20 years of Girl Power: Were the Spice Girls feminists or just opportunists?
Two decades after the Spice Girls unleashed debut single 'Wannabe' on an unsuspecting public, our reporter asks if the band were really feminists - or just opportunists
Few would be hard-pressed to forget the first time they heard the bouncy strains of the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe'. A prime slice of perky pop, it also paved the way for its five girlbanders - Posh, Sporty, Baby, Scary and Ginger - to cause a commotion in showbiz circles.
With each girl proudly sporting their own trademark style, the gobby quintet were a cut above pop's other gunslingers. There was leopard-clad Melanie Brown, pretty-in-pastels Emma Bunton, shellsuit-crazy Melanie Chisolm, sophisticated Victoria Adams (later Beckham) and lastly, a sartorially brave firecracker called Geri Halliwell.
Even more memorable was their slavish devotion to the slogan 'Girl Power!', chanted at every opportune moment.
'Wannabe', with its ovaries-before-brovaries lyrics ("If you wannabe my lover/you gotta get with my friends", in case you needed reminding), was the perfect ode to girldom, and was released twenty years ago this week. Recently, the video to the single was remade by a charity to highlight gender inequality issues like equal pay, child marriage and education.
"I think this film is a wonderful idea," said former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. "How fabulous it is that after 20 years the legacy of the Spice Girls' Girl Power is being used to encourage and empower a whole new generation?"
Of course, back in 1996, few could really have foretold of such a legacy. The world was a very different place back then, although the 90s provided a perfect storm in which the Spice girls could truly flourish.
In the mid-90s, the world's eyes were trained on Cool Britannia. From its jazzy new Blairite politics to the louche élan of Britpop, England couldn't put a cultural foot wrong. Their homegrown pop landscape, curiously enough, was a barren no-mans' land (or more specifically, no-girls' land) back then.
Take That had ousted the faceless, sexless likes of acid house ravers like 808 State and The Shamen from the top of the charts, but female role models were curiously lacking.
The US had the likes of the overwhelmingly bloodless Tiffany and Debbie Gibson; Kylie was languishing in pop oblivion, having tried on her ill-advised indie persona.
Around this time, feminist Germaine Greer noted that feminists were starting to see the potential in the word 'girl': used not as a term of derision, but as a weapon. The industry was thirsty for popstars to embody not just vogueish ladette culture, but new feminism.
And the Spice Girls' managers Chris and Bob Herbert knew this only too well the day they placed an ad in 'The Stage' newspaper looking for hopefuls.
Yet for all their talk of Girl Power, the Spice Girls would in time eat their own words. Due to differences within the group - primarily, it was reported, with Mel B - Halliwell left in 1998.
As recently as last year, Mel B turned her sharp tongue on Victoria, slamming her as a "bit of a bitch". She then sparked a feud with Melanie C, who put paid to anniversary reunion plans by refusing to rejoin the group for a nostalgia tour. Beckham, having upcycled herself into a successful fashion designer, was also hugely averse to the idea.
Yet in 2007, the five undertook an 11-date worldwide tour, with babies and partners in tow. So far, so heart-warming, yet the tour was beset by - ahem - tensions. Either way, 'friendship never ends' has started to ring a bit hollow.
It could also be argued that feminism died right on its Buffalo-clad feet as the Spice Girls rose to power.
"I believe the aspirations and attitudes of these five women go hand-in-hand with the decline of our culture over the past decade," wrote novelist Fay Weldon. "Girl Power was a sham, and its five proponents nothing more than desperate wannabes, desperate for a quick fix of fame. Their singable, suggestive lyrics took away the innocence of the playground. And it's never coming back."
Ouch. Yet Weldon may indeed have a point. Certainly, WAG culture - the inexorable cheapening of celebrity - was non-existent before Victoria Beckham sashayed in Gucci with her then-boyfriend, arm candy footballer David Beckham. The vapidity of paparazzi culture could probably be traced back to the Spice Girls' naked ambitions.
For all the Girl Power, the women's grasp on feminism itself was patchy at best.
This from Geri: "I didn't really know much about history, but I knew about the suffragettes. They died to get a vote. You remember that and you think, f***ing hell.'' Later, they declared Margaret Thatcher "the original Spice Girl".
When asked if she called herself a feminist at the height of Girl Power, Beckham responded: "I wouldn't. I like a man who opens doors for me and buys me flowers."
Yet for a generation of young women, the Spice Girls' glamour and unabashed fun of it all was like a Trojan horse for feminism. For their young fans, feminism was accessible and fun; nothing to be scared of. Nowhere was this more evident than in the band's movie 'Spice World', where Ginger scares off a potential suitor by mentioning the dreaded f-word. As he runs away, the ladies laugh him off-screen, and girls everywhere saw that men who are scared of strong women are simply not worth the time.
In the same way that their images gave young women permission to wear whatever they wanted, their lyrics reminded women that they could kiss and sleep with whomever they wanted, too (albeit with a safe sex caveat, in '2 Become 1').
Ultimately die-hard fans will attest that the Spice Girls gave life to the idea of female empowerment for a whole generation pre-empting Rihanna and Beyonce. Others will argue that the Spice Girls took the Girl Power and cynically milked or marketed it for all its worth.
In 1996, this quaint, glossy carry-on was just the ticket. But that was then and this is now. When asked last year about the 'f' word, Mel B is quoted as saying: "I wouldn't call myself a feminist. I try to live by the Girl Power motto. It's about believing in yourself, no matter how bad a day you're having." It was the 'ahem' heard around the world.
Mel C has a somewhat more clear-eyed take on the band's legacy: "[we] were so determined and we were so appalled to be told that girlbands don't sell and it's all about boybands. That spurred us on to want to be successful." Which, if you think about it, is as powerful a standpoint as any.
What Girl Power means to me..
Niamh Farrell, singer, HamsandwicH
"I absolutely loved the Spice Girls. They probably started out as 'let's put some sexy ladies in nice clothes and make them sing pop songs', but that all changed for sure. I think it really did help towards women wanting to be looked at as equal, it almost gave us all a bigger voice to say 'Yeah I'm a girl, and I'll be whoever I want to be'."
Jenny Greene, 2FM presenter
"It was such a different time back then, and we were very innocent and naïve, but we did feel more deadly after hearing 'Wannabe'. Everyone identified with one of them. The lovely thing about them is that they weren't inappropriate, and it helped to make little girls feel on top of the world."
Louise O'Neill, novelist
"They were, with their massive shoes and loud cackling laughter, a force to be reckoned with. There was something so exciting about their irreverence, their seemingly unfailing belief in the Girl Power message. Girls can be anything they want to be, was what I internalised. As an adult, I can see the cracks in the Spice Girls facade. There's something ironic about being introduced to a pseudo-feminism by a band manufactured by a male svengali. But still, having said that, I will always be grateful to them because they did introduce me to feminism in some small way."
Lisa McInerney, novelist
"I was 14-going-on-15 when 'Wannabe' was released, so at the optimum age for lessons on Girl Power. But even then I knew the Spice Girls were an outfit put together to sell me stuff. It was less about feminism and more about the commodification of femininity, and being more of a Radiohead mope I didn't buy any of it: the stupid shoes, the infantilisation or the tie-in Impulse body spray. And how could they teach me anything when 'Jagged Little Pill' had already been out for a year? "