how girl power made us who we are today

Sure, Girl Power commodified feminism, but The Spice Girls’ enduring message of female equality and doing what you really, really want shaped the brains of fourth-wavers for the better. As 'Wannabe' is adapted for a new generation, we take a look back...

by Stevie Mackenzie-Smith
07 July 2016, 2:09pm

Girl Power. That contagious rainbow-hued philosophy, hollered with a matching peace-sign, endures twenty years on. And I still bloody love it. What is it about the sight of The Spice Girls scarfing up the steps of the St Pancras Grand Midland Hotel at the start of the "Wannabe" video that makes me a bit giddy? As a twenty-something living in the midst of fourth wave feminism, I love Girl Power because I know how the influence of The Spice Girls shaped my tiny brain, and those of so many women around me, for the better.

Girl Power is so many things: a remarkable marketing campaign, high-kicks, nostalgia, being a girl who takes up space, telling people what you really, really want, the smell of Impulse, the taste of Chupa Chups, riotous friendship, and, basically, an ideology I still live by as an adult.

I don't remember a lot about about 1996. I turned five the month "Wannabe" was released. But I remember The Spice Girls vividly. Who were those sassy, confident women bamboozling Jamie Theakston in interviews? I loved them instantly.

With hindsight, we can see that Girl Power was also a very successful exercise in branding. The Spice Girls espoused Spice philosophy as enthusiastically as Pepsi, Walkers, ASDA, or any of their multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals. It's too easy to cast Girl Power as a damaging, candy-coated commodification of feminism. "The Spice Girls ruined everything!" fatalists say. Clearly, shouting "Girl Power!" at a TV crew doesn't equal activism. But you could tell Girl Power was more than a gimmick to them; they meant it. To eschew Girl Power as 'vague' and manufactured ignores the powerful influence those five loud-mouthed women had on the young minds of their fans, and what happens when you introduce young girls to the idea of feminism. 

We see it today with a multitude of girl gangs and female art collectives like Art Baby and GRL PWR, The WW Club and Girl Gang Manchester, who channel the energy of Girl Power but build on it to foster collaboration, skill-sharing, and work opportunities amongst creative women. "It's important that feminism isn't understood simply as 'Girl Power' or proudly wearing the color pink, but I think we need to give young females more credit than to assume that's where their understanding of feminism stops." Art Baby's Grace Miceli told i-D last year.

To eschew Girl Power as manufactured ignores the influence those five loud-mouthed women had on their fans and what happens when you introduce young girls to the idea of feminism. 

"I was always aware their Girl Power mantra was used for marketing," Liz West, who holds the Guinness World Record for owning the world's largest collection of Spice Girls memorabilia, told me over email. "However I do believe The Spice Girls represented equality and totally believed their mantra." Liz, an artist, makes radiant, large-scale light installations. We once met in one of her rainbow-colored exhibitions, and it reminded me of the opening sequence of Spiceworld: The Movie; light transforming walls into the Spice spectrum.

The Spice Girls made things better! Beneath the marketing lay a real message: be who you are, unapologetically. Individuality was celebrated on a basic level, through each Spice Girl's taste in clothes, her accent, which colored strip of light she'd stand in, or her hobby. Ginger Spice's mom worked as a cleaner, Posh Spice was driven to school in a Rolls-Royce; they encouraged us to look at our own friends and realize that difference makes people cool.

Spice values could be swallowed subliminally, and digested by fans in later life. In the playground, we'd chant, "Giving is good, as long as you're getting!" and "If you want to be my lover, you've got to get with my friends!" until our cheeks were pink, only for the true meaning to unravel when we were old enough to need their relationship advice.

Girl Power spoke directly to young Spice fans, who didn't need to dissect the political ramifications of the co-opting of a movement. We could howl at the bare-bottomed male dancers in Spice World, while adults laughed at The Spectator's chin-stroking social commentary on the group. We could love them unconditionally. They made us feel proud, not weak for being girls.

Straddling the cusp between Third Wave Feminism and the impending dawn of the Ladette, The Spice Girls represent a time when popstars were cheeky and honest rather than restrained in interviews. They were forthright, surprising journalists with anecdotes about the best technique for tying your hair back (a used G-string, according to Mel B) and commanding a press conference to do a Mexican Wave. As a result, we saw a bunch of women who didn't sweat the small stuff. Former Spice boyfriends kissing and telling to the tabloids sucked, but they always styled it out.

The Spice Girls can't take sole responsibility for shaping our minds with Girl Power. But they were a crucial part of the landscape alongside teachers, family friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Geri, Victoria, Emma, and Mels B and C were weird. Not abnormally so; in fact, for a bunch of friends in their early twenties they were pretty normal. But seeing women who were weird, confident and cool made an impression on me. Not unlike myself and my friends today, they'd freak men out for their own amusement. (I'm yet to pinch Prince Charles' bottom.)

More women being loud and weird in the mainstream followed. In 1999, Smack the Pony launched on Channel 4. According to co-creator Sally Phillips, post-Spice Girls "The comedy commissioner felt that a sketch show by a trio of girls could finally work."

The Spice Girls can't take sole responsibility for shaping our minds with Girl Power. But they were a crucial part of the landscape, alongside teachers, family friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, All Saints, Julia Stiles' eye rolls, and the Bend It Like Beckham women's soccer team.

Of course, The Spice Girls were a pop group, not activists. But Girl Power still helped younger-me to push past my comfort zone. I'd never have gone to that after school soccer club when I was five if it hadn't been for Sporty Spice. Their improvised mottos like "beat boys at their own game!" encouraged me to tell jokes just as loudly (and better, actually) than the boys at school.

In 2016, people still fear the commodification of feminism within pop music. That's what Annie Lennox implied when she called Beyonce's politics as "Feminist Lite." (To be honest, I'm more concerned about how female autonomy is always linked to winning at capitalism.) I'm reassured to know that the core ideas of commercial 'empowerment' prevails, though. Because when kids are told that boys and girls should be equally powerful, at an early age, it stays with them. And they're not stupid; they can see through the disingenuous gimmicks. When stars like Beyonce and Rihanna proclaim "sorry, not sorry," those words aren't falling on deaf ears. Everything is absorbed.

The Spice Girls preached friendship, fun, and believing in yourself to do whatever the hell you like. For women like me, who grew up with Girl Power, the euphoria of learning the words (and the crap "Stop" routine) embedded that philosophy deeper into our brains. It stays with you, the way being a Baby Boomer, or a Flower Child of the 60s stays with you. It's a philosophy to build on. It's in the roar of Mel B's laugh on the opening of "Wannabe," and in the way I carry myself when I present work to room full of men. It's in the women I surround myself with. Girl Power lives on. 


Text Stevie Mackenzie-Smith

girl power
female equality