Growing up in the ‘90s, girls were told we could be one of two things — a feminine Barbie-playing princess or a football-playing-sneaker-wearing tomboy. There was no middle ground. We were raised on a strong diet of American influenced pop-culture, which emphasised high school hierarchies, boy-girl relationship drama and the notion of equating ‘happily ever after’ to having a boyfriend.
My first encounter with feminism happened when I was barely 10 years old. Of course, back then, I did not really know what feminism was. All I knew was, in an era of chocolate-voiced boybands pining for unrequited love and begging you to quit playing games with their heart, five bold British girls stormed the radio waves and lodged a place in our hearts forever.
For the uninitiated, this all-girl group was none other than Ginger Spice, Baby Spice, Sporty Spice, Scary Spice and Posh Spice aka. the Spice Girls. Hollering about ‘Girl Power’, the fabulous five stood out from the popular boy-next-door cuteness of boybands with their varsity jackets and choreographed dance moves. The Spice Girls were brash, loud, unapologetic and real.
In other words, they were everything good girls were told not to be, but everything ALL girls should aspire to be.
To some girls, the Spice Girls may have been a passing phase. Something they stacked up with their old yearbooks, Walkmans and sticker earrings to make room for adulthood. But for other girls (like me), the Spice Girls were our very first taste of women asserting their individuality and competing on the same playing field as men.
It may be tough to imagine a pop group holding the same footing as feminist icons like Simone de Beauvoir, Diane Von Furstenberg and Barbara Walters, but the Spice Girls created their own unique impact. They spoke to teenagers in a language we understood — pop music, and in doing so, they unconsciously created a ‘girl power’ movement that would shape the way ‘90s girls grew up to be women.
And could you blame us? We were in dire need of direction.
Most of the television shows and movies we watched as pre-teens followed a similar plot. Magazine-pretty girls competing with other girls for male attention or girls back-stabbing their friends to become ‘popular’. In a silver-screen world where popularity and prettiness were the holy grail to survive the awkward teenage years, we were desperate for someone to tell us there was more to life than glossy, straight hair and a popular boyfriend.
Unintentionally or intentionally, the Spice Girls proved to us that there was more than one-dimension to being cool. That real coolness was not necessarily found in the clothes iron and bath towel we painstakingly used to straighten our hair, but it was something we possessed all along. We could be scary with frizzy hair or never outgrow our baby phase or be too posh to ever crack a smile and yet, if that was who we truly wanted to be, that was ok.
While boybands sang about heartbreak and undying devotion, the Spice Girls released MTV chart-topping hit after hit with significant life lessons on the power of female friendships, mother-daughter relationships and the importance of individualism in romantic relationships. And while other female singers crooned about their perfect men and happy love affairs, the Spice Girls graced us with cheeky lyrics that would still be relevant today – “What part of no don’t you understand? I want a man, not a boy who thinks he can” from ‘TooMuch’, or the evergreen, “If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my friends” from their first hit single, ‘Wannabe’.
You could argue that it is wrong to bestow the title of feminist icons to a pop group that may or not have been carefully constructed industry puppets, but you cannot disagree that in the late ‘90s, we all lived in a Spice World. The Spice Girls may not have been the first to think of the idea, ‘Girl Power’ but they definitely brought it into the limelight. And because of this, young girls everywhere understood the power of female friendships and learnt that it was ok to be different or to ask for what they really wanted.
Even now, almost two decades after we first entered Spice World, almost 16 years since the group split up and about roughly the same time since we swapped our platform heels and mini dresses for stilettos and work-appropriate attire, you can still spot the girls (now women) who were once bitten by the Spice bug.
We haven’t outgrown girl power. You will still find us requesting ‘Wannabe’ at karaoke parties. We know how to ask for what we want. And what we really, really, really want is to zigazig ah.
Article by Suganya Lakshmi