Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Babes without spice

Laurie Penny explains what it means to have hopes dashed twice, first by the Spice Girls and second by Blair's Babes

December 14, 2007
10 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


  share     tweet  

On 27 June 2007, I opened the papers, hardly able to contain my excitement. I couldn’t wait to read the inevitable watery roundups of the Blair premiership that had been on the files of every broadsheet since Tony announced that he was finally stepping down. Instead, to my surprise, the inside pages were splashed with gaudy images of five very familiar popstrels, wearing matching outfits and strained smiles. In a giddy blast from the past, the Spice Girls had announced their reunion tour.

Instantly, I was transported back a decade. I was nine years old, on the school bus, listening to the Spice Girls’ hit ‘Wannabe’ for the very first time. From its opening beats, my young world was changed forever. Not only had I discovered, with a delicious thrill, that there was more to popular music than ‘The Smurfs Go Pop’, but here were strong, outrageously hyper-personified young women with individual styles and identities, brazenly declaring what they wanted, what they really, really wanted. They emphasised the importance of being yourself and of strong female friendship. That all they really wanted was to ‘zigazig-hah’ did not register on my prepubescent consciousness. I was hooked.

Now the glossy sheen on the Girl Power industry has tarnished somewhat. Since their split, the girls have racked up between them two serious eating disorders, innumerable flopped solo singles, countless rumoured drink and drug problems and a run of much-publicised catfights – both with each other and with the fathers of the six curiously-named Spice babies that have been born since 2000.

Girl power

Since the reunion tour was announced, the fashion and women’s media have gone to town on the paper-thin reality of the ‘friends forever’ mantra that was so central to the Girl Power ethos, with headlines like ‘Spice Girls at WAR!’ and ‘Posh and Ginger compete to be Skinny Spice.’ And once tour preparations began, nearly all of the girls’ focus seems to have been on their diet plans, exercise regimes and wardrobe proposals. For example, Victoria Beckham’s suggestion that ultra-miniskirts be included in the group’s outfits, the better to show off her fantastically emaciated legs, has apparently met with rage and tantrums from other band members.

All of this is jaw-achingly depressing for someone who was a teenager in their glory days. Is this, in the end, all that Girl Power has come to?

It seems that it is. For while the Spice Girls’ original incarnation may have been refreshing, they fundamentally represented a little boy’s wet dream of feminism (Simon Fuller’s, to be precise): raunchy, lipsticked, pert-breasted and up for it. Girl Power, on its own, didn’t stand for much. After all, it was always going to be unlikely that ‘zigazig-hah!’ was Spice shorthand for ‘subvert the dominant paradigm!’ ‘Being who you wanna’ was permissible only if what you wanted to be was hyperbolically and accommodatingly heterosexualised. As the girls themselves said in 1997: ‘Girl Power is … when you reply to wolf whistles by shouting “Get your arse out!”‘

Blair’s babes

It wasn’t long after the Spice Girls exploded onto the UK pop scene that Blair swept into power, riding the women’s vote. The 1997 Labour landslide was buoyed up by the furious hype around Blair’s Babes: those teeth-grittingly power-suited young things who accompanied the PM-to-be to endless photoshoots. They seemed to promise greater political representation for women and – by implication, although it was never implicitly stated – greater attention to the key socio-political concerns affecting women’s lives.

On the first count, at least, there was immediate and exciting progress: the number of female MPs doubled to 120 in 1997, 101 of whom were Labour. This meant more photo opportunities, more strained smiles, more horrendous tailoring and excruciating Hillary Clinton knock-off hairdos. As politics went pop, both the music and the political digests of the day seemed to be giving the same message to the young: Girl Power was an active political fact. We were about to inherit a world where girls and women would have more power.

But – as with Posh, Sporty, Scary, Baby and Ginger – it is tricky to pin down exactly what Blair’s Babes stood for, beyond the revival of shoulder pads and uncomplicated yea-saying. At 18 per cent, they had never formed a critical mass in the House of Commons in the first place, and continued to represent a largely compliant minority: the rebel Labour backbenchers who so blighted Blair’s second and third terms were predominantly male. And even where issues most affecting women were concerned, the new intake of women MPs remained curiously accommodating. Of the 90 MPs who voted against Labour’s cuts to lone parent benefits in 1998, only eight were female.

Girl Power – like the increased female political clout that ‘girls’ were promised in 1997 – was only going to be common currency for as long as it remained young, sexy and marketable. As Yvonne Abraham commented in her 1997 article ‘Lipstick Liberation’, ‘Sexy feminism certainly works as a marketing approach. They [the Spice Girls] take feminism’s shell, and fill it up with lip-gloss, ribbed condoms and girls-on-top innuendo. Take away the sexual freedom and the guiltless push-up bras and you’re not left with much.’

As our teenage years progressed, my female classmates and I came gradually to the realisation that nothing had changed. The power we had been promised was a fallacy. In order to do well socially, financially and professionally as we matured out of training bras, it was becoming more, not less, important that we remain flawlessly beautiful, compliantly heteronormative and enthusiastically sexual. We discovered that Girl Power was about performance – sexual and aesthetic performativity – and that, like the Spice Girls, like the influx of women into politics in 1997, once the cameras stopped flashing, the illusion of power began to disintegrate. Girl Power had betrayed us.

Even more than our mothers’ generation before us, our power was now going to depend on how well we were able to perform. And perform we did, breaking our young bodies and minds into the shallow dance of establishment-sanctified, hypersexed femininity. We found ourselves more than equal to the task. As the Spice Girls publicly crumbled, many of us went down with eating disorders, began to self harm, and abused drugs, alcohol and sex. Most of us suffered crises of self-confidence and self-esteem, frightened by our maturing bodies and bewildered by what was expected of us sexually.

Posh, what went wrong?

Posh Spice – aka Victoria Adams, as she was in her pre-Beckham years – was my favourite, no question about it. Her slick, coffee-coloured bob vaguely resembled my junior-school hairdo. Plus, she was achingly cool, with sparkling black eyes scowling out of a strange, pixie-pretty face, luscious curves poured into an array of tasteful black cocktail dresses, and – most thrillingly – a little diamond stud in her fingernail.

Never mind that she couldn’t really sing – that wasn’t what Posh was about. While the social machinations of 10-year-old girls meant that I was always obliged to be Sporty Spice in playground games, in my head I was Posh Spice, the mature, elegant, half-haughty face of Girl Power, the Real Laydee of dubious lyrical fame.

In 2007, Victoria Beckham’s scrawny, spray-tanned frame now resembles the last piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken at the bottom of the barrel. But what’s really scary is her face: the self-possessed pout of her Spicier days ceded to an out-of-it expression that suggests she’s been doped with ketamine.

Over the course of a decade she has become every glossy rag’s favourite Disaster Dolly. Her every outfit, every food choice, every pound lost, every relationship crisis, every heartbreak and every instance of increasingly disturbed behaviour has been gleefully catalogued. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that this woman – or, rather, this half-woman girl-child trapped in a body worn thin by the unrelenting glare of media attention – is the woman Blair proposed for national commendation in his resignation honours list.

For Victoria Beckham epitomises the betrayal of female empowerment that has occurred in the Blair era. What we were promised was power. What we have been delivered is a circumscribed power that’s young, desperately sexual, fragile and paranoid, and contingent upon its wielders remaining so. It is a neutered power obsessed with youth and a constructed image of hypersexed girlhood that does not fully own its own sexuality. A girlhood that performs, prances and pleads with its masculinised audience for every scrap of attention. It is, in short, Girl Power that has not been allowed to grow up into real, honest and fully realised woman power.

Woman power

Girl Power sells even as the vultures gather to pick at the bones of the haunted, emaciated, disturbed-looking women who used to encapsulate it. Woman power, admittedly, does not sell half so well.

Ten years on from the hype of 1997, however, we must finally accept that Girl Power is not enough. Real, tangible woman power is possible. But in order to access that power we cannot allow ourselves to be sold a cheap, tacky, snapshot-friendly imitation. We have to seize it for ourselves. At the inception of Brown’s premiership, the question of whether political woman power is possible remains open.

The number of female ministers in the cabinet has decreased, and those in power, including Britain’s first female home secretary, Jacqui Smith, seem worryingly ambivalent over women’s agendas. At the same time, politicians such as Dawn Primarolo, the public health minister, have been standing firm on important issues of female self-determination. Primarolo, for example, defended the upper time limit of legal abortion against reduction in a speech to the Commons on 24 October 2007. There is room for real progress if we, the next generation of voters, workers, mothers, writer, dreamers, politicians, are brave enough to take it.

I have seen my generation of young women have their self-confidence destroyed, their potential circumscribed and their worth devalued in the cold, cruel currency exchange of capitalist raunch and beauty culture. We are all grown up now, though. The young girls who bought the Spice Girls’ original singles are entering the workplace, graduating from university and coming into our political and personal inheritance.

We’ve gained some lines, a few scars, and a fair amount of wisdom along the way, and we will not be bought off any more with flashy images of circumscribed, limited power. The Girl Power generation has grown up seeing their simplest ideals betrayed and their role models reduced to emaciated, stage-grinning shells of formerly self-determining women. But watch this space: we will not be fooled so easily the next time. So, ladies: take a long, hard look at the Spice Girls reunion tour. Take a look, and decide whether or not this, truly, is still who you wannabe.

The Spice Girls will perform in London and Manchester from 15 December. Laurie Penny writes a regular blog for Red Pepper. You can find her and the rest of the Red Pepper blogosphere at www.blog.redpepper.org.uk

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain.’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition.

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it