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.
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!”‘
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.
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
#233: Democracy on the Wing ● Thelma Walker on regional autonomy ● An interview with Clive Lewis ● The World Transformed ● Gender, sexuality and witchcraft ● The globalisation of ‘Asian horror’ ● A tribute to Dawn Foster ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
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Bliss Cua Lim looks at how the female ghost subgenre illuminates efforts to globalise ‘Asian horror’
David J. Lobina rediscovers a forgotten but fascinating figure in London’s radical and Jewish history
The World Transformed festival gets underway this weekend - here's where and when you can catch some of Red Pepper's editors and friends.
Tara Okeke explores a timely exhibition which offers a compelling history of Black life in Britain through the lens of people, place and struggle
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