It’s been 20 years since The Spice Girls released Wannabe. The 13th Floor’s Kate Powell has some thoughts about The Spice Girls and Feminism:
Broadly speaking a feminist is a person that embraces the fact that all women regardless of sexual identity, religion, race, and socio- economic backgrounds have the unequivocal right to equality respect and human decency. It is an entirely rational idea that would be natural in an ideal world. But because we don’t live in an ideal world, it is an idea that is not without its politics and its detractors. Thanks to the internet and social media, everyone has a soap box to stand on to voice their opinions, and for the last year or so feminism has been the hot button topic, a discussion which has been encouraged via celebrities.
Historically feminism and feminists have had an uneasy relationship with popular culture. So it is perhaps paradoxical that a bevy of celebrities including- Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lawrence and Lena Dunham- have labelled themselves as feminists under the full glare of the media. Emma Watson took it a step further and delivered her speech ‘He for She’ at the U.N. While it was rousing and well-intended Watson wasn’t saying anything that feminists hadn’t been saying for the last forty years. But people sat up and took notice. That we need celebrity endorsements to make the world a fairer place has irked some of the more seasoned feminists. While the efforts of the likes of Beyoncé and Watson should be applauded it doesn’t mean that feminism begins and ends with them or any these high profile people. Rather, they should be seen as a gateway to feminism rather than being the corporeal embodiment of the movement.
But this isn’t a recent phenomenon. For myself and millions of other twenty-somethings around the world, the Spice Girls were our gateway, thanks to their message of ‘Girl Power.’ It was a slogan appropriated from the Riot Grrrl punk movement and bands such as Bikini Kill in the early 90s. Grrrl Power as it was known in those circles was a rallying cry for third wave feminist principles- namely solidarity, empowerment and acceptance of diversity within feminist and feminine expression. So the Spice Girls were a world away from the gritty DIY culture where ‘Girl Power’ was first uttered. They were manufactured courtesy of a newspaper ad, and made $800 million in endorsement deals alone. Their easy to digest pop music repackaged the basic principles of third wave feminism for their young audience, exposing us to gender politics for the first time.
Although they were a manufactured band, each Spice Girl had a personality and image that was of their own construction. Geri’s persona for example was the lovechild of David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe. The brushstrokes were broad to the point of being problematic and riffed off basic stereotypes. But by clumsily showcasing different expressions of femininity they were trying to highlight that there was no one way to be a woman. That it was ok to present our notion of femininity and gender how we deemed fit, and still be accepted and successful within mainstream culture. Furthermore, the idea that a sensual appearance and equality of the sexes needn’t be mutually exclusive was not a new concept- Madonna had done it years earlier
For those who did not “slam it to the left” politically, the simplification of feminist principles coupled with some of the Spice Girls tight/plunging attire was Too Much. But to exult Girl Power to the same level as capital- F feminism as the Spice Girls naysayers were doing is difficult. The concepts are completely different in terms of seriousness and commitment to political change. Girl Power was about having fun, being confident in yourself, and promoting female friendships. It repackaged empowerment into something that was familiar to us- consumerism and pop music. When the Spice Girls were encouraging me say what I wanted, what I really really wanted, the answer would have been a Principal’s Award so I could get a Polly Pocket. Plus, I certainly didn’t have any lovers, so I was more than happy to get with my friends. In short, we were kids who were responding to enthusiasm and positivity rather than taking the message as gospel. So rather than becoming the ethos of our sense of womanhood, ‘Girl Power’ simply made us aware that feminism existed without actually knowing what it was. While the Spice Girls gave me a sense of pride and empowerment in being a girl, I didn’t become truly aware of feminism until several years later as I read the likes of Naomi Wolf and Simone de Beauvoir and from there I sought out more and continue to do so to this day.
Unlike pop songs and blockbuster films, feminism is not a glittery trend that is in one week and out the next. It involves unglamorous, unsexy work and discussions about issues and inequalities that continue to plague women across all walks of life. Ideally the ideas within feminism should not require trussing up to sell them. It is such a reasonable concept that it should sell itself. But the world doesn’t work like that. So celebrities’ involvement in feminist issues is necessary because it takes the message of gender equality to an audience that mightn’t hear it otherwise. It is simplified, it is stripped back, but hopefully it encourages people to further explore the idea, for themselves and for society.