As the Spice Girls prepare for their reunion tour, a true feminist questions whether their message of “girl power” really had anything to do with women’s empowerment.
Yet again, we have been informed, “the future is female.” Just as fashion cycles out and then in again only decades later as “vintage” or a “throwback,” it seems that line, originated by lesbian feminist photographer Liza Cowan in the 1970s, has, like tiny sunglasses and bootcut jeans, resurfaced. But does it have the same punch this time around?
In 1975, Cowan photographed her thengirlfriend Alix Dobkin wearing a “The Future Is Female” T-shirt for DYKE: A Quarterly, a magazine celebrating lesbian culture. While at the time feminism may have conjured images of labrys-wielding women, intent on removing men from the planet (or, at very least, from their lives), Cowan explained to i-D in 2015 that lesbian feminism in particular wasn’t prescriptive, but “was a way to figure out what it meant to be a woman, without having to bother with men telling you what you could not think or say.” It was about creating femalecentered communities, organizations, businesses, festivals and networks.
Today, though, “the future is female” can’t help but feel less revolutionary than fashionable—a retro trend brought back to life; now with much more style than substance. There are no longer lesbian magazines, women’s bookstores nor female-only festivals. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michfest) ended in 2015, after running annually for almost 40 years. It seems no mere coincidence that Michfest launched the year following Cowan’s photograph was released, and ended at the same time model Cara Delevingne inspired the resurgence of the slogan. The original message has been thrown in history’s dustbin; only the words, void of any substantive political message, remained—up for sale to anyone, regardless of their interest in womancentered culture, or even feminism, for that matter.
The view of this particular version of feminism as being “old-fashioned”—or, alternatively, fashionable, but only so long as celebrities could wear it—was introduced during the third wave, the modern iteration of “feminism” that cropped up in the 1990s. It developed alongside Riot Grrrl music and evolved into a celebration of “female empowerment,” rather than “women’s liberation,” which was the focus of second-wave radical feminism. It said women had nothing in common, as we are all individuals, and that the notion of a “shared womanhood” was regressive. Third-wavers rejected their mothers’ feminism in favor of something a little more fun, more flexible, and definitely sexier. Indeed, The Spice Girls came along with their message of “girl power” at exactly the right time.
In the mid-to-late ’90s, no one was interested in rejecting femininity or sex appeal. The third wave had determined that any choice a woman made—from wearing hot pink stilettos to playing “sexy schoolgirl” for your boyfriend (or, if you were Britney Spears, the world)—was a feminist one. “Empowerment” was whatever anyone felt it was, regardless of the broader impact or message.
While there was nothing inherently wrong with The Spice Girls—they were fairly harmless, as far as pop stars went—their message of “girl power” really had little to do with rejecting the patriarchy. The primary goal was to be sexy and to sell records. The five members were all given stereotyped, simplistic “personalities” (like dolls or characters in a porn movie), in order to make them palatable and easy to digest. The complexities of real womanhood were nowhere to be seen— instead, we got cleavage and midriffs. Their purpose was not so much to empower girls and young women, but to sell a vision of womanhood that pleases men. It was about being looked at more than it was about being powerful.
Today, we have seen a positive throwback to the radical feminism of yesteryear in #MeToo, as women around the world have engaged in a kind of digital consciousness-raising. We have truly never seen anything like this widespread calling-out of men’s sexual violence and harassment. In the ’60s, second-wave feminism took root as a movement on account of women getting together and talking about their shared experiences of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and rape. We have seen women band together again under #MeToo: although I do worry that, this time around, without an understanding of shared womanhood and the connection between sexual violence and objectification, made crystal clear by second-wavers, we may not get the social change we crave—and need. When men are taught to see women as sexy things that exist to be looked at and as one-dimensional caricatures, it should come as no surprise when they disregard our humanity in their sexual and social behaviour.
So, as The Spice Girls gear up for their reunion tour, more than 20 years after Wannabe became the best-selling single by a girl group in the world, I can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic. Not for 1997, driving around with my teenage friends during lunch, singing “I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ah” (followed by Akinyele’s Put it in Your Mouth for vulgar balance), but for a time when “girl power” was in fact about female power—and not the kind you took off at the end of the night in favor of something “a bit more comfortable”.
Meghan Murphy is a writer in Vancouver, BC and founder of the website, Feminist Current.
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