All women ever wanted was equal rights and bodily autonomy. Instead we got candles that smell like Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina. We got pink “pussy hats” and £580 Christian Dior T-shirts with “We should all be feminists” written on them. We got 15,389 articles about manspreading. We got #Girlbosses. We got Ms Monopoly, a board game in which women make more than men. And now corporate feminism has leaned into the hospitality industry and bequeathed us the empowerment hotel.
Last week, easily missed among the innumerable other horrors coming out of Washington DC, saw the opening of Hotel Zena. Located near the White House, the venue describes itself as “a groundbreaking hotel dedicated to female empowerment”. The whole thing feels like it was conjured up by Ivanka Trump in a fever dream – although the patron saint of fluffy feminism, I should clarify, has nothing to do with this particular endeavour. Hotel highlights include pink pool tables, a $16 cocktail called the Empowermint and 60 pieces of art, that, as the press release boasts, were created by “feminists of both genders”. The pièce de résistance is a mural of late US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made of 20,000 hand-painted organic tampons.
The fempowerment theme, alas, doesn’t stretch to (wo)management: the head chef of the hotel’s bar and restaurant, Figleaf, is a man. Considering female leaders are hugely unrepresented in the restaurant world, you would have thought it would be a no-brainer to hire a female chef. But, hey, when you’ve got 20,000 tampons to hand-paint, you can understand that certain other things might get overlooked. Still, it would have been nice if the marketing copy focused less on the minutiae of the art and more on details such as whether the staff are paid a living wage. When your brand is built on empowerment, it is also a bit weird to charge a sneaky $25 “guest amenities fee” per night that isn’t included in the initial room rate – particularly as a number of big hotel chains are currently being sued for this sort of “deceptive” pricing.
I don’t want to sound too negative about Zena: there is a special place in hell for women who are rude about other women’s menstrual murals. Indeed, I think it is a hugely inspiring concept and am now brimming with my own feminist hotel art ideas. Fireplaces where you can burn your bra, for example. An elevat-her and escalat-her to take you to the top. An interesting selection of intersecting sectionals to show you are an intersectional feminist. Rugs made out of armpit hair, perhaps. I have many more brilliant ideas where those came from, but as an empowered woman who knows my worth, I won’t give them all away at once.
Hotel Zena was meant to capitalise on the zeitgeist; curator Andrea Dawson Sheehan said she came up with the concept as the #MeToo movement began to grab headlines. However, the hotel’s timing could not be worse. Not just because of the pandemic but because the sort of corporate feminism Zena represents is starting to feel very dated. Just look at the rise and fall of the Wing, for example. The upmarket women’s co-working space, whose canteen sold dishes like the Fork the Patriarchy bowl, raked in millions in funding after launching in 2016. But it also attracted a lot of backlash for the emptiness of its empowerment messaging. A few months ago this came to a head when Audrey Gelman, the company’s co-founder, resigned after her employees went on a virtual strike protesting about her leadership and the Wing’s treatment of black and brown employees. It is not enough to “lean in” or talk about empowerment any more – you have to practise what you preach. That means less of a focus on art and more emphasis on payments and policy.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist
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