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.
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.
‘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.
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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...