How the Spice Girls changed feminism
It's not a coincidence that a generation reared on girl power went on to spark the fourth wave of feminism, writes Lauren Bravo
Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1997. Teletubbies. Inflatable furniture. Riverdance at Eurovision. And an image carved deep into pop culture history, like compass graffiti into an old school desk: the Spice Girls at the Brit Awards, riding high on the crest of new-found fame.
But while the rest of the world mostly remembers Geri's Union Jack dress, my most vivid memory is Mel C grabbing the mic as the Spice Girls collected their gong for Best Single, a five-woman explosion of sequins and animal print. "I just wanna say, Liam?" she yelled, goading the Gallagher brother who had stayed at home in petulant protest. "Come and 'ave a go if you think you're hard enough!"
At home, nine years old, cross-legged on the carpet in my lime green cropped top and knock-off platform trainers, I was rapt. "That," I thought to myself, "is the way to deal with boys."
When I started researching my book, What Would the Spice Girls Do?, I surveyed scores of other women in my age bracket - squarely millennial - to find out how deep that legacy went. We've an appetite for 90s nostalgia (drop 'Who Do You Think You Are?' at a wedding disco when everyone's five wines to the wind and see what happens), but was 'girl power' more than just empty sloganeering?
Apparently so. "It's not a coincidence," I was told time and again, by women sharing their stories of juvenile adventures in hair mascara, the riotous blast of energy from their bedroom tape players, and the confidence the Spice Girls gave them to be fully themselves - whether they were the pigtailed baby of the group, the tomboy or the lairy provocateur. Against a backdrop of hand-me-down grunge, macho Britpop swagger and simpering boy bands, suddenly we had pop idols who made girlhood look cool. Powerful. Five distinct personalities, one bold agenda. It's not a coincidence, those interviews assured me, that a generation reared on girl power went on to spark the fourth wave of feminism. It's hard to say anything about feminism without people having opinions, let's be honest - no sooner has a woman stuck her head above the parapet than society starts looking for ways to unmask her - but especially when you're talking about something so unapologetically bright, brash and commercial as the Spice Girls. How could they be feminists when they were so sexy? And such shameless, capitalist sell-outs? When they were (whisper it) Tories?
True, the Spice Girls were not the only musical feminists on the landscape. They didn't even coin the term 'girl power' - it was already the name of a riot grrrl zine by Bikini Kill, and a single by Shampoo. Girls with guitars had been ripping up the rule book for years. But what the Spice Girls did was strip feminism down to its most basic parts, and rebuild it as a prototype, wholly accessible to a young, mainstream audience. They made it fun. Problematic, sure. Flawed, certainly. But all the more relatable for it.
Along with CDs, lollies and a landslide of plastic tat, the group sold us ideas that lasted far longer. The value of female friendship, and putting ourselves before men. Permission to be loud, wild, angry, and honest. While parents winced, the media sneered and Germaine Greer baulked at their gobby, glittery brand of empowerment, for many young fans, the Spice Girls were the first time we'd seen our gender as something to be proud of, and fought for.
Among the gleeful nonsense lyrics (whatever "zig-a-zig-ah" meant, we knew it was probably rude), those songs were full of empowering soundbites. Chicas to the front! Stop right now! I'll tell you what I really, really want. While other pop stars pined over break-ups and unrequited love, songs like 'Wannabe' and 'Too Much' were cheerfully non-committal. "If you really bug me, then I'll say goodbye."
From editing their own magazine, Spice, full of sisterly advice for angsty teens, to ripping apart interviewers for sexism, racism and homophobia, the group strived to use their platform for good. And thanks to the shoes, it was a higher platform than most. Spice Girl style might have been cartoonish and often sexy as hell, but it also gave us options. They taught us that a 'proper' girl could still wear a tracksuit and backflip down a banqueting table - but likewise, turbo-charged femininity wasn't incompatible with power either. In the Spice philosophy, everyone had the right to be taken seriously.
"'Girl power is about being whoever you want to be," Emma said in 1997. "Wearing your short skirts, your Wonderbra and your make-up, but having something to say as well." It's not such a radical idea now, but to 90s kids raised on pretty princesses and clever tomboys, discovering you could be both at once was a revelation.
"[The Spice Girls] have the popularity and the popular ear that an intellectual, certainly a female intellectual, almost never has in this society," wrote avant garde feminist novelist Kathy Acker the same year, in a surprisingly admiring Guardian profile. They were working-class women, hard grafters with a truckload of hustle, who happily acknowledged their shortcomings but never felt the need to apologise for them.
Because, while inviting Oasis to a punch-up might have been a far cry from 'nevertheless, she persisted', the Spice Girls' influence struck a match and lit a fire under thousands of girls. Girls who are now grown women, challenging the patriarchy to fisticuffs from a podium we've built ourselves out of hard graft and hashtags. They might have rebranded it as 'girl power', but they showed us that feminism by any other name can still scream as loud.
Lauren Bravo is the author of 'What Would the Spice Girls Do?: How the Girl Power Generation Grew Up', published by Bantam Press, which is out now