The Spice Girls unleashed their first single “Wannabe” exactly eighteen years ago in June 1996. They would go on to become the best-selling (and perhaps most hated) female group in all of music history. No other British band had made that kind of an impact on the world since The Beatles. But unlike The Beatles, The Girls were never particularly talented. But they had something The Beatles didn’t. Girl Power.
The Spice Girls personified a strange new kind of sparkly pop feminism, dripping with glitter and girl power sass. They were among the first all-girl bands entirely assembled by record producers, who had conceived their every move, from the songs, to corporate endorsements, down to their spicey names and girl power. This completely enraged a lot of people. Unless you were a pre-teen at the time, liking the group became socially frowned-upon (even if you were hitting the play button on Spiceworld every night, you’d likely never admit it).
Incredibly, female empowerment became so popular in those days, people actually lost sight of the fact that girl power of any kind (whether of the intellectual or the bubblegum variety) was a good thing. Throughout the 90s, pop culture was buzzing with the message that it was ok to be a girl. “Feminism has become a dirty word,” the Spice Girls pointed out, “Girl Power is just a Nineties way of saying it…Women can be so powerful when they show solidarity.” But did the fact that they were contrived mean that, by default, they had to forfeit their right to such statements? According to their critics, yes.
And though the Spice Girls stood for a shallow definition of feminism, at least they stood for it. Fast forward eighteen years into the present time, and shallow is the norm. Admitting to being a feminist basically elicits the same reaction as admitting to having herpes. Pop-culture has lost any semblance of female empowerment, even the so-called plastic pre-packaged kind.
In the 90s the media raged against the Spice Girls, calling them “the death knell of feminism,” all the while Scary Spice was telling girls that “You can wear your Wonderbra, you can wear your mascara, but you’ve got a bit of intelligence… Don’t rely on your sexuality, but don’t be afraid of it.” No major pop star today openly promotes female empowerment to young girls in this way. In fact, most celebrities openly speak about “not identifying themselves as feminists” (think Madonna, Taylor Swift, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Del Rey, Selena Gomez, Dita Von Teese, and Kelly Clarkson just to name a few). In the public consciousness Girl Power has gone from representing girls standing together, to girls standing against the guys (ironically revealing just how man-centric of a world we’re still living in). Girls, knowing how threatening the concept of feminism was to the boys they were crushing on, felt they had to reject it if they hoped to ever snag a boyfriend. In this way, the definition of feminism shifted from a belief that women should have equal political, economic and social rights, to this angry concept of women vs. men. In the process, the fight for fair political, economic and social rights has stalled. Perhaps we actually needed the Spice Girls more than we now like to admit. And perhaps, far from being “the death knell of feminism,” the Spice Girls were its last cultural stronghold.