Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Spice Girls and Girl Power...empowering for young women?

Fiona, vocalist, Vatican Shotgun Scare  listen here

They were controlled by a svengali male, a band manufactured by men to get kids to part with their pocket money – which boils down to the exploitation of little girls to make money for men. If they'd been managed by a woman, that might have been more interesting. But I struggle with the way women are represented on MTV, either as performers or in videos - even if a song has a positive female message, sometimes its performed by someone dancing about in their pants! The way women are represented in these forms of media has to change, and I’m sure it will, if people keep complaining about it! But it seems to have gone the other way in recent years, we seem to be going backwards in that respect – everyone should see the film 'Miss Representation'!. [What would help is]..more encouragement for young women to take up instruments, and not just as an adornment, or as backing singers. But to keep up with the boys you have to be quite ballsy...and a lot of women are brought up to be passive, and I think that is reflected in music.. I haven’t seen any women on the X Factor shouting 'I wanna play bass', its all big ballads and stuff. But there is space for it, and more women are coming forward now. I guess if more women were involved in producing, and setting up labels... that will probably happen more in the future – there's more online courses and stuff now.

 Jane, drummer, Doll Fight!  website here
That’s an interesting and knotty question! It’s something Marisa Meltzer addresses in her book Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music. It’s also something I considered in a presentation about the history of all-girl bands I made for the campers at Girls Rock Vermont 2011.  Meltzer says, if I remember correctly, that the Spice Girls had some empowering influence simply because they had a huge mainstream audience – when they shouted “girl power!”, they were heard by more people than perhaps will ever listen to, say, (influential Bikini Kill album) 'Revolution Girl Style Now'. The Spice Girls had a mass-appeal, pro-female message, no matter how shallow or profit-driven it may have been. Myself, as a punk musician, I don’t think that kind of manufactured, commercially driven and male-managed “girl band” would ever be allowed to bring a strong, modern and relevant feminist message to a mass audience. They’re co-opting and exploiting the female desire for empowerment through music -- girls were meant to buy their girl power in the form of Spice merch, after all. Sleater-Kinney sang back in 2000: “they took our ideas to their marketing stars / now I’m spending all my days at trying to buy back a little piece of me.” For me, that sums it up. Also, the identities which were manufactured for the individual women of the Spice Girls reinforced a lot of stereotypes about women. Firstly, women were infantilised as “girls”. Secondly, the different “flavours” or “models” of Spice Girl on offer were stereotypical and limiting. This only really matters because young girls were asked “which Spice Girl are you” –effectively pressuring girls to define their identity according to hair colour, perceived social class, or athleticism. The “Baby Spice” character reinforced female infantilism and passivity; the only woman of colour in the band was designated as “Scary”. To me, that’s pretty far from empowerment. Where was empowerment – and role models -- for young women in the form of Drummer Spice? Guitar Spice? Bass Spice?  Hey, they were playing in Sleater-Kinney! And setting up the global network of girls’ rock camps. To my mind, that’s where the real empowerment through music is at.

Sarah, vocalist/guitarist, The Fnords   website here
I think that the Spice Girls occured at the tail end of an upswing in feminist consciousness (or third wave feminism). This was after Riot Grrrl affected a swathe of teenage girls with an interest in the more 'alternative' end of popular culture. The whole 'Girl Power' thing was a slick bit of marketing for what was essentially a bland pop group with a rather tenuous grasp of feminist politics, and a penchant for style over content. As the 'Girl Power' sloganeering metamorphosed into the 'Ladette' movement, gender equality was used as an excuse for women to exploit themselves and their gender. At the time, it felt like Girl Power was the power to flash your tits in public after an evening of binge drinking. Which personally didn't strike me as particularly liberating. I was brought up to believe in gender equality - that was my notion of feminism. And the subsequent bleating of 'men are bastards' wasn't my experience either. I don't think that adolescent and pre-teen girls during the mid-1990s needed the permission of a bunch of half-arsed figureheads to tell them that it was cool to hang around with their female friends and that boyfriends weren't the be-all-and-end-all - I'm pretty sure that they'd figured it out for themselves. At the end of the day it was part of the death knell of notions of feminism in the popular media.

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