Bikini Kill on stage with Joan Jett (left) at Irving Plaza in New York, July 1994. Image from pinterest.com.au
It’s a term you’ve probably heard time and time again, but perhaps never fully understood the weight of; girl power. It’s been used in popular culture time and time again and now has millions of Instagram posts dedicated to it. But what exactly does it mean? For something seemingly so simple it has raised many questions and even controversies since its inception. Is it just a fun, meaningless catchphrase? Or is it a political statement? Just a marketing tool to sell commercial goods? Or it’s own movement? Has it advanced and shaped feminism for the better? Or has it derailed it?
‘Girl power’ was first used by punk band Bikini Kill and became popular throughout the Riot Grrrl movement and punk culture in the early 1990’s. Looking back on that point in history Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna says “there was this belief that women were already equal. I was worried about feminism.” Enter ‘girl power’. It was quite an extreme statement at the time as the words ‘girl’ and ‘power’ were commonly seen as polar opposites. It was a radical idea that something or someone feminine could also be strong and powerful. Bikini Kill would confront gender issues within the industry through their music and live shows, often calling for ‘girls to the front’ rather than being pushed to the sides in crowds, a sentiment that’s being revived by other bands today, such as Melbourne’s Camp Cope.
‘Girl Power’ then burst onto the mainstream pop scene with the introduction of the Spice Girls. In a world of NSYNC, Hanson and Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls were a unique force to be reckoned with. They were loud, outrageous and totally owned their sexuality. They also embraced their girliness, makeup and fashion. By both rejecting gendered stereotypes and reclaiming femininity, they empowered a whole generation to do the same – to embrace the power of the girl.
The Spice Girls, gif from giphy.com/search/spice-girls
Another common theme in the Spice Girls’ ‘girl power’ brand was female friendship, (que Wannabe “if you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends. Make it last forever; friendship never ends.”). Reflecting on the band, Geri Horner (Ginger Spice) said “When I met the other girls, I was pursuing a career as a solo artist, but it suddenly occurred to me that there was something so powerful in the idea of ‘we’—when women, or people in general, really support one another.” This notion of ‘togetherness’ is a key message in ‘Girl Power’ and a core value of feminism. It’s a simple, yet strong message to be sending to young girls and women; the target audience for pop music. This sentiment is still relevant and powerful today with sustainable development organisation The Global Gals re-creating the Wannabe video clip to promote women’s rights under the slogan of girl power.
Many people have argued that girl power is a watered down version of feminism and that the Spice Girls didn’t really understand the movement at all. But their contribution to its growth cannot be denied. Girl power brought the concept of women’s rights and empowerment into the mainstream at a time when Feminism was lacking momentum and accessibility. People who may never have thought about the inequalities of the sexes were suddenly embracing their girlhood or womanhood and feeling empowered in the process. Even if the Spice Girls (and many bands and brands since them) have benefited tremendously from the profits of girl power, surely self respect, friendship and female empowerment are always things to be encouraged.
Girl power offered a welcoming gateway into a movement that had previously been seen as intimidating and understandably misunderstood. Lauren Mayberry, of Scottish electro synthpop band Chvrches, says “Whenever people ask me how I discovered feminist ideas, I wish I had more profound stories to tell them. But most of the stuff I picked up on was through pop culture.” Mayberry is now an outspoken activist against sexism in the music industry and runs a Riot Grrrl-inspired club night and fanzine.
Mayberry highlights the importance of “taking feminism out of books and putting it into real life, and into pop culture”. Feminism is supposed to be a an all-inclusive, intersectional movement; not just for the elite or academic. Representing it in ways that are relatable and accessible like through art, music and yes even catchphrases, enables more people to be involved and feel connected to a community. This is where the importance of ‘togetherness’ crosses over from fun, bubbly ‘girl power’ into entire feminist movement.
Feminism has an admirable history of self-critique and ability to adapt and evolve. The benefit of this is that it becomes more and more inclusive and productive. It is important to note the difference between a movement that addresses systemic and cultural oppression and privilege, and a phrase that promotes confidence, empowerment and togetherness. But that’s exactly the point; they’re different. Girl power is not pretending to be feminism, it is merely complementing it. Gender equality will only be achieved once all genders are free from discrimination, oppression and harm. This can sometime feel like a pretty distant and daunting goal. So we might as well enjoy a few Spice Girls singalongs and lipstick emojis along the away!
The Spice Girls’ no. 1 hit Wannabe, gif from giphy.com/search/spice-girls
Maddy regularly writes for Rosie, and is passionate about music, history, art and gender equality.