posting a nude selfie is an automatic way to get noticed, and liked, and any number of seemingly positive responses. It’s also meaningless if what you’re looking for is empowerment.

To empower yourself, you must know what YOU want, and that should eventually, hopefully, go beyond combating your own insecurity with superficial responses to a superficial offering.

To empower yourself means to look at yourself as a whole person. If you can’t, how do you expect anyone else to? I divide the human experience of growth into four parts that function kind of like a three-legged stool: three legs and a seat. If you want to be empowered enough to sit down at the end of the day, or stand up on the seat to get a look at what’s next, you need to think about balancing the aspects of your parts to make a harmonious whole.

Me, I was an intellectual kid, older than my years in comprehension and understanding. Spiritually, I ran deep too, thinking about others, about world events, trying to make a difference around me. I also wrote letters to the editor of my local paper about injustices I’d seen, and what I’d tried to do to make things better.

Physically, I was active until my early teens when the stunted nature of my emotions began to take me down a dark road into depression. I repressed what had become a seething, irrational, constant anger and stopped being able to feel much of anything. My energy drained away and a few years in, I stopped leaving the house.

If you look at the three-legged stool, I was so unbalanced I was never at rest, never at home, and never content. I was never happy except when I was nearly hysterical, and never felt good without it immediately turning into bludgeoning pain.

This is how I picture the three-legged stool: it’s made up of three legs, emotional, intellectual, and physical. All of those are necessary functions of the human psyche. We need to think, feel, and move to be happy. I had neglected one leg and let a second atrophy. My intellect was strong, but all its strength did was make me more unbalanced.

The seat on top of the stool is your spiritual component, whatever brings your parts together into a harmonious whole. Here too I felt reasonably confident I was doing okay. I was compassionate, empathetic, and had a “big picture” of the world where everyone mattered, or no one did, in the words of Michael Connolly’s detective Harry Bosch. But with that one spindly leg trying to hold it up? With no physical strength to live my convictions or the emotional maturity to be the person I needed to be? I was on tippy ground.

This is why you need to check your empowerment as much as your entitlement. Not because you should be less than you are, but because you deserve to be more.

What Empowerment Is

If you can balance out those three legs, and attach them to some kind of concept of higher purpose, you can truly become empowered to be yourself, and to make the world a better place around you.

Kim Kardashian has worked a lot on her physical appearance, and has used the system in place that allows women to make money out of superficiality. That’s all I know about her. I don’t consider her empowered. I consider her entitled, and entirely unchecked in that entitlement.

Her entitlement makes others forget about empowering themselves, in favour of working on one leg of that three-legged stool to the detriment of the others. That’s my answer to the mother who worried about her underage daughter sending nude pictures to boys. Empower your daughter for real. If she understands how brittle success is when it’s built entirely on external appearance, she won’t be susceptible to the things boys say when they want her to send them. When a boy says, “I won’t go out with you unless you do,” she’ll tell him, “If that’s all you want, you’re not good enough for me.” That’s empowerment.

So when you consider the women’s movement, or feminism, or racism, or systemic poverty, and it all seems too big to tackle, here’s the cure. Remember that three-legged stool, and how it can lead you to empower yourself. When you’re entitled, you steal empowerment from all the spaces you inhabit. When you are empowered, you empower others.

Also, you have a nifty place to sit down whenever you get tired.

Lots of love & strength, to learn and grow and live.

Jade English has some good thoughts on empowerment and social media

Podcast Transcript for The Pealing of a Bell: JFRRS 1.1

Image for podcast of Rashomon

Podcast Transcripts

The Pealing of a Bell on a Silent Night:

Jen Frankel Reads Random S#it ep 1.1

listen on iTunes TuneIn  SoundCloud

original airdate: Jan 6, 2017

Podcast Details

For anyone who loves cinema, sound is just as important as the visual image to storytelling. In the debut episode of the JFRRS! Podcast, Jen reads an essay on the use of music and sound effects in Akira Kurosawa’s classic films including Rashomon (left) and Seven Samurai.

Transcript follows: some differences between actual recorded content and script is not just possible but likely!


JFFRS Ep 1.1

Music.

opening quotation

“Serenity is the privilege of hearing a sound evoked by the gentle jump of a sparrow accompanied by the sound of a falling leaf.”

Music changes.

Introduction

Hello and welcome to the first episode of the JFRRS podcast, or, if you’re in a Not Safe For Work be damned environment, Jen Frankel Reads Random Shit. I am Jen Frankel, a writer of said random shit, but at the beginning of this episode, you heard me read a quote from Jaroslav Havelka. I hope to share with you some words of wisdom on life and writing in particular over the course of this podcast, from some of my favourite authors and thinkers on the subject.

You’ve probably heard it said that writing is a lonely profession. There’s something to that, but it’s also true that writers often stand just outside of the world, either on purpose or because they just can’t help it. I was once at an exhibition of new pointillist paintings – you know, the ones made up of tiny dots of colour – and the gallery was in a house so tiny that you literally could not stand far enough back for the pictures to make sense. Being a writer is like that, you need to step back to see the whole picture sometimes.

And taking THAT lesson from my experience also makes me focus less on the way I put my foot right in my mouth by saying, “You just can’t get far enough away from these paintings.” Just when the artist was standing right next to me.

Context. Perspective. Yes, they can make you take a few steps back to get a sense of the entirety of the thing you’re considering. Or you can move in close and see details that were invisible before, a single hair, or a tiny bug, an amoeba, an atom, a quark.

On this episode, I’m going to read you an essay about the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa which delves a little into how both the grandiose and the minute can amaze in the hands of a master. If art is about communication, Kurosawa spoke in a way that made me excited to listen. This is The Pealing of a Bell on a Silent Night.

Music changes.

Second quotation

“Hearkening to the pealing of a bell on a silent night, one may be awakened from a dream of dreams. Gazing at the reflection of the moon on a transparent pool, one may visualize a spiritual body in one’s physical body.” A Chinese Garden of Serenity by Hung Tzu-Ch’eng

Essay

The films of Akira Kurosawa are visually stunning. The scope and depth to capture the imaginations of Western, as well as Eastern, audiences. Every moment in a Kurosawa film provides the viewer with breathtaking precision of choreography. Still, every character and motive rings true, as in a well-executed play. Kurosawa understands every device of modern cinema. He utilizes every method of storytelling to a level of excellence rarely seen in any other productions.

Especially outstanding is Kurosawa’s use of sound, both to set mood and underscore action. It is only fitting in a movie of the epic grandeur of The Seven Samurai that the music and sound effects should take the story above conventional adventure, to turn it into legend.

One of Kurosawa’s talents is to use music vividly enough to almost preclude the need for the images themselves. The Seven Samurai opens with heavy, ponderous drumbeats, changing to the overwhelming percussion of hoofbeats, the ominous approach of the bandits. Even without visuals, this scene could be accurately described by someone listening to the soundtrack.

Music in The Seven Samurai never resembles the pervasive background hum of modern Hollywood soundtrack. It is used more as an effect, in the same manner as other sound is added. It is obvious Kurosawa gave as much thought to the inclusion of music as to the images. For example, when the farmers arrive in town to look for their samurai, the music is light, almost comical. It’s setting an easy tone to the first days’ search, and almost giving the audience permission to see the humor in the farmers’ misfortunes.

Later, despair settles on them as they realize they can no longer afford to eat if they expect to pay samurai, if samurai they can even find. A sitar plucks single notes, lending a mood of loneliness and depression.

Another method used by Kurosawa to use sound to its fullest is the idea of personal, or symbolic, themes. Several characters have music or sounds that alert us to their presence. Indeed, the whole well-being of the farmers’ village seems hinged on the sounds of a single bird chirping. As long as the bird chirps, everything is safe. When the bird is silent, there is a reason.

The old grandfather has a very specific theme always associated with him that becomes vital in the latter portion of the film; that of the rhythmic thump of the waterwheel. Whenever the farmers, or later, the samurai, visit the grandfather, Kurosawa has laid over a very heavy track of thumps, of the millwheel in operation. Near the end of the film, when the bandits close in on the village. It is obvious some number of houses will need to be sacrificed because they cannot be adequately defended. It is the repeated thump as the camera focuses on the mill from the distance that reminds us that the grandfather is in danger.

Another way Kurosawa uses sound to manipulate and intensify the involvement of the audience is probably the most obvious, as it is the most striking. This is the simple use of foley and ambience sound that is basic to filmmaking. Kurosawa, however, is not content to lay sound to match every sound that might have been present at the time each scene was shot. One sound is usually picked out as having more importance than the others. It is only this sound that the audience hears.

One example of this is the use of the noise of the falling rain. Repeatedly, this becomes a symbol of despair, especially when no other sound is audible. It is hard to forget the scene in which the farmers realize their crop has ripened. The drumming rain counterpoints the earlier hoofbeats of the bandits’ horses.

In Rashomon, another very powerful example exists. During the scene in which the woman conjures the spirit of her dead husband, the visual suggests a strong wind, whipping her hair and garments. But the soundtrack contains only drumbeats and the spirit’s voice, upsetting the reality of the scene. It allows that mystical things may happen, even in a film otherwise based outside the metaphysical.

Kurosawa has a mastery of the film language that creates the magic of his movies. A storytelling ability that is the culmination of his control of sound, plot, and image. All the planning however does not make a film like the Seven Samurai look contrived, just very well made. The attention paid to sound and music is certainly one of the most valuable lessons to be taken by any student of his work.

Music changes.

Outro

I actually did write that essay for a class when I attended art school. In coming weeks, I’ll be sharing with you some purpose-written work like pieces of reporting or other journalistic explorations. Some short fiction, poetry, excerpts from longer work, and lyrics. On subjects from time travel to the Titanic and in a multitude of genres. I am, as you might see, as much a random writer as a reader of random things.

I used to say that the reason I write is that short of becoming a game show contestant. There’s really no other profession that allows me to use all the useful and useless random knowledge that I accumulate. I’m a fact sponge. I love learning things, and when I do, those things rattle around with other things and sometimes make new things.

I’ve also been known to say that, for a creative person, it’s when the voices in your head STOP that you know you’re sick.

As I continue this podcast, I hope to share some insights into the writerly mind. Some extreme close-ups as well as some vistas. Because seeing a person is as difficult as seeing a pointillist painting. You get different impressions depending on how far away you are and how closely you look. I’d like to let you get to know me through my words. And I’d like to get to know you too through yours.

That’s all for this first episode of Jen Frankel Reads Random Shit. I hope you’ll explore the films of Akira Kurosawa, like The Seven Samurai and Rashamon, and maybe look up Jaroslav Havelka as well.

See you next time, when yes, I shall have more random shit for your listening pleasure.