Girl power was the freedom to make a scene, make no sense, join together and make something irresistible, spectacular, unproductive, joyful, and to radically claim one another.
Tell me what you want / What you really, really want. / I’ll tell you what I want / What I really, really want.Spice
would come and go, girl-friendship was forever.
In a weird way, and controversially counter to the popular critique at the time, the Spice Girls seemed to offer an alliance with the music coming out of the Riot Grrrl movement, which was happening at the same time just a few miles from where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. (I recognize that the Spice Girls were feeding the beast of capital, and that they had all but commodified Kathleen Hanna’s slogan, but I’ll get to that later.) Like Bikini Kill, the allure of the Spice Girls’ music did not rely on technical mastery, but something more anarchic and improvised; their deliberately, gleefully exaggerated wardrobes and personas borrowed more from a shared understanding of drag than a simple pop or punk aesthetic tradition; even when some of their songs seemed to address an asshole guy, he was only a straw-man, a blank face, an abstraction, highlighted by the fact that each girl traded off singing, line by line. In that way, it was as though they were really addressing each other, storytelling and complaining, laughing, collectively barred against the nag of patriarchy, (to borrow a phrase from Kathleen Hanna on the production ethic behind Julie Ruin) girl to girl, window to window, bedroom to bedroom.
My obsession with the Spice Girls brought me through a difficult time, a period of confusion and transition which, at eight-years-old, I couldn’t name. Both my parents had remarried and my little sister was born. I played house, solo, on the stage of my pink wall-to-wall carpet, with little toys of different species: bears, babies, my Mel B Barbie, all living together harmoniously in a shoebox, enjoying furniture from mismatched dollhouse universes. I accompanied my mother to weekly Safeway grocery shopping trips with bated breath, literally praying, heart pounding as I approached the magazine racks, that a new issue of Tiger Beat or Bop or Teen would be stocked. I would become lightheaded when I’d spot new ones. I couldn’t wait to get home, tear out all the Spice Girls centerfolds, and tape them to my bedroom walls, which were complete altars to the Girls.
At night, I’d put on my wiry plastic headphones plugged into my black boom box with the anti-skip technology, and disappear into the Girls’ crooning as I fell asleep. I’d listen to “Viva Forever,” their most wistful ballad, and dream of my eventual arrival into adulthood and of someday being known: In some imagined future, they were my friends, my fawning aunties, and sidekicks. One day they would find me. I would know the sign, one hand on my hip and the other holding up two fingers in a V: girl power, I’d say in my best British accent.
With or without them I was determined to someday be a pop star. I would bring my friends with me! We would be happy and free together! On some level, the band, or their multi-million-dollar branding empire, knew that this was the kind of fantasy they cultivated in their audience. In their music video for “Mama,” the Girls sit in the center of an intimate black box theater, surrounded by a small crowd of fans, singing an ode to their mothers. The scene in the theater is interspersed with grainy faux-home footage of their fictional childhood together, showing five little girls about our age, each dressed up as the Spice Girl persona she would eventually become. In the footage, the girls run around in a backyard, a basement playroom, and practice singing routines. Interspersed are jump cuts to shots of the Girls’ actual baby pictures, and action shots of their actual mothers—who are also, it’s revealed at the end, sitting in the audience. The combination of real archival materials and the fake home movies allowed us to suspend our disbelief: they’d grown up together. The faux-home footage was them. It was us.
Kelsey, Grace, Diana, and I started our own girl group. We gave ourselves aliases. We practiced our dance moves on that exercise trampoline in the basement. Sometimes, Diana and I would write songs during recess using a rhyming dictionary. We’d pore over its pages on blue beanbags, and then carry it with us out to the blacktop where we sat under the eves of the school building with our composition books. We rhymed “love” with “dove”, “maybe” with “baby,” “one” with “won.” I would record those songs, acapella, or with a new bongo drum I’d gotten for Christmas, onto blank cassette tapes using my boombox, and then I would mail those tapes to the recording studio addresses listed on the backs of Spice Girl albums.
Our mothers thought the Girls were silly at best, and demoralizing at worst. Because, there they were, our mothers, wincing as they came in the front door, exhausted after a full day at work, to the sound of this pop music, and posters of these grown ass women wearing bathing suits and platforms and selling an image of sex, or sex and self-infantilization, to pre-teens. They must have thought, This is not what I was banking on. This was not supposed to be the yield of the revolution. But at 8, 9 and 10 years old, the Spice Girls gave us the first inspiring blueprint of what a girl gang might look like, a feminine bacchanal that disrupted the usual avenues of power—at a time when I knew nothing about feminism, protest or Riot Grrrl. And even though theirs was a plastic, pre-packaged “empowerment”, bought and paid for, it had real lasting power.
At 8, 9 and 10 years old, the Spice Girls gave us the first inspiring blueprint of what a girl gang might look like.
But God bless our Pacific Northwestern earth mamas, young women of the 1970s—it was they who found out about the lip-sync competition at Mall 205 advertised in The Oregonian a year later, and who took it upon themselves to ferry us out to the ‘burbs for no other reason except because they knew we’d have fun. Claire and I waited for hours, dressed up in lamé and sweatpants and jelly sandals, in that lobby to have our numbers called, as one girl after another did her routine. Then Claire went, performing “Wannabe” with an innovative and precisely choreographed dance. When it was my turn, I realized I had no plan. I walked onstage amidst a squealing crowd, told the DJ to spin “Say You’ll Be There,” and winged a high kick, punched the air, making it up as I went, but mouthing every goddamn word like my life depended on it.
For our efforts, Claire and I won tickets to see Spice World: The Movie premiere at a local theater. And that’s when things started to change.
We’d been waiting feverishly for its release for months. This was before we were on the internet. The idea of getting to spend an uninterrupted hour-and-a-half with the live-action visages of the Girls had filled us with an anticipation we had never known.
But the movie was disappointing. It felt flat, boring, and above all: fake. The Spice Girls play themselves, in the days leading up to their biggest performance yet at Albert Hall. In a Hard Days Night-esque string of hijinks, they fight off frantic fans, paparazzi, fretting managers, and even, briefly, an intergalactic plot against Earth. They spend their days riding around on their double-decker tour bus, which, seen from the inside, is a literal mansion, complete with mezzanine and mini bar. Meatloaf is the actual bus driver, at their beck and call. Elton John and Elvis Costello make guest appearances, acting like the Girls’ old friends. They receive Charlie’s Angels-style coded messages from a parody of a boss-man. They go to boot camp and face off with aliens. But their acting was stale and goofy. They didn’t seem in on the joke of their own self-parody—or worse, maybe they were in on the joke, confirming something we had been avoiding: they weren’t real friends at all. When the closing credits rolled up, our fantasy haze ended. We were beginning to see the Spice Girls not as we thought of them, as five best friends having the time of their lives, but as a commercial construction. The film—its “flashback” scenes to their “college days” before they were famous, when they were just a bunch of girls practicing their routines after hours in a local coffee shop—highlighted the artificiality of the whole thing. We were getting older. We could do the math to know now that that so-called archival footage of their girlhoods in the “Mama” video was an artful construct, which now felt more like a hoax.
They didn’t seem in on the joke of their own self-parody—or worse, maybe they were in on the joke, confirming something we had been avoiding: they weren’t real friends at all.
There was something deeply disappointing about this. The Spice Girls had presented a fantasy expression of girlhood friendships, an illusion of what friendship in adulthood could be, and what grownup life might look like: a continuous bacchanalia of adventure, communion, pleasure, and creativity. If it wasn’t real, then the things they seemed to promise were nullified. This rude awakening coincided for us with the end of elementary school, the advent of puberty, and that long brutal period when the bright, sparkly spirits of little girls enter into the long, crushing battle with patriarchy, from which some never recover.
If she’s lucky, though, as a girl gets older, she will find a wealth of other sources for much, much more enduring hopes and ideals. And through those things she’ll learn plenty about the shadow side of girl power, and it will seem so obvious by then: Girl power was a corporate slogan with no real political content. Girl power hijacked and sanitized the actual radical sentiments of the Second Wave (as well as the title of a zine by Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail). Girl power gave the fan a suite of consumer goods to cement her “activism,” in which buying proved her allegiance to the cause—ensnaring a generation of consumers who would believe that their consumption was an act of civic engagement. Girl power fueled the production of endless plastic merch that slowly poisoned the earth and very likely extracted child labor. The Spice Girls, then, were just early harbingers of this neoliberal feminist legacy—a shallow tautology: If you think you’re a feminist, then everything you do (or buy) is feminist.
And their buying power was unparalleled. In the brief span of their peak—from 1994 to 1998—the Spice Girls achieved commercial success that rivaled, at times, even the Beatles. With the sales of their first two albums alone they became the top-selling all-female group in history, by upwards of 10 million. They had more corporate partnerships than any other band before them, with companies like Mattel, Polaroid, Pepsi, and Playstation. But even they, as their fame was waning, began to interrogate this. In the video for “Spice Up Your Life” they zoom around a dystopian urban landscape in a hovercraft, passing by the dregs of glitchy LED billboards projecting fake products using their likeness as a point of sale, their faces illuminated against the smoky, toxic darkness.
During that final summer of Spice Girl love, I got to see them in concert at the Rose Garden Arena. It should have felt like the apotheosis of all those years of devotion, but things had already begun to change. Geri had left the band. Only four of the Girls would be performing. The Spice Girls were coming to an end. There’s a photo of Claire and me on her parents’ front lawn right beforehand: we’re decked out in leopard-print scarves and foam platform sandals and high ponytails, flashing the Girl Power sign. We look ecstatic. But toward the end of the concert, while they performed the doleful “Viva Forever,” Claire turned to me sobbing. “But it won’t be forever,” she said, tears streaming down her nine-year-old face. “Nothing is forever!”
I turned ten at the end of that summer. For my birthday party, my stepfather designed a pin-the-platform-shoe-on-the-Spice-Girl birthday party game, using the Spice World poster that I was gifted at the theater door. And then I stopped listening to them.
All these years later, though, while I watch all those YouTube music videos in my bedroom, and I find myself mourning the type of hope that the Spice Girls had given me as a child, a vein of pleasure burst inside of me as “Say You’ll Be There” breaks from its panorama of the desert and drops into its of neo-funk refrain. I’m giving you everything / all that joy can bring / this I swear. The Girls are introduced, frame-by-frame, in a sort of kung-fu meets Barbarella tribute: five sci-fi protagonists in black pleather, out in the salt-flats, doing surveillance with something that looks like a View-Finder. They generate an air of menace as they play target practice with razor blade Frisbees. They’re dancing, but not in unison. There’s no apparent choreography at all—they’re each just doing their own moves while they take turns standing center and singing a line. It’s weird. One after another, curious men roll by in pick-ups and vans, only to be bound and taunted, even tortured, tied to tent stakes and the hoods their cars, which the Girls steal, tearing into the distance, whooping and hollering with their fists out the window.
I let the next video play, and the next. They are so much weirder and more avant-garde than I remember. In “2 Becomes 1” they’re supposedly addressing some male love-interest, though men are entirely absent from this greenscreen cityscape that the Girls are wandering around, moodily, in winter jackets. They talk about safe sex. Androgynous actors play couples in various states of repose. Then there’s the cinematic-fantasies of “Too Much”: Baby’s in a Teen Witch-style bedroom dream; Scary’s in a post-apocalyptic military zone strapped with bullet vests, standing on a tank; Posh is Catwoman; Sporty stars in a kung-fu film and does a kick; Ginger, Marilyn Monroe-like, falls into the arms of a line of sailors. And then in “Stop” they’re traipsing around a dreary, muddy working-class London suburb, dancing, laughing, disrupting livestock auctions and blasting into dark pubs, while old men leer on. You take an inch /I run a mile / Can’t win, you’re always right behind me. The lyrics make it seem like they’re addressing a pushy young man, but the video, with its totems of the slog and grime of working-class life, is more like an indictment of English aristocracy.
I’m loving these videos so much. My entire childhood is taking on new meaning, minute by minute. I remember something, suddenly, about Spice World: The Movie which I’d completely forgotten, and which seems so touching now: There’s a sixth friend, Nicola, who’s not in the band, and who has become alienated by her friends’ sudden fame. Nicola has recently discovered that she’s pregnant. Her boyfriend has left her. Amidst all the hobnobbing and hijinks, the weight and chaos of celebrity drives a wedge between the group, and the girls get into a big fight. But in the third act, they make-up, reunite, take Nicola out for a night of dancing, during which she goes into early labor. Then the six of them (and Meatloaf) race across London in their double-decker bus to get her to the hospital in the nick of time where she gives birth to a baby girl. Geri, Ginger Spice, sitting in the delivery room, dries her eyes and chokes up: “Now, that’s girl power.”
After I exhaust the YouTube reel, I come across another set of videos. It’s a series of outtakes from the set of a Polaroid SpiceCam commercial shoot the Girls did in 1998.
One of the art directors and the copywriter are sitting in an alcove, off-stage, and have just demanded “more cleavage and midriff.” Mel B., Scary Spice, rushes off camera toward them:
“Who said that? . . . Why would you ask that?”
“It’s every man’s fantasy,” he says.
“Well, you can fuck right off.”
Ginger jumps in and brandishes a hat. “You chauvinistic pig.”
Posh jogs up to join them, and grabs the sunglasses off the offending man’s head and turns to the crowd and says, “Anybody want some shades . . . really nice shades?” Then she points an accusing finger at another crew member and reports to Ginger: “He just said, ‘spank them,’” to which Ginger squints, and waves the big fedora again at the group of men behind them: “Oh, shut up.”
The shoot has gone awry. The Girls have fallen out of formation, and infiltrated the crew, running around and knocking shit over. They are all between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four, younger than I am now.
I’ve learned, in recent years, that while the girls were in fact rounded up by a talent agency in 1994, their producermoved them into a three-bedroom flat for a whole year so they could work on their music and their shtick, and through this period they actually did become real friends. In fact, at the end of that year, unhappy with the direction their manager was pushing them, they eluded signing a contract and instead banded together andstole the master recordings—literally, by breaking and entering in the dead of night. And then they shopped around for new producers, who they could collaborate with. I also reada short retrospective in The Guardian, where Mel B. reflects on their years together, the interviewer noting that “she gets quite emotional talking about the band, and their sense of camaraderie.” In the piece, Mel B says, “I found my group of people that I actually fit in, who don’t judge or go, ‘What are you doing that for?’”
Unhappy with the direction their manager was pushing them, they eluded signing a contract and instead banded together and stole the master recordings—literally, by breaking and entering in the dead of night.
In 1996, at the height of their fame, the Girls visited South Africa with the Royal Family. In Johannesburg, they posed for press pictures with Nelson Mandela. Dozens of different shots emerge on a cursory image search: them and Mandela, yukking it up, and in each one he is grinning, laughing, with a little kid’s glee. That day he is quoted, by the BBC, as saying about the Girls, “These are my heroes!”
This is totally outrageous. Mandela is five years out of a twenty-seven-year political prison sentence. He is two years into his presidency. Apartheid has basically just ended. “These are my heroes!” How did Mandela say it? Ironically? Sincerely? It’s such a wildly inappropriate declaration that it must be genuine, coming from that child within him. It speaks to something they were genuinely moving inside of us. “These are my heroes!” These five English babes in platform shoes, symbolic of the imperial power which had pillaged his country and left him to rot in prison. Imagine that. “These are my heroes!” This squad of personas, animated across posters and feature-length films, singing simple songs, real girlfriends by unreal means, having the time of their lives.
If Nelson Mandela said it, then none of us little girls were misguided in saying it, too, even knowing what we know now. Maybe it’s that electric feeling of validation that’s leaving me so weepy on this night, twenty-some-years later, watching YouTube. Or maybe it’s because I’m tired and feeling a grief too unfocused to explain. What social frontiers did us children of the middle-90s find ourselves on in those years, the horrific edges of which would not become clear until almost a generation later? Neither we nor the Spice Girls had language for whiteness, exploitation, empire, ecological collapse that is directly connected to a misogyny which knows no bounds. Girl power was beyond all of us, playing out through the Spice Girls like a holy spirit: They took over the room, commanded everyone’s attention, wrested control of the narrative, made light of the powerbrokers and patriarchs around them—things that were not actually happening in real life. Regardless, for their audience of elementary school-aged girls, the message was clear: The king is a clown who has everything to lose. You are free. You can do whatever you want. We may have been disappointed to find out that none of that was exactly true, but it modeled a kind of ethic which is still bearing on our lives today—even if they were just making the best of late-stage capitalism. Still, what if we all believed it? That liberation was inevitable, natural, a birthright? If girl power was dead upon arrival, there is still time that it might live.
Adrian Shirk is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, a hybrid-memoir exploring the lives of American women prophets and mystics, named an NPR ‘Best Book’ of 2017. She's currently working on a manuscript about utopian communities. Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon, and has since lived in New York and Wyoming. She's a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, among others. Currently, she teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA Creative Writing Program, and lives on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers with her husband Sweeney and Quentin the cat.