Girl Power!: The Spice Girls and Feminism.

 

Broadly speaking a feminist is a person that embraces the fact that all women regardless of sexual identity, religion, race, and socio- economic backgrounds have the unequivocal right to equality respect and human decency. It is an entirely rational idea that would be natural in an ideal world.  But because we don’t live in an ideal world, it is an idea that is not without its politics and its detractors. Thanks to the internet and social media, everyone has a soap box to stand on to voice their opinions, and for the last year or so feminism has been the hot button topic, a discussion which has been encouraged via celebrities.

Historically feminism and feminists have had an uneasy relationship with popular culture.  So it is perhaps paradoxical that a bevy of celebrities including- Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lawrence and Lena Dunham- have labelled themselves as feminists under the full glare of the media. Emma Watson took it a step further and delivered her speech ‘He for She’ at the U.N. While it was rousing and well-intended Watson wasn’t saying anything that feminists hadn’t been saying for the last forty years. But people sat up and took notice. That we need celebrity endorsements to make the world a fairer place has irked some of the more seasoned feminists. While the efforts of the likes of Beyoncé and Watson should be applauded it doesn’t mean that feminism begins and ends with them or any these high profile people.  Rather, they should be seen as a gateway to feminism rather than being the corporeal embodiment of the movement.

But this isn’t a recent phenomenon. For myself and millions of other twenty-somethings around the world, the Spice Girls were our gateway, thanks to their message of ‘Girl Power.’ It was a slogan appropriated from the Riot Grrrl punk movement and bands such as Bikini Kill in the early 90s. Grrrl Power as it was known in those circles was a rallying cry for third wave feminist principles- namely solidarity, empowerment and acceptance of diversity within feminist and feminine expression. So the Spice Girls were a world away from the gritty DIY culture where ‘Girl Power’ was first uttered.  They were manufactured courtesy of a newspaper ad, and made $800 million in endorsement deals alone. Their easy to digest pop music repackaged the basic principles of third wave feminism for their young audience, exposing us to gender politics for the first time.

Although they were a manufactured band, each Spice Girl had a personality and image that was of their own construction. Geri’s persona for example was the lovechild of David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe. The brushstrokes were broad to the point of being problematic and riffed off basic stereotypes. But by clumsily showcasing different expressions of femininity they were trying to highlight that there was no one way to be a woman.  That it was ok to present our notion of femininity and gender how we deemed fit, and still be accepted and successful within mainstream culture. Furthermore, the idea that a sensual appearance and equality of the sexes needn’t be mutually exclusive was not a new concept- Madonna had done it years earlier

 

For those who did not “slam it to the left” politically, the simplification of feminist principles coupled with some of the Spice Girls tight/plunging attire was Too Much.  But to exult Girl Power to the same level as capital- F feminism as the Spice Girls naysayers were doing is difficult. The concepts are completely different in terms of seriousness and commitment to political change. Girl Power was about having fun, being confident in yourself, and promoting female friendships. It repackaged empowerment into something that was familiar to us- consumerism and pop music. When the Spice Girls were encouraging me say what I wanted, what I really really wanted, the answer would have been a Principal’s Award so I could get a Polly Pocket.  Plus, I certainly didn’t have any lovers, so I was more than happy to get with my friends.  In short, we were kids who were responding to enthusiasm and positivity rather than taking the message as gospel. So rather than becoming the ethos of our sense of womanhood, ‘Girl Power’ simply made us aware that feminism existed without actually knowing what it was. While the Spice Girls gave me a sense of pride and empowerment in being  a girl, I didn’t become truly aware of feminism until several years later as I read the likes of Naomi Wolf and Simone de Beauvoir and from there I sought out more and continue to do so to this day.

Unlike pop songs and blockbuster films, feminism is not a glittery trend that is in one week and out the next. It involves unglamorous, unsexy work and discussions about issues and inequalities that continue to plague women across all walks of life. Ideally the ideas within feminism should not require trussing up to sell them. It is such a reasonable concept that it should sell itself. But the world doesn’t work like that. So celebrities’ involvement in feminist issues is necessary because it takes the message of gender equality to an audience that mightn’t hear it otherwise.  It is simplified, it is stripped back, but hopefully it encourages people to further explore the idea, for themselves  and for society.


 

 

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The ‘Real Woman’ Myth

Like many women, I have had a tumultuous relationship with my body image and I often put myself at the mercy of others approval. I have dated a man who whipped an expensive-smelling tart from under my nose, only to place it in front of himself. His shirt buttons straining, he explained that he “didn’t want me to lose my beautiful cheekbones.” Another one in an industry that demanded thinness presented me with a squashed supermarket cake. His eyes gleaming with a long-repressed lust he whispered the unspeakable things he wanted me to do with the chocolate icing-once I gained a stone or two. For a time, I was disturbingly eager to contort myself so I fit the ideals of others, but it proved to be an ultimately fruitless, exhausting exercise. Hindsight is a glorious thing.
For context, I have never been waif thin or overweight by any medical definition. I go to the gym several times a week, for my mental well-being as much as my physical, and I feel better when I eat healthily. Some may think that by being decidedly normal in every way excuses me from the ‘size’ debate that rages across digital platforms daily, but that isn’t the case. For a time, I struggled to fit into a feminist blogosphere were womanhood was defined by extreme waistlines.

Even as someone who has accepted my body, my heart sinks every time I see a clickbait articles that scream the likes of ‘Bikini Bodies: who is wearing it right’ or ‘What men REALLY want in a woman.’ (I thought most would be happy with a partner who is compatible emotionally, intellectually, and morally, with some hot sex thrown in for good measure, but apparently it’s way less complicated than all that). The article is usually weighted to champion one end of the size debate, which leads to hundreds of impassioned comments. The most barbed of these are often penned by other women as they try and uphold their beauty standards of what ‘a real woman’ looks like.

Let’s consider that phrase for a moment, ‘a real woman.’ It’s odd to put those two words together in relation to something as transient and easily manipulated as aesthetics. Last time I checked, we were all ‘real women’ made from flesh and blood, each equipped with our own minds. If an Art History major has taught me anything, it’s that ‘beauty’ is an organic concept that flourishes and dies rapidly, so to reduce a woman’s ‘realness’ to her measurements not only defies logic, it detracts from far more important signifiers of what it is to ‘be a woman’.

Of late, the blogosphere has been trying to combat this notion of a prescribed ‘real woman’ by championing the body acceptance movement, a bandwagon that the media have been quick to jump on. Campaigns such as Doves quest for ‘Real Beauty’ are full of good intent, but are not without their own ostracising beauty standards. In the case of Dove, we are told that beauty is something that transcends dress size, ethnicity and age. Brilliant stuff. However these woman are susceptible to a media-friendly version of ‘realness.’ The larger women have generous breasts and bottoms, but relatively smaller waists, or barely another roll or muffin top in sight. Stretch marks or unsightly scars are a no-go, and any wrinkles are kept elegantly minimal. These beauty myths not only continue to pit women against each other, it also undermines the very definition of body acceptance. Instead, all it exposes is hypocrisy. Body acceptance should mean exactly that: acceptance of all bodies as beautiful. But from where I am standing, the semantics doesn’t match up with the practice.

It’s sad that in 2015 during the third wave of feminism (an epoch that champions the rights of the individual) that the female form remains such a hotly contested issue.  What is even more disturbing is the level of attention that the media gives this fundamentally insipid debate all in their quest for easy clicks and viral stardom. There are so much more pressing issues being faced by women around the world. Women are being stripped of their individualism, their basic human rights, and their bodily autonomy. Women are being abused, oppressed and held back economically, socially and sexually on a daily basis.  By being our own worst enemies and pitting ourselves against each other’s dress sizes in the name of feminism, we are defeating and distracting from its fundamental purpose. Freedom and equality is imperative, not only between the sexes, but between each other as well.

Amelia Richards writes that “women need to create our own beauty standards that allow for more room for individuality.” We need to put this ‘live and let live’ mentality into practice. Because ultimately beauty standards are so subjective, that no-one will ever definitively win. So you might as well accept yourself as the banging individual you are. Because fuck what everyone else thinks. You are the only person who lives in your own skin. But others must be allowed the same right.

“Just as the beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful”– Naomi Wolfe.