Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger and Posh—five names that captivated, annoyed and incensed a generation. From their beginnings in 1994 to their disbanding towards the end of the decade, the Spice Girls reigned over pop music, enchanting their teenage fans and enraging their critics. The all-female British phenoms preached the gospel of “girl power,” often delivered with a sassy pose and peace sign. The Spice Girls’ take on empowerment was sex-positive and distinctly girly, delivering a new take on feminism for the 1990s.
The Spice Girls’ brand of girl power strayed far from the phrase’s original roots. First coined in an early ‘90s fanzine by riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, “girl power” went mainstream as the Spice Girls’ rallying cry. The punk feminism of the riot grrrls was a world apart from the ultra-commercial Spice Girls—while the riot grrrl movement was extolling do-it-yourself (DIY) culture and political radicalism, the Spice Girls were posing in Pepsi-branded miniskirts and turning “girl power” into a commodity.
Conceived by male entertainment executives to cash in on girl power’s increasing trendiness, the Spice Girls’ vision of girl power was more mainstream, marketable and politically neutral than that of riot grrrl. The Spice Girls’ selling of female friendship in a branded package eschewed the radical politics of riot grrrl, redefining feminism as fun, sweet and accessible to appeal to their teenage market. The group wasn’t interested in alienating men with radical views or cries for equality between the sexes, promoting the idea that women’s sensuality and femininity doesn’t exclude them from gender equity.
But in the ‘90s, a time when young women’s lives were increasingly enmeshed with pop culture, the Spice Girls’ rise as a cultural phenomenon meant that their promotion of female relationships and sex-positive rhetoric was the first exposure much of their young audience had to feminist views.
The Spice Girls were far from the only powerful females in pop culture in the ‘90s – the strong female archetype was seen again and again in the decade’s entertainment, from Xena: Warrior Princess to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s no coincidence that teenage girls were increasingly seen as a powerful, marketable demographic in the ’90s; by 1998, teen spending was estimated at $100 billion a year, and the entertainment industry responded to their increased buying power with protagonists tailor-made for them. Like the Spice Girls, these strong female characters were more interested in promoting the identity of girl power than in the politics of feminism.
However, there’s no doubt that the Spice Girls brought girl power to the forefront of pop culture. Beneath the silly video and “zig-a-zig-ahhs” of the Spice Girls’ smash hit “Wannabe” was a song with a simple, empowering message of friendship: female relationships first, boys later.
For young women, the message that their authentic self matters more than how men perceive them is important, and in their goofy, innocent video, the Spice Girls portrayed that message well.
When the pop group referred to more sexually charged content, they still kept their music girl-positive. Rather than demeaning their subjects or falling into slut-shaming traps, the Spice Girls interspersed their sex-positive lyrics with safe-sex messages and lessons about setting appropriate boundaries.
So were the Spice Girls perfect feminist role models? Definitely not. But while the Spice Girls may have cashed in selling girl power to their highly captive audience, accompanying their sugary sweetness were genuine messages of empowerment, presenting a multi-racial group of friends who adhered to different standards of beauty and valued their female relationships separate from those with men. As it turns out, while the Spice Girls were selling out arenas and starring in movies, they were achieving something more revolutionary than anyone could have expected: taking the concept of girl power and, with a grin and a peace sign, injecting it into mainstream culture.