were the spice girls the most sexually progressive group of the 90s?
In honor of the 20th anniversary of 'Spice World,' we look back at one of the greatest girls groups of all time.
This article was originally published by i-D UK.
We know that the Spice Girls influenced our senses of style, our ideas of friendship, and helped introduce a super digestible form of feminism through the hark of "Girl Power!" But the Spice Girls did more than just fly the flag for a marketable brand. Despite their lack of concrete feminist rhetoric (minus Geri Halliwell's monologue in the film) or visible commitment to social and political causes, they still helped normalize casual and responsible sex, and followed in the footsteps of groups like Salt-n-Pepa and TLC, who also offered a rebuttal to the lyrical whims of male artists of the day.
During the late 90s, bright, shiny, pop began staking its claim on a mainstream landscape previously defined by Britpop and grunge. Groups like Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC proposed a lifetime of devotion ("My Love Is All I Have to Give," "This I Promise You") while simultaneously painting themselves as fuckboys who'd kick their beloveds to the curb should any woman in question assert her independence ("Bye Bye Bye"). Their songs were sexual, their videos romanticized the male gaze ("As Long As You Love Me"), and at one point, *NSYNC — as dolls in "It's Gonna Be Me" — aspire to fuck their female doll equivalents.
But hey, it was the nineties: sex was everywhere. Though within the teen-centric top 40, it lacked a balanced narrative. Because while Salt-n-Pepa once gave us "None of Your Business" and TLC used songs like "Switch" to address and assert independence, the late 90s saw more and more female performers talk about sex without actually talking about it. Even by the turn of century, Christina Aguilera sings about being rubbed "the right way," before referring to herself as a genie. Months after Britney Spears dropped "...Baby One More Time."
"When you think about the young fans who grew up listening to, buying into, and subscribing to the Spice Girls ethos, the Fab Five created an incredible opportunity for sexual frankness."
But the Spice Girls used their public presence to push a sex-positive agenda. On "2 Become 1," they explicitly refer to safe sex ("Put it on, put it on"), while Naked is a track steeped in both literal and metaphorical meanings. ("Undress her with your eyes uncover the truth from the lies / Strip you down don't need to care, lights are low, exposed, and bare.") Then, on Spiceworld they acknowledge the purity myth through "Do It" ("Keep your mouth shut, keep your legs shut, go back into your place / Blameless, shameless, damsel in disgrace") while using "Too Much" to confront male privilege ("I want a man, not a boy who thinks he can").
And when you think about the young fans who grew up listening to, buying into, and subscribing to the Spice Girls ethos, the Fab Five created an incredible opportunity for sexual frankness. At ages 11 and 12, I may not have fully understand how a condom worked (shoutout to Catholic school), but it was certainly useful to know that lyrically Baby Spice insisted whoever-she-was-singing-to wear one. Even more useful? A girl group owning the notion of sexuality, of independence, and of consent in general. Which All Saints also picked up and ran with ("Lady Marmalade"), and was eventually embraced en masse within a few years into the 2000s.
But for the record, it wasn't like pop music was lacking strong female voices who sang about and embraced their sexuality. At the same time the Spice Girls were offering PG-comebacks to boy band rhetoric, Monica's "The First Night" and Toni Braxton's "You're Makin Me High" did even more heavy lyrical lifting as each sang about the urgency and complexity and splendor of hook-ups. R&B, hip-hop, and rap all did an inordinate amount of heavy lifting in terms of incorporating sexuality and female power into songs. So let's be clear: the Spice Girls's representation of sex mainly morphed it — in the same way they morphed feminism — into an easily consumable and packable (and heteronormative) soundbite.
But in the 1990s, even sound bites made a difference. The Spice Girls may not have singlehandedly changed the feminist or sex education game, but their normalizing of sex in general created a context in which sex was more than just what Justin Timberlake was alluding to. The Spice Girls weren't the "good girls" we heard BSB allude to, nor were they the ones cruising the toy store aisles while a doll-shaped JC Chasez sang and danced. They were, to put it simply, five women who seemed to have sex when and with whom they liked. And considering that's still an idea that scares a good number of the population, we can't discount what it meant.