Was Girl Power Just a Lie?
The Spice Girls co-opted Girl Power from its radical roots and told us we could have it all. Was it true? Or a way for them to sap our pocket money with branded merchandise? Twenty years later, we spoke to those at the centre of it all to find out.
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew
I was 11 when I first heard the Spice Girls shouting about Girl Power. I lived on one of the poorest council estates in the UK, neighbour to powerless, often jobless, people who'd been weatherbeaten by 17 years of Conservative rule. I idolised the art school crowd: Blur, Suede and Pulp. I clung to the aspirational swagger of Oasis. It was rock music made by men that liberated me, not mainstream pop.
But then Girl Power jolted me. "Silence is golden but shouting is fun" was the Spice Girls' mantra. "Feminism needs a kick up the arse!"
I didn't need to know what feminism was. Here were ordinary girls – daughters of window cleaners and insurance clerks – on the TV saying that it was OK, as a girl, to make noise, to take up space, to be bold and brash and louche – and to do it all with other women.
Twenty years later and I meet Geri Halliwell – now Horner – to talk about the slogan she made famous. By now, it's long become one of the most divisive terms in modern feminist history. It's mostly academically scorned and mostly popularly adored and, depending on who you read, it's either the saviour of modern feminism or its death knell.
"Girl Power was a mission," she says. "It was like, 'We feel like this, and we believe there is a whole generation of girls who feel like this, too.'"
But that generation grew up. And we grew up entitled. We were the girls who were told we could all have it all, but were tossed into a world where we couldn't. It's no coincidence that, 20 years – to the week – after the Spice Girls released their debut album Spice, feminism has never been more championed, scrutinised, picked apart, marketed back at us by big brands and hailed by celebrity ambassadors. But where has Girl Power left us? Was it a slogan that awakened millions of young girls to basic ideas of gender equality, or a vapid catchphrase used by marketing men to sap their pocket money, turning the political gains made by feminism into cheap consumerism.
After it all, was Girl Power just a lie?§
The term Girl Power was born in Olympia, Washington out of a fervent feminist punk scene that would become known as Riot Grrrl. Its philosophical bedrock was a vision of "Revolution Girl Style Now!" – a radical call to use the untapped, revolutionary potential of girls as a "force that can, and will, change the world for real".
Riot Grrrl developed in part as a reaction against increasingly anti-women facets in the DC punk scene; in part as a way to drag to light the hidden horrors of sexual abuse; but also simply the frustration of being shut out, degraded, mocked and laughed at for being a girl trying to make music.
Riot Grrrl had no leaders, but Bikini Kill were at the spine of the movement. Singer Kathleen Hanna remembers that she first used the term Girl Power in the early 1990s, when her and Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail were naming the band's second fanzine. "Tobi and I discussing what word just felt totally wrong next to girl," she says over email. "And we came up with power."
The trailer for the reissue of Bikini Kill's first release, 'Revolution, Girl Style, Now'
Her goal, she told me a few years ago, was to make feminism something that could be approached by all women – not just well-off white university grads – in an era where magazine covers were heralding its death.
"In the 90s, there was this huge backlash against feminism," she said. "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 at school with people who wanted to go to school – 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."
Soon, Riot Grrrl would attract the attention of mainstream media; after the first article in LA Weekly in July of 1992, everyone wanted a piece of them – Rolling Stone, New York Times and even Playboy. But while the press attention gave the movement a global audience, it also ridiculed its vision. In one Melody Maker interview, Kathleen compared it to being reduced to Riot Barbies. Other times they were made out to be some sort of witches coven. Pitchfork writer Matt Kessler remembers rumours from his high school: "Supposedly, a couple of riot grrrls had tied a boy to a tree and 'sucked his dick till he started bleeding'. This was the lore."
The intense scrutiny was tough. "People would just be like, 'So, did your father rape you? Is that why you're so angry?'" Kathleen told me. The result was her calling a media blackout in 1992 – a decision that seems ludicrous now in an internet age, and would ultimately cause the movement to fragment. But its impact would live on long after Bikini Kill disbanded 1997.
I ask Geri if she'd ever heard of Kathleen Hanna and Riot Grrrl. She grimaces, pulls a confused face and shakes her head. "No." So where did Girl Power come from? "The band Shampoo," she says. "I saw them and I thought, 'Oh my god, that is so good.'"
Shampoo, in some ways, were a kind of bridge between Riot Grrrl and the pop mainstream. They dressed like a pastiche of candy-pink girlhood. They wore T-shirts that said "tart" and "dolly bird" on them (a more PG, Live and Kicking-friendly version of Kathleen Hanna scrawling "slut" across her chest). They were wild, rude, aggressive and lazy. In one Melody Maker interview they got wasted, smashed up a hotel room, chucked curry all over the bed and then slept in it. They were everything two teenage girls had been told they shouldn't be. The title track for their 1996 album Girl Power began: "I don't wanna be a boy / I wanna be a girl / I wanna play with knives / I wanna play with guns / I wanna smash the place up just for fun."
"Shampoo were outrageous," says Peter Levine, who was editor of Top of the Pops magazine at the time and now manages bands including The Saturdays. "I went to interview them in their house in Shepherd's Bush and they'd smashed it up the night before. They were so rebellious, [which meant that] they just weren't likeable to a wider audience," he says.
Does Geri feel she ripped Shampoo, and Riot Grrrl, off? "I think we all get influenced," she says. "When you're a writer, you're looking around and absorbing life. It's just passing the baton on." Does she regret it? "It was a punchy term," she shrugs. But for those involved in Riot Grrrl, this was less relaying a snappy slogan, and more about an outright commodification and co-opting of its most radical tenants – for massive profits.
"They had a lot more money behind them, the Spice Girls," says music journalist Sylvia Patterson, who worked at Smash Hits and later NME. "Shampoo started out on a really small indie label [they later signed to EMI], and because they were sullen and miserable, no way could they be as relatable as the back-flipping, in-your-face-ness of the Spices."
The Spice Girls hit exactly the right key at exactly the right moment. "Feminism, at the time, was a word that no one really used," she says. "It just wasn't in the atmosphere then, as a word – or as a force. Certainly, during the Britpop period, there were very few really kitschy, colourful female voices at all. It was very male-dominated."
"Between 1990 and 1996, there was a real lull when it came to female pop stars," says Peter Levine. "If we put a female on the cover of Top of the Pops magazine, our circulation would drop."
The rise of 90s lad culture (in 1997, the circulation of the three leading lads' mags, FHM, Loaded and Maxim, was over 1.2 million) had spread to a moral panic about so-called "ladettes" – lager-yard swigging women who used pinching men's arses and dirty gags as a way of self-determination. If you wanted to give boys a run for their money, why not act like them?
"Girls were out there, drinking as hard, drugging as hard, having as great a laugh," says Sylvia. "Dance music had a lot to do with it as well, and ecstasy. It felt like a very free time, like we could do anything. We all just thought the party was there to be had as much as it was for the lads, for anyone, because it was – it really was."
Geri claims she was something of a stalwart in the rave scene – and this went on to influence her politics. "I watched the first female prime minister get elected to power. I got a scholarship to an all girls school. Then I went to raves and watched thousands of people of all races, all cultures, all stature, come together in a field and dance together," she says. "When I met the other girls, I was pursuing a career as a solo artist, but it suddenly occurred to me that there was something so powerful in the idea of 'we' – when women, or people in general, really support each other."
In 1996, the Spice Girls did an interview with the Spectator, in which Geri and Victoria came across as pro-monarchy, anti-Europe and pro-Tory. "'We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites," Geri said. "Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology — Girl Power."
That Geri could have come out of the collective enlightenment of the rave scene and ended up championing Britain's first female prime minister – who, in 11 years of power, promoted only one woman to cabinet, had no regard for such feminine trivialities as rights to childcare, had to have her arm twisted to introduce breast cancer screening, and claimed that there was "no such thing as society" – felt, at best, ignorant; at worst, a complete betrayal of the sisterhood she so proudly shouted about.
"The Spice Girls were unmanufacturable, we were unmanageable." – Geri Horner
I ask her if she looks back now and cringes at what she said, and she pauses for a long time. "I think using her is a touchy one," she says eventually. "Because obviously she's like Marmite. There's an extreme polarity between people who do or don't like her because of what she did as Prime Minister. But for me, I'm not really judging that – let's put that to one side. For me, it was more about watching a woman where there'd never been a female before – as Prime Minister. That's massive in itself... I wasn't old enough to understand what she was doing or who she was upsetting."
Can you really "put that to one side", though? How can you judge a politician separately from their policies? "I think whenever there's the first of anything – be it Obama as the first black president, and now there might possibly be even the first female president, it's always change," she says. "When you're in a boys club and you're the only female, to stand your ground, it's not that easy in any walk of life."
In many ways, the Spice Girls had much more in common with Blair than they did with Thatcher. The academic backbone of Blairism (and, in the US, Clintonism) was an ideology known as the "Third Way", which aimed to marry socialism and neoliberalism. In essence: you could get rich, as long as you were paying enough taxes to help out those who weren't rich. It was a similar thread to Girl Power's mantra of individualism and self-emancipation matched with sisterhood and friendship. Take the Spice World movie, in which the group's best friend gets pregnant by a boy who left her as soon as he saw the double line on the pregnancy test. The girls are supposed to be playing the biggest gig of their lives; instead, they're in the hospital helping her give birth.
Feminist politics was also going through a rebrand in the 1990s, which Girl Power was integral to. "When I was growing up, I got the feeling that the feminist movement was so extreme to the left that it wasn't something I could connect with, so I didn't understand what it truly meant," says Geri. Girl Power was something that could "speak to everybody" – that was "palatable, that could be translated".§
Outside of the pop charts, the Spice Girls' catch-all repackaging of the feminist momentum that had been building not only in Riot Grrrl, but in the British alternative rock scene, was seen as a retrograde step.
"The 1990s was the first time alternative female voices had broken into the mainstream. All of a sudden, women like me were on the front cover of magazines," says Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, whose single "Stupid Girl" – a scathing attack on the depoliticisation and sexualisation of women in the pop world – was a huge hit in 1995. "All these different types of alternative voices from a female perspective were being aired. And it wasn't just the 'one outrageous punk rocker'. Instead, we were hearing from people like Fiona Apple, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Gwen Stefani, Elastica, Hole, the Breeders... It felt like, finally, here are all the women who are not playing by the traditional rules that have been set for women, and we're winning, and that felt exciting."
But the Spice Girls had won over the so-called alternative press, too. In 1997, NME put the band on the cover. "The NME are here and even they think we're fucking credible," Mel B shouts to a room full of journalists in the feature. "And the thing is, we do," the magazine retorted. "We really do."
"I always hated the term Girl Power," Shirley says. "At the time, I found the Spice Girls abhorrent." That said, she openly admits that she wasn't exactly the target audience for them: "I was 30 when they came out, I guess... [But] I felt they were written for – and controlled by – men, who had come up with a marketing slogan and put these girls together. It was pretending to be women taking control, but none of them took control – they weren't writing, they weren't producing, they weren't playing... I found it a sham."
Suggest to Geri that Girl Power was a construct of record labels and marketing companies, and she gets visibly riled. "That's absolutely laughable," she says. "We were unmanufacturable, we were unmanageable."§
The Spice Girls were, technically, built by a management company in 1994, after a round of auditions. But they were aggressively ambitious. "[Geri] knew exactly what she wanted and how it was all going to look, probably even more so than I did at the time," their original manager Chris Herbert has said. In 1995, the band broke into Chris' office, stole the master recordings of their songs and did a runner in Geri's car. Geri became the band's manager for a while. Later, in 1998 – at the peak of their career – they sacked their second manager, Simon Fuller. It was a move far more conniving and savvy than you'd expect from the "Pop Tarts" (as one Rolling Stone cover put it) they'd been painted as.
Fuller had definitely helped the Spice Girls get rich. As the journalist David Sinclair points out in his book on the band, by 1997, Fuller had signed them deals with Pepsi, Walkers crisps, Impulse body spray and Playstation, and licensed their image for any piece of merchandise you can imagine – from dolls to bed linen and BT phone cards. "A lot of money was made, but my thinking was, 'If we can get Pepsi to spend $40 million basically running what was a commercial for my group, then Hallelujah!" Fuller said.
"The Spice Girls were abhorrent... It was pretending to be women taking control, but none of them took control – they weren't writing, they weren't producing, they weren't playing... I found it a sham." – Shirley Manson.
For the Riot Grrrls who had conceived Girl Power, that a movement which campaigned on hard issues like rape and sexual violence had been co-opted for profit was devastating. Perhaps nothing sums it up better than the song "#1 Must Have" by Sleater Kinney – whose singer Corin Tucker's previous band Heavens to Betsy were part of the Riot Grrrl movement. "They took our ideas to their marketing stars / Now I'm spending all my days at girlpower.com / Trying to buy back a little piece of me," she sings.
"I was exactly the target demographic for the Spice Girls when they came out," says Lauren Mayberry, lead singer and songwriter in the band Chvrches. "It's strange, now I'm an adult, to see how something that, on one level, could be really empowering and exciting for young girls was kind of all about selling shit."
"We were 90s girls who'd been brought up by that influence of money and productivity," says Geri when I ask her if they really needed that much merchandise. Earlier in the interview, I quote her a line from the Girl Power Spice Girls book, in which they claim, "Feminism needs a kick up the arse." She says she can't remember it. There was so much stuff, so many products, it was impossible to keep tabs of it all.
I imagine it would have been a very different thing interviewing Geri back in the 1990s. More braggadocio, less enlightened therapy speak – "I think that education and a spiritual kindness is important," she says; "[Girl Power] was a mixture of altruism and materialism." Her politics at least seem to have changed over the years. In 2001, she came out in support of Labour.
She talks about work after the Spice Girls, where she become a goodwill ambassador for the UN promoting women's reproductive rights. "When you educate girls, you help population control, you help the economy, you help people's health, everything starts to thrive," she says.
In that sense, Geri was ahead of her time. We now live in a golden age of celebrity altruism. And women's liberation is the latest cause, championed by the world's biggest pop stars – Beyonce and Taylor Swift. Pussy Riot, a niche feminist art collective that at one time would have been assigned the kind of witches coven status of Riot Grrrl, became a global cause célèbre. Feminism is sold back to us in advertising campaigns and sent down catwalks with Chanel models, Bikini Kill's iconography has been ripped off on the high street. Even Barbie is in on it. But the core issue that Girl Power raised – if feminism can withstand going mainstream without its message being watered down – has never been more relevant.
"Whenever people ask me how I discovered feminist ideas, I wish I had more profound stories to tell them," says Lauren Mayberry. "But most of the stuff I picked up on was through pop culture." Lauren is now a vehemently outspoken activist against sexism in the music industry, and runs a Riot Grrrl-inspired club night and fanzine. "Taking feminism out of books and putting it into real life, and into pop culture, is really important," she says. "We spend a lot of time fighting between ourselves when we should be looking outwards and sending the fight that way."
"It's strange, now I'm an adult, to see how something that on one level could be really empowering and exciting for young girls was kind of all about selling shit." – Lauren Mayberry.
I'd be lying if I said I remained a diehard Spice Girls fan. By the time I was 12, I thought Baby Spice was just lame infantilisation. I later got into PJ Harvey and Hole and Elastica – whose singer Justine Frischmann's lyrics about fucking boys in cars ("Every shining bonnet makes me think of my back on it") felt way more emancipatory than the "shouting is fun!" sloganeering of the Spice Girls.
But I never forgot about Girl Power. Critiques of Spice Girls are valid and necessary, but what they so often miss is a very simple fact: that Girl Power was never intended to be an academic feminist perspective; it was never meant to promote a poststructuralist vision of a utopian future where male hegemony was overthrown. It was pop music made for little girls to inspire them to be confident and believe in their abilities and support their friends. It was shallow, easy to understand and very basic. And that was exactly the point.
Geri gets up to leave for her next job – a photoshoot for a broadsheet. I tell her that I like her Instagram account. Mostly, I appreciate the baking pictures. I genuinely find it inspiring that a woman who has suffered for a large part of her life with bulimia can find joy in food again. She was a late adopter to Instagram, she says. "People are so airbrushed and perfect. I don't really understand it all. I just try and keep mine real, you know?" But then, she says, "I guess it's a different generation, isn't it?"
I ask her what she thinks the real legacy of Girl Power has been. "There were braver voices before the Spice Girls and there were braver voices after us," she says. "I hear other artists saying, 'I listened to your music and I listened to your message and it meant something to me,' and it makes me feel very proud. But it's not just artists. It's the woman with her gloves deep in the kitchen sink going, 'Actually, your music helped me get through something and made me take charge of my life.' That's what really matters."
And as corny as it sounds, she's got a point.
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