The Lasting Impact of Girl Power
The Spice Girls exploded into being twenty years ago, proudly shouting ‘girl power!’ at everyone and everything. People questioned their brand of feminism-lite even though they were influencing girls across the world to do what they wanted. Contemporary musicians, such as Adele, Alexandra Burke and Lady Gaga, grew up loving them. And, after receiving a video message from Mel B during an interview, Emma Stone was close to tears. The Spice Girls made girls realise that they could do anything. This powerful message seemed to go far deeper than our parents understood, as they were asked to buy us yet another item of Spice Girls’ merchandise.
Now, twenty years later, we now have our own say in terms of what we want from our feminism. Tellingly, this wave of feminism has faced similar criticisms to those the Spice Girls faced; that it’s too image-conscious, it’s not serious enough, it’s too based in consumerism and therefore not radical enough. So, perhaps we should be asking if the reverberations of Baby, Posh, Ginger, Scary and Sporty Spice’s girl power are still being felt today…
What was ‘girl power’? Firstly, and most obviously, female friendship and sisterhood played a massive part. The Spice Girls celebrated other women, their differences AND their similarities. They made being a woman seem fun and, perhaps, this is why women still love them so fiercely today. They didn’t seem bothered about what men thought of them. They didn’t sing about wanting to make men happy, instead they sang about their friendships. In ‘Love Thing’, they modified Irving Berlin’s 1950’s song, ‘Sisters’ (‘Lord help a mister who comes between me and my sisters / and Lord help a sister who comes between me and my man’), simply singing together ‘God help a mister / yeah God help a mister that comes between me and my sisters.’
And, of course, in ‘Wannabe’, we know that a man has to get on with a Spice Girl’s friends if he has any hope of being in a relationship with said Spice Girl (because c’mon ‘friendship never ends’). Though they fought behind closed doors (as people that close do!), they never put each other down in public. Their friendship was always at the forefront of their image and comes through in pretty much their entire discography. All forms of female relationships contributed to the Spice Girls girl power phenomenon. So, it makes sense that they also wrote a song all about what their mothers meant to them. Motherhood is so often forgotten about in pop music and the Spice Girls made an entire song, ‘Mama’, about being mean to their mothers in adolescence and asking for forgiveness. I can’t think of another pop song like it. They unapologetically celebrated being a woman, being a girl, in a way very few others did.
The Spice Girls’ sense of being unapologetic extended to their sexual relationships. They were a group of girls who weren’t afraid to ask for what they wanted (a ‘zig-a-zig-ah’ is clearly an orgasm) and weren’t afraid to speak up if they didn’t want something in ‘Stop’ (‘Stop right now, thank you very much’) and ‘Too Much’ (‘What part of no don’t you understand?’). They knew their worth and sang about not being ashamed by scandalous stories in the press – ‘You’re a twisted lover, kiss and telling on a superstar.’ They were superstars and they knew it. They preached safe sex, advocating condom use in ‘2 Become 1’, when Baby Spice sings ‘be a little bit wiser, baby, put it on, put it on.’ Of course, if we were children at the time this went over our heads, but the message is probably fairly deep (!) in there.
Our current wave of feminism is generally liberal and sex-positive and it seems that the Spice Girls were ahead of their time, or the influencers, here. There is also a shout out to gay fans when a line in ‘2 Become 1’ was changed from ‘boys and girls go good together’ to ‘love can bring us back together’ in the radio version, so none of their fan-base would feel alienated. There is even a little bit of gender blurring in ‘Say You’ll Be There’, when they accuse a man of ‘throwing far too much emotion at me.’ They were inclusive and unrepentant: they rejected the rules about how women were supposed to behave and girls loved them for it.
The Spice Girls also often faced accusations of being image-obsessed and a consumerist product, evoking many criticisms of today’s conception of mainstream feminism. Very little has changed since the Spice Girls hey day; think of Beyoncé’s proclamation of her feminism which was questioned by ‘feminist’ critics who decided what she wears means she cannot be a ‘true’ feminist. These criticisms were levelled at the Spice Girls in the nineties, particularly when Geri Halliwell wore the infamous union flag dress at the BRIT Awards. Then and now, there is the idea that a woman who calls herself strong cannot show off her body or wear a lot of make-up. As if women who choose to wear short dresses or lots of make-up can only do so with straight men in mind, rather than what they themselves want. This criticism was faced by the Spice Girls and has blighted other female performers since. But the world of archetypal femininity, the clothes and the make-up can be used as armour against the world. It can be empowering even whilst being conventionally lusted after by male desire and marketed as such.
Contemporary feminism has been criticised too for being overtly commodified. We live in a world where soap brands advertise a side-helping of empowerment along with their products, because empowerment sells things now. Perhaps they got the idea from the way girl power shifted products. The Spice Girls were a huge marketing tool – in their two short years on top of the world, (before Geri left) they were sponsored by Polaroid, Pepsi, Walkers, Cadburys and Asda, amongst many others. If you look on eBay today, there is so much memorabilia! It is interesting to browse simply to see what the advertisers could get away with including Spice Girls Plates, a Spice Girls Handkerchief Set, a Spice Girls Lamp and a Spice Girls Microphone Lollipop Holder.
And perhaps that’s ok. The Spice Girls were a marketing tool. The focus on their image was unattainable for many girls and this no doubt caused some harm to younger people striving to meet the same standards. But, crucially, for all of their problematic-ness (and they were in their early twenties, would we expect men this young to be perfect paragons? No. But we do this with women); they were five working class girls (yes, even Posh!) who took over the world for a little while. Who were confident. The lyrics to ‘Do It’, urged women to break the rules, detailing the everyday harassment women face: ‘keep your mouth shut, keep your legs shut, get back in your place / blameless, shameless, damsel in disgrace.’ But they, of course, reply, ‘who cares what they say because rules are for breaking.’ For a short while, the Spice Girls broke the rules about what it meant to be female. Their small brand of feminism is still felt today, by all the women who grew up with their music. Girl Power!
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