25 Years Since Wannabe, This Is Why Girl Power Still Matters

Britain's most iconic girl band burst onto the scene a quarter of a century ago. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett says it’s time we reappraised the band’s brand of feminism

spice girls 90s

by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett |
Updated on

25 years ago today, the Spice Girls landed in a flurry of Girl Power and platform shoes. It was, as they say, a cultural reset. The world is looking back with nostalgia today. But, on the eve of their last reunion, one writer wondered if their specific brand of feminism still has relevance today...

Fans will have their body glitter poised at news that the Spice Girls are weighing up a long hoped for reunion, but experience tells me that this will also mean the usual grumbling and naysaying about their feminism. Last week, Mel C said: ‘We think it is a very powerful year for women in general and it seems very fitting to get our act together and be a part of that.’ But in the age of #MeToo, don’t the Spice Girls feel a little lightweight?

There’s something about the pop group’s message of girl power that tends to provoke an eyeroll in the generations that preceded mine. They’re like the older sisters telling us the Spice Girls are manufactured dross and that we should be headbanging to Hole.

And to an extent they are right. Bands like Hole and the Riot grrrl movement were far more radical and transgressive in their blending of feminism and music. But the Spice Girls had an audience of billions. They brought their cheery message of friendship, solidarity and empowerment to the masses. They were brash, loud, uncompromising. They took up space and said to young girls, ‘You matter.’ So what if they did it while imploring listeners to slam their bodies down and wind them all around? They were a gateway drug to other female-led bands. I’d never have discovered Hole if the Spice Girls hadn’t ignited my interest in badass female singers.

spice girls

There’s a tendency in our society to look down on anything beloved by teenage girls and gay men as low culture not worthy of appraisal. I was nine when Wannabe was released as a single. Perhaps the Spice Girls’ feminism was a watered down, commercialised version of a more radical movement, but at that age I wasn’t quite ready for The Female Eunuch. Whenever I hear older women slagging them off, I always think: ‘But they weren’t for you, they were for us.’

Furthermore, to dismiss the women themselves as manufactured airheads being puppeted by shadowy male Svengalis is not only sexist and patronising, but ignores the fact that they auditioned Simon Fuller to be their manager, not the other way around. In 1997, they sacked him, and managed themselves for three years. To say they were controlled by men is ‘laughable’, Geri Halliwell has said. Video footage leaked a couple of years ago showed them taking to task the director of a Polaroid ad they were making, who had asked for midriff and cleavage shots. In it, Geri calls him a ‘chauvinistic pig’, and she and Mel B tell him to ‘fuck off’.

When people criticise the feminism of the Spice Girls, they are forgetting what a post-feminist wasteland the ’90s were. e newspapers were full of columns by women journalists saying that we didn’t need feminism any more, and our television screens were dominated by ladettes who created the impression that anyone who didn’t laugh along with the banter was uptight. That video shows the Spice Girls weren’t buying it.

spice girls

‘In the ’90s, there was this huge backlash against feminism,’ Geri said in a 2016 interview. ‘There was this belief that women were already equal. I was worried about feminism. Me and my sister were the first people in my family to go to college. It felt really important to share the knowledge I was getting ... with people who wanted to go... even people who believed that feminism is only about having hairy legs and hating men. There’s a stereotype that all feminists are kind of joyless.’

If the Spice Girls were anything, it wasn’t joyless. They were exuberant, cheeky and funny. Their various guises may have been a marketeer’s dream, but they also showed their young fans that there wasn’t just one kind of woman that you could be. As a tomboy, that meant a lot to me.

As tedious as I find the focus on women’s clothing as an indicator of their feminism – to quote Baby Spice: ‘Just because I wear a short skirt doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion’ – there was a lot of judgement around at that time about what the girls wore. But compared to today’s pornified pop costumes, it all seems rather harmless, and with their Buffalo boots and hair horns, the band weren’t pandering to the male gaze.

As role models, you could ask for a lot worse for your daughters than a bunch of cheery women standing for female solidarity and equality. Geri went on to be a UN ambassador fighting for the reproductive rights of women and girls. Victoria Beckham has established a highly successful career in fashion. They have lived their message. And as for me, one of their biggest fans who danced along at the MEN arena during their Spice World tour beside myself with excitement? Well, I went on to be a feminist journalist. It’s not entirely down to them, of course, but they set me on that path, and I am grateful.

NOW READ: The 90s And 00s Girl Bands We Wish Were Still A Thing


The Debrief 90s Girl Bands

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The outfit game was so, SO strong with these three. If you don't know all the words to No Scrubs, where you been? TLC were also the biggest selling girl group in the world until the Spice Girls came along...

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Oh, what a moment for one hit wonder duo tATu. I'm pretty sure the music video to All The Things She Said is still firmly etched in your mind. It was back when 'sexy school girl' was the look.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands3 of 18


If the words 'so, so, so, scandelous' don't send chills down your spine then you need to revisit the *Eye Candy *album. Fun fact: Tina from S Club 7 was originally in the group until she landed a spot in the band.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands4 of 18

Girls Aloud

I have few regrets in life, but one of them has to be not giving Pop Stars: The Rivals the attention it clearly deserved because the creation of Girls Aloud was entertaining as hell. Word on the street is that lead signer Nadine is still angling for a reunion though so, watch this space.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands5 of 18


Ten points if you can name, in order, all of the members of Sugababes and which grouping they appeared in. OGs Siobhán Donaghy, Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan were the shit, though. And don't pretend that 'Angels With Dirty Faces' wasn't somewhere on your MySpace page.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands6 of 18

Atomic Kitten

Is anyone else surprised when they realise that Kerry Katona was only around for about three years? She'd left somewhere between* Whole Again* and Eternal Flame. We all enjoyed their little stint on ITV2 The Big Reunion, though. You know, before Kerry left again.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands7 of 18


If you can't quite put your finger on why you often follow 'Cleopatra' with the words 'comin' at ya', it's down to these girls. Cleo, Yonah, and Zainam Higgins were the coolest sisters around and no, we never really understood the swimming goggles either. But Nelly never had to explain the plaster on his face so, you know...

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Destiny's Child

No words needed. You know the drill. Beyoncé, make it happen please.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands9 of 18

Spice Girls

No one knows where to start with the Spice Girls these days. And while some sort of reunion has been confirmed, a tour date is yet to be given the go ahead. Might have something to do with Victoria only agreeing to come back if she doesn't have to sing...

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands10 of 18

En Vogue

If you're not all that familiar with the group, you'll be familiar with the song *Don't Let Go. *There are few songs that quite hit the 90s R&B nail on the head so well. You're gonna want to revisit it.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands11 of 18


Okay we're about to take it way, way back with obscure cultural references here. But anyone who watched Nickelodeon's *Taina might remember the episode where 3LW appeared as super cool girl group Blue Mascara. They performed 3LW's best selling song No More (Baby I'ma Do Right) *and it changed my life. Obviously, if you neither remember this nor know the song, this means nothing too you. But they had another song called *Playas Gon Play *which was kind of involved in that Taylor Swift lyric lawsuit drama.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands12 of 18

The Cheetah Girls

Disney kids rejoice, because this was the coolest (yes, coolest) music to come out of that damn channel before High School Musical became a thing. The Cheetah Girls existed beyond their Disney TV films too, you know?

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands13 of 18


Remember N'Sync? Of course you do. But do you remember that gem of a song they featured on with Blaque on? It's called *Bring It All To Me *and the music video is a lot. It has nothing on *808 *though.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands14 of 18

Las Ketchup

There's no shame in having attempted to type and translate the lyrics to The Ketchup Song via Google. We all did it in a desperate bid to know what we were singing while wiggling our knees and whaling our hands around to that stressful routine.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands15 of 18

The 411

There are two songs to recall here: Dumb (diggi-diggi-di dumb) and *On My Knees. *Their presence may have been fleeting, but they were present. For a bit.

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Dream were pretty much everything you expect from a strategically put together girl group, but even more intense. At least that's my vague memory of them and that overwhelmingly 'pop' single He Loves U Not.

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Eden's Crush

We were not first introduced to Nicole Scherzinger via The Pussycat Dolls. No, no. She first entered our lives via Eden's Crush who were formed on the American version of *Popstars. *I honestly couldn't tell you what happened to the others, but Nicole seems quite happy on the X Factor and eating Muller yogurt.

The Debrief 90s Girl Bands18 of 18


Boys in trees and a hella lot o' denim. Life was so much simpler back then and we still long for those vibes.

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