At my friend’s wedding on Saturday, after the official last song of the night – she and her new husband love-drunk in the centre of the dance floor, while the guests all swayed in a circle around them – the DJ dropped Wannabe. Instant, animal frenzy. A new circle formed, six of us clutching the bride in a rugby scrum, yelling the lyrics into each other’s hair with the kind of special urgency you only feel when you’re going barefoot in a wine puddle with the women you love most in the world. It was daft and it was perfect. It felt like a prologue and an epilogue at the same time. If you wanna be her husband, you’ve gotta get with her friends.
It was fitting for so many reasons, not least because zig-a-zig-ah is back on the agenda now and nobody’s sure how to feel about it.
Last week, after the reunion tour announcement that would see upwards of 700,000 fans scrabbling for tickets, the Spice Girls posed the question themselves on Instagram Stories: “What does ‘girl power’ mean to you?”
The responses – or at least, the responses they shared – were as cheerful and vague as you might expect. “Equality and loving each other. Bringing each other up, not down!” “Women feeling empowered and able to make decisions that affect their lives.” “Being strong, staying positive and keeping your friends close.” “Women standing together pushing each other up and forward to our goals!” All laudable sentiments, if not exactly a three-point for closing the gender pay gap.
The Girls themselves might claim to be about “people power” now (I like to think this was a clumsy stab at intersectionality, though it veered dangerously close to “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist!” for woke palates), but their actions – releasing a T-shirt with Comic Relief’s Gender Justice Power Up programme to raise money for vital, underfunded women and girl-led organisations; reeling off stats about domestic violence on prime time ITV – aren’t fooling anyone. Female empowerment is still central to their philosophy, and the conversation is far from over. We’re not prepared to let girl power go.
But still, it’s a slippery concept to get a handle on. The phrase remains “one of the most divisive terms in modern feminist history", as journalist Jenny Stevens declared two years ago in a Vice interview with Geri Horner (née Halliwell). “Depending on who you read, it's either the saviour of modern feminism or its death knell.”
Pop-culture nerds will be familiar with the history. Originally a term born out of the riot grrrl scene of the early 1990s, Girl Power was the name of a feminist fanzine by Bikini Kill – chosen, singer Kathleen Hanna has said, because they were looking for “what word just felt totally wrong next to girl”. It was then adopted by British pop punk duo Shampoo, who in turn inspired Geri to co-opt it as the Spice Girls’ mantra. We all know the rest. What began as a wry, anarchic statement became one of the most marketable slogans of the decade. It was what we yelled at boys in the playground and scribbled on our pencil tins. Girl power meant putting your friends before romance, celebrating your individuality, championing female strength wherever you found it and not being afraid to tell the world what you really, really wanted.
The phrase lay low for a while after the Spices’ star faded, becoming as quaintly unfashionable as boot-cut trousers and flicking V fingers in selfies. Twenty-first-century activism favoured punchier language. #EverydaySexism. #Hollaback. Slut walk. All our energy went into putting the word “feminism” itself back on the table, convincing women that they didn’t need to be afraid of it, and men that they bloody well should be.
And, besides, we were grown-ups now. Calling us “girls” was just more sugar-coated misogyny, wasn’t it? Infantilising. Trivialising. Hollow.
“It was the Spice Girls who messed it all up,” Caitlin Moran told The Guardian in 2011, decyring “the appropriating of the phrase ‘girl power’, which at that point overrode any notion of feminism, and which was a phrase that meant absolutely nothing apart from being friends with your girlfriends. Is that it?”
“Is that it?” tends to be the dominant critique of girl power. That it’s all bubblegum and lollipops, when what we’re hungry for is something like a nourishing lentil stew. And Moran has a point – if being a feminist is as easy as a group hug, then what impetus is there to keep on fighting? We can’t serve feminism with the grisly parts picked out. A slogan tee made by underpaid women and sold to over-privileged ones is not a sufficient catalyst for change.
But I don’t think the phrase meant nothing. While girl power as the Spice Girls sold it to us may have been sweet, peppy and palatable (kids don’t want lentil stew, after all, and nor do plenty of adults for that matter), it was an energy boost. It got us thinking, and yelling, and questioning what impact our gender might have on our lives. It was joyful, and we underestimate the importance of that.
This idea, of girl power as a spoonful of sugar to help the doctrine go down, is one that came up time and again as I was writing my book, What Would The Spice Girls Do?. As one interviewee put it: “I guess ‘girl power’ was a precursor of feminism ‘proper’ for me. If girl power helped to instil the basic understanding that being a girl was a Good Thing, then becoming a feminist was realising that not everyone thought, like me, that being a girl was a Good Thing, and we had to fight for equality.”
And while we can’t claim the Spice Girls were bastions of diversity, their manifesto was inclusive in its own way. It wasn’t academic or elitist. They didn’t nitpick. Exhibit any kind of autonomous attitude and you were automatically in the gang. In today’s hypercritical, hot-take landscape, that might be a welcome change.
Anyway, fashion loves a comeback. Eventually the flares and the peace signs resurfaced, and so did the “girlsgirlsgirls” sloganeering. Search #girlpower on Instagram today and you get a disheartening flurry of #fitspo images (as I speak, the top one is a woman showcasing her flat stomach 40 days postpartum), but there are plenty of metaphorical flexed muscles, too. Superheroes, politicians, sports stars and squad goals all bear the tag, and so do a million ordinary women in between.
Perhaps it’s illogical, while we grapple with a society that forced us to grow up too young, and now treats us like unqualified interns. I’ve had male bosses several years my junior call me a “girl” and, at 30, it feels offensive and dismissive all at once. It undermines everything I know and everything I’m capable of. Yet we still use “girls” as a collective noun – the gals, the gurrls, These Girls [heart emojis] – and on the high street, girlhood is a goldmine once more. “Support your local girl gang!” we’re ordered, by T-shirts and tote bags, though rarely with a suggestion of how. What does “support” even mean, beyond an Instagram like?
If we’re honest, it means financial and political. What the world’s girls need is systemic, large-scale change and practical, tangible resources. They need free sanitary products, comprehensive sex ed, an end to FGM, and peers who understand what consent means, and no number of sassy typographical phone cases can replace all that.
But “girl” can’t be a pejorative, because where does that leave us? When so many millions of the world’s girls are still quite literally powerless, denied their basic right to education and childhood, sneering at the phrase feels misguided. To us, it might mean little more than high kicks and hair mascara, but in some quarters that pairing of the words “girl” and “power” still feels as radical as it did the day Kathleen Hanna dreamed it up.
In international development we’ve seen a shift towards “girl-centred” design, with charities and initiatives like Girl Up and Girl Effect focusing on empowering girls as a means to lift whole communities out of poverty. Girls should be at the front of the line, says the United Nations, taking charge of their own future. In 2016, it famously remade the Wannabe video with girls from across four continents, to showcase UN global goals including education equality, an end to child marriage and an end to violence against women. It sounds jarring, but it wasn’t. It had many of us weeping at our desks. “This is about modern-day girl power,” explained the film’s director, MJ Delaney. “The Spice Girls were about a group of different women joining together and being stronger through that bond.”
I ask Pippa, 19, a Girlguiding advocate, what girl power means to her. Is it just a throwback for nostalgic relics like me? No, she says. “For many girls, it’s still such an encouraging message and shows them that they can be whoever they want to be. In just two words, it let’s girls know that “power” is something we very much have and can use to positively impact our futures… It doesn’t matter whether that means in sports, in STEM subjects or even activities that we might think of as being stereotypically feminine.”
The stereotypically feminine is a core tenet of girl power and I think that’s why some people struggle. All too often the things loved by young women are dismissed as silly and pointless; they’re lowest-common-denominator culture, ripe for mockery and derision in a way archetypically “male” pursuits – and the obvious one is football, though you could sub in so many cash-saturated, testosterone-soaked industries – are not. Even as we fight not to be reduced to gender norms, we’re also fighting to conform to them, if we choose to, while still being taken seriously. We’re fighting to prove that femininity isn’t a crime, and girlhood not a weakness that has to be downplayed. Just like the Spice Girls taught us.
And while it’s true that girl power is not everything feminism needs to be, not by a long chalk, we need to be careful about shooting it down. If we continue telling women their efforts are not enough, not enough, not enough, we waste valuable time and energy. We tie ourselves up in knots while the patriarchy sails by on calm seas, and we knock women’s confidence even further.
No – instead of “Is that it?”, I’m beginning to think these discussions are best run like the comedy improv exercise: ‘Yes, and?’ Girls should support each other! Yes, and? Girls are strong! Yes, and? Girls can do anything they want to do! Yes, yes, but what do they want to do? And what do they need in order to do it?
“For girls to be empowered, they need to be listened to and know their voices are being heard,” says Pippa, when I ask. Visibility and volume are still as important now as they were in the 1990s. “They need to hear about other amazing girls and women, and what they have achieved, just as much as they hear about powerful men. And they need encouragement and support from their families, friends and teachers to reach their goals and become someone else’s role model.”
That lineage, I think, is why many adult women still buy into girl power. It isn’t just cutesy phrasing; it’s a verbal umbilical cord, linking us to the girls we once were, all the optimism and potential we felt back then. Calling ourselves “girls” feels subversive, playful, knowing, comforting, a thousand things – and not least, it feels like a reclamation of girl culture. That girlishness is still part of us, every frustration and limitation we kicked against in our knock-off Buffalo boots. And so, to stand up in defence of girl power feels like dealing with unfinished business. You come for the girls of today and tomorrow; you’ll have to deal with the girls of yesterday, too.
Girl power’s detractors might believe that progress only comes from a place of discomfort and agitation, but I think we’re allowed to have both. Perhaps when people are feeling buoyed up and receptive, dancing and singing in the safe space of a beloved fandom, it’s a good time to open up that dialogue and push the conversation further. It’s what the Spices are trying to do themselves, I think, in their ramshackle way. And it’s what we could all do with 2018’s girl power revival. Stretch it further, push it harder. Trust it, use it, prove it... and help the girls of today show us how good they are.
What Would The Spice Girls Do? How The Girl Power Generation Grew Up by Lauren Bravo (Transworld Publishers Ltd) is out now