A couple of days ago, I was caught in what could have become a very dangerous situation when I ran into one of my friends, a big time feminist, while hanging out with another friend who could be defined as the ying to her yang. The first one is for women’s liberation, has never worn make-up (unless you count Vaseline for chapped lips as make-up) and believes in the power of women to take over the world. The second one has just bought the new Pussycat Dolls CD, which she was proudly showing me right before we ran into my other friend.
Uh-oh, was my first thought.
I was expecting fireworks, catalyzed by the presence of the Pussycat Dolls CD, but I was sorely disappointed. Not only that, but the two of them actually hit it off. And trust me, there is nothing odder than seeing a girl wearing no make-up, who doesn’t fix herself up at all and who is wearing baggy clothes act as if she were the closest accomplice of a girl whose every inch is carefully looked over every morning before heading out.
The most interesting part of the conversation revolved around – get this – a comparison of the effect of the Pussycat Dolls versus the Spice Girls on women’s liberation in the 21st Century. While my two friends’ interesting conversation very quickly dissolved into fits of giggles and reminiscing, it did remind me of a great article that I read last year right before the Spice Girls headed on tour
Five years on, Ginger, Sporty, Posh, Baby and Scary are reuniting. That’s a good thing.
JAIME J. WEINMAN | Nov 22, 2007 | 3:05 pm EST
“To be honest, I have no idea why I liked them when I first heard them,” says Manuela Berk, a 16-year-old Spice Girls fan in Holland. “But now, I think it was because they didn’t care what other people think of them. And I could understand what they were saying in their songs.” The Spice Girls are back, which isn’t very surprising, and millions of people are overjoyed to have them back, which is maybe a little bit more surprising. Or maybe not: 10 years after they became famous for trying to pass “zigazaga” off as a word, and five years after they broke up, the Spice Girls may be returning to a world that needs them. (…)
It’s unusual for a novelty group to cause this kind of excitement when it reunites; usually its moment passes after a few years, and it can never be popular again even in a campy or nostalgic way. The Spice Girls are often discussed as a female version of the Village People, the group that did for police uniforms what the Spices did for leather miniskirts. But the Village People became a joke and a relic of the disco era. The Spice Girls have also been compared to the Go-Gos, an ’80s band consisting of five attractive women, who wrote and performed some No. 1 hits. But when the Go-Gos regrouped for tours and albums in the ’90s, they did so badly that the TV cartoon character Duckman (Jason Alexander)quipped that someone was cursed because “he invested in the Go-Gos’ reunion tour.”
By the time of that joke, the Spice Girls were the big new girl group, and no one expected them to hold the public’s attention. Instead, it’s as if nothing has changed since 1996. Which, given the way things have gone in the last 10 years, may be everyone’s fondest dream. Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at the University of Brighton who co-wrote the first academic article on the Spice Girls cult (“I’ll Never Be Your Woman: The Spice Girls and New Flavours of Feminism,” written with Amanda Evans in 1998), told Maclean’s that “for young women, the Spice Girls were simply part of their socialization and taught them how to wear big shoes, wear bright makeup and talk loudly with/about their friends. So for the young women of the time, it’s nostalgia: using pop in a journalistic way to remember another era.”
The Spices have the advantage of the fact that they’ve kept themselves in the news since the group disbanded in mid-2001, whether it was Melanie “Scary” Brown’s paternity suit against Eddie Murphy, or the tabloid-friendly marriage of Victoria “Posh Spice” and David Beckham. “The post-Spice Girls have been tabloid fodder for the last nine years, so they have become much more than singers in a band,” Brabazon notes. “This revival is not only about music, it continues a narrative arc of celebrity through the tabloids.” Even the biggest Spice fans admit that they’re in this for the star power, not the music: Justin Weifeng, a (rare) male Spicenik in Singapore, wrote on his blog (skalikat.blogspot.com): “The girls are not exactly the best singers, but they can sure work the stage!”
That’s not to say that the music was particularly bad, just that there wasn’t much of it. Like many short-lived sensations, the Spice Girls never came up with a hit to match their first single (Wannabe), and they released only two albums as a group, plus one additional album without key member Geri Halliwell. That’s an amount of work that seems small even compared to some of the “boy bands” they were created to compete with. But it wasn’t the music that was most important anyway. Most pop groups are put together to sing songs, but the Spices were manufactured to tell a story and play characters.
Right from the moment they were assembled into a group by super-manager Simon Fuller, the Spice Girls were like actors, playing out a tale of five British girls on the make. Their Seven Dwarf-ish nicknames were originally coined not by the band but by Top of the Pops magazine, and adopted by the group and its management as a way of establishing a personality for each singer. These names, and the characters they played, were so much a part of the Spice Girls’ appeal that there were fights over who actually created the names, and therefore the Spice Girls; last month, journalist Sonia Poulton took to the pages of London’s Daily Mail to claim that the nickname thing was her idea and that “as the Spice Girls’ fame soared, I was upset that my contribution wasn’t acknowledged.” The music, even the clothes, were secondary; what mattered was that girls could pick out their favourite characters and follow the story. The reason their 1997 movie, Spice World, flopped was that it didn’t have an original story nearly as entertaining as the one the Spices acted out every time they were on stage.
That story was summed up in two ubiquitous words: “Girl Power.” The Spice Girls didn’t invent the term “Girl Power,” but they figured out how to exploit it. By 1996, “feminist” had become a dirty word, but “Girl Power” meant something else, a celebration of the girly, sex-kittenish qualities that once held women back. The Spice Girls taught young and teenage girls that they could wear short skirts, apply lots of makeup, and still think of themselves as strong and independent. As Scary Spice told Entertainment Weekly: “You can wear your Wonderbra, you can wear your mascara, but you’ve got a bit of intelligence.” Or as a Spice Girls hate site, Spice Girl Dumping Ground, translated it, Girl Power “consists of clothing only 20 per cent or so of one’s body, and shaking one’s assets (or liabilities, if you prefer) at cameras, camcorders, people, and so on.”
But the Spice Girls were lucky enough to come along at a time when everyone was starting to re-evaluate the possibility that there might be some power in girliness after all. This was the era when Time put man-hungry, unnaturally skinny TV lawyer Ally McBeal on the cover as the new role model for women in popular culture, and when cable TV brought us the girls of Sex and the City, who were basically a non-musical, slightly worse-dressed version of the Spice Girls.
In that climate, girls could look to the Spices as better-than-average role models: at least, unlike the other women in pop culture, they weren’t whiny, and seemed to wear sexy clothes to make themselves feel good, rather than to land a man. “Their greatest influence,” Brabazon says, “was making it okay for a generation of women to laugh at and love clothes, wearing the gear for themselves, not for others.” Today, when skankiness has become an inescapable part of the culture, the Spice Girls’ good-natured self-confidence seems almost enlightened; at least when they sang “Are you as good as I remember baby? Get it on, Get it on,” they were turning men into sex objects, instead of vice versa.
None of this is enough to create a re-evaluation of the Spice Girls’ music, but it may have created a certain nostalgia for their image. People who accused the Spices of betraying feminism are starting to look at them almost fondly. Patricia Leavy, a professor of gender studies at Stonehill University in Massachusetts, sighed to dose.ca that the current sex-and-glamour group the Pussycat Dolls are “a complete male fantasy of what women’s sexuality is. The Spice Girls at least tried to draw on stereotypes tied to girls’ fantasies.” Brabazon agrees that “for their time, the Spice Girls offered a diverse, happy, cheeky femininity,” and that things have gotten worse, not better, in their absence: “We’ve moved from ‘gotta get with my friends’ to ‘gotta go to the shops with my friends.’ I don’t think that signifies a breakthrough in feminism.”
If you look at where pop music and fashion is today, it makes the complaints about the Spice Girls look pointless. They were accused of being more celebrities than musicians, but now the biggest pop sensation among girls is Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus – an actress who plays a pop star on TV. The backlash against feminism, still new in 1996, is so advanced that Geri “Ginger” Halliwell recently called feminism “bra-burning lesbianism” and nobody much cared. So the fans who go to the reunion tour will not only have the pleasure of seeing their childhood role models, they might come away with the feeling that these are better role models than the ones they have now. Or as Brabazon puts it, what we’ve learned since the Spice Girls broke up and especially since Sept. 11, “is that any time is better than now.”