Popaganda: 20 Years of Girl Power

Popaganda is back! In the first episode of our “Heat” season, we look back on the impact of the Spice Girls as they embark on their reunion tour—and examine whether the ’90s promises of girl power have come to pass.

More than 20 years after the release of SPICE, the debut album that made girl power a global phenomena, our new Popaganda host—feminist writer, editor and digital media superstar Carmen Rios—reviews feminist criticism of the Spice Girls from the time, weighing it against her own youthful impressions of the band’s message. Feminist writers Jill Gutowitz and Sady Doyle weigh in with their own defenses of the band; and writer, director, actor and comedian Brittani Nichols joins Carmen for a Spice World movie night to complete the nostalgia trip. 

Along the way, we find ourselves wading back into a debate raging on today about marketplace feminism, fauxpowerment and mainstreaming, and the complexity of empowerment within a matrix of oppression.

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[TRANSCRIPT]
 
[“Spice Up Your Life” by the Spice Girls plays]

♪ “Colours of the world (Spice up your life)/
Every boy every girl (Spice up your life)/
People of the world (Spice up your life)/
Aaaaaah/
Slam it to the left  (If you’re havin’ a good time)/
Shake it to the right (If ya know that you feel fine)/
Chicas to the front/
Ha ha (uh uh)/
Go round” ♪

[music suddenly halts, a record scratches]

CARMEN RIOS: Hi! I’m Carmen Rios, feminist writer, editor and digital media superstar and the new host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast! You might know me from my work at Ms., Autostraddle, Everyday Feminism, and Mic; from my guest pieces at places like BuzzFeed, MEL, and The Atlantic’s CityLab; or from my post-Trump podcast The Bossy Show. But if you don’t, no worries! We’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other right here.

This is the first episode of Popaganda’s HEAT season, in which we’ll explore everything from trail blazing to pot smoking to burning out. Today, we’re flashing back to the era of girl power and looking at what happened after we spiced up our lives.

[recorded clip plays: Spice Girls performing “Wanna Be” to a screaming, cheering audience]

CARMEN: I grew up in a pop culture universe populated by the not-so-innocent Britney Spears and Dirrty Dirrty Christina, the likes of which provoked a lot of concern from my own feminist mother. But I was allowed to listen to the Spice Girls over and over and over again, and replay their messages of empowerment wrapped in pure girly delight at max volume.

[recorded clip plays from a concert]

MOM: They’re wonderful. They’re what I was 20 years ago. They’re reincarnating what women should’ve been 20 years ago.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the positive message there. 

MOM: We can do it all. And it’s about time girls got to know that.

CARMEN: I was 6 years old when the Spice Girls released their debut album, Spice, but I still remember every last vibe of girl power they radiated into my world.

I still remember the words to all of their songs. I still remember their real names and their stage names. I still remember the ring on the CD that basically burned off because of how often I put it into my stereo. I still remember painting a likeness of Baby Spice onto a CD case at a birthday party. I still remember carrying the VHS of Spice World to beach houses and slumber parties. I still remember reading The Unofficial Guide to Everything Spice.

I still remember girl power. I still remember wearing platform shoes, flashing peace signs, and singing along about female friendship. I still remember being a tiny feminist who delighted in consuming the message that women could be at the center of my life, and that men didn’t have to control or define my future, my identity, my value, or my happiness. I still remember wondering if I could ever matter to the world like the Spice Girls mattered to the world.

But this is not the same Spice Girls story that other feminists remember. 

[“Fyr” by le tigre plays]

♪ “Feminists we’re calling you/
Please report to the front desk/
Let’s name this phenomenon/
It’s too dumb to bring us down/
F.Y.R. (Fifty years of ridicule)/
F.Y.R. (Take another picture)/
F.Y.R. (Fifty years of ridicule)/
F.Y.R. (Take another picture)….” ♪

CARMEN: In her 2009 book Feminism, Inc.: Coming of Age in Girl Power Feminism, Emilie Zaslow examines the impact of the feminist movement launched by the fab five, who declared girl power a way to engage with feminism without using what they called a “dirty word.” Girl power was also a powerful corporate movement, one which defined teen girls as a new target market worth upward of $85 billion a year.

In her 2016 book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, Bitch cofounder Andi Zeisler—who described the Spice Girls as, “A marketplace-feminist Frankenstein’s monster” (ouch)—wrote that, “Girl power was used less in the service of reaching girls as people than in reaching them as a market.”

[old clip plays]

REPORTER: Forget the CDs. There’s more to the Spice craze, including t-shirts, backpacks, Spice shoes.

RECORDED VOICE: Hello everybody, this is Mel B! [Chuckles.]

REPORTER: That’s the Spice phone. There are also posters and of course the dolls.

GIRL 1: I have Sporty Spice.

GIRL 2: I have Baby Spice.

GIRL 3: And I have Posh Spice.

REPORTER: And check out these fingernails. The Girls are the hottest group around. They even have moms’ stamp of approval.

CARMEN: The brand of feminism that the Spice Girls were intent on spreading ultimately sparked even more feminist outcry and a lot of complex conversations that ring familiar even now about the merits of feminism in pop culture. Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown warned parents to protect their daughters from what they called the “monster-strength” media discourse that they said, “Only makes girls feel powerful when they are conforming to the cute, sweet, hot little shoppers marketers think girls should be.”

Dafna Lemish, who conducted an analysis of the band and an ethnographic study of their fans in Israel, found within their impact a whole lotta contradictions. The Spice Girls promoted an alternative image of femininity and girlhood, she admitted, but they still focused on straight relationships without offering a model for sexual freedom. Their message gave girls new roads to understanding marginalization, but also reinforced harmful ideas about body image. Fellow scholar Anita Harris also noted that while girls consuming a feminist identity might be a net positive as compared to…not, doing so didn’t necessitate or really instigate their involvement in social change.

Zaslow herself concluded that while, “The girl represented in girl-power media attempts to shrink wrap feminist sensibilities with feminine styling,” that girl also, “Shifts our conceptualization of femininity so that the cultural narrative about what it means to be a girl is upset and rewritten.”

[“Lady Is A Vamp” by the Spice Girls plays]

♪ “But she’s got something new/
She’s a power girl in a ’90s world/
She’s a downtown swinging dude/
‘Cause the lady is a vamp, she’s a vixen not a tramp/
She’s a da da da da da da/
Come on fellas, place your bets, ‘cause you ain’t seen nothing yet/
She’s the top of the top, she’s the best, yes!/
Scary, Baby, Ginger, Posh, Sporty, yes, now that’s your lot/
We’re the Spice Girls, ready to go/
Ladies and gents, can you please take your seats/
And we hope that you enjoy the show!!!” ♪

CARMEN: The thing is that all of these women are right. Our job as feminists is to embrace the complexity of empowerment in a matrix of oppression. And my own memories of the Spice Girls also run the gamut from really fierce feminist statements to cringe-worthy fashion choices that I thought were girl power statements.

The Spice Girls found pure ecstasy there at the intersections of good and bad feminism. They celebrated brazen femininity, bad-girl behavior, and female friendship while they dressed up in body-con dresses and platforms. And they encouraged girls to love themselves and pursue their own freedom, but they never offered us outlets into the many ways that our own marginalization could actually be matched by our own activism. Even still, I see my engagement with their music as the launchpad for the work I’ve done for over a decade now to promote women’s equality, and the energy and enthusiasm that I’ve had for issues of gender justice my entire life.

That’s why with the ’90s flashing back fast, and the Spice Girls on their 20-year reunion tour, I decided to re-examine the promise of girl power and take a hard look at the ways adding spice shaped my own life. After all, what if I was just seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses—and not just because in the ’90s my obsession with the color pink and Elton John resulted in my literal possession of said rose-colored sunglasses? What if I’m not remembering the Spice Girls right?

I decided to investigate.

JILL GUTOWITZ: Girl power—it was a campy, cheesy expression in the ’90s that everyone knew. But it was also on all of my t-shirts, and it was such a big thing. And an actual good message [laughs], which sounds so dumb and cheesy! But it was a good message, and it helped me feel empowered as a kid, as a little dykey, Sporty Spice little girl.

CARMEN: That’s Jill Gutowitz, a pop culture writer whose hot takes have been published by outlets like Elle, Glamour, and Vice and who also is a columnist for Nylon magazine

JILL: I dressed like Sporty Spice because she was my fave, and I was called a dyke and shamed into not dressing that way, and being like, “No, I’m actually a high-femme baby.” [Laughs.] But the lasting effects—it took a while. But now I could wear a fucking Adidas tracksuit in the street, and everyone would be like, “Look at that hot lesbian.” Hopefully. I don’t know.

CARMEN: Jill and I are also both the former cohosts and co-producers of The Bossy Show, and that experience turned her into my personal pop culture guru. So when I found out that I was actually gonna get to make an episode of Popaganda about the Spice Girls, I knew I had to invite her to come to The Wing and talk to me about them.

CARMEN: When I emailed you about being on the podcast, you told me that you have a Spice Girls tattoo, and I didn’t know this. And I want to know.

JILL: Yeah! Oh yeah. It’s on my arm. I didn’t know you didn’t know this, but yeah.

CARMEN: Oh. My. God.

JILL: It says “girl power” on my arm.

CARMEN: Jill and I are pretty powerful examples of what happens when girl power goes right. We both grew up listening to fiercely female-forward music, and it became a powerful part of our early feminist praxis. The Spice Girls taught us about girlhood, womanhood, and the world we lived in, and they shaped the feminists that we became.

JILL: I’ve written about this before, that my very first music memory and also probably memory of liking a thing, my own autonomous, this is a thing in pop culture that I like, is the Spice Girls. Because I have this very small, fleeting memory of me sitting on the floor of my bedroom when I was like, I don’t know, 4 or 5. And MTV came on, and “Wannabe,” their first video came on right before they really took off. And I remember my mom walking into the room and seeing it and being like, “No!” and turning it off.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

JILL: And I threw a tantrum about it, and I remember trying with my baby brain for a very long time to find that video on the television again, which is impossible back then where there was like 10 channels. I guess it’s a lot easier than it would’ve been now actually, if there’s 10 channels, and they’re probably running it on one of those channels every hours.

CARMEN: Yes!

JILL: But I remember I did find it. And then my mom softened to it and realized that this was a good thing, and also being like, this is a good thing that she likes. I’m gonna choose to support it. And then it became a huge thing for me and my mom and my little sister. And we loved the Spice Girls, always.

CARMEN: Do you remember associating the Spice Girls with the f word, with feminism?

JILL: Oh, yes! Because the first time I—this is dark—but the first time I ever heard the word “feminism” was in Spice World when they’re making fun of each other. And I think it’s Mel B is dressed up as Ginger, as Jerry.

CARMEN: Oh, yes!

JILL: And she says, “Blah blah blah. Feminism, girl power. Do you know what I mean?” You know? [Laughs.]

CARMEN: Do you feel like that feminism was real?

JILL: No, I do. Well, I don’t know. I guess I feel like yeah, it was like mission accomplished. I think I don’t look back on any of that stuff. You know, a lot of the stuff you look back on in your childhood or especially pop culture stuff it’s like it feels fake or manufactured or whatever. I don’t know what it is about the Spice Girls, and maybe I’m just way too deep in over 20 years of fandom to actually see it clearly, which is totally true. But I just feel like their message and them as people were very pure. The fact that they’re on tour again right now essentially playing the same characters, and they seemingly have no problem doing that. And Sporty Spice is wearing this apocalyptic version of, this robot version of Sporty Spice. Did you see the pictures of it?

CARMEN: [laughing] No!

JILL: She looks wild! They’re all wearing these completely hyper versions of themselves. And they’re all into it. And I’m just like, yeah, I think that it felt authentic, and that translated.

CARMEN: The Spice Girls were not necessarily political. It’s not like they were onstage like, “Smash the patriarchy!”

JILL: Yeah.

CARMEN: And I think a lot of times, people set up a…that girl power and Riot grrrl are diametrically opposed from one another, that they don’t connect, that they’re different things, that what was going on with Riot grrrl was real and radical, and what was going on with the Spice Girls was commercial and sort of fake and selling feminism.

JILL: Both are important, though, yeah.

CARMEN: Do you feel like they connected for you?

JILL: I think that this is a complicated subject because yeah, it was commercialized feminism. But a lot of people, including us, people who weren’t using our brains in a way that we could analyze what’s good and bad yet, were just like, the visibility of just seeing women doing these things was still super helpful and really, really good, especially in the ’90s. There’s a lot out there. We’ve come really, really far, and I think you can’t do the thing Meghan Trainor, for example, does. That doesn’t really work anymore, and it shouldn’t. But back then…. I think that people always also argue that pop music and pop culture, it’s always been political, and that’s true. Because that was a political act to be those five crazy women standing on a stage and having that much worldwide attention.

CARMEN: Talking to Jill confirmed what I’d always felt: that the mainstreaming of those messages set my entire generation up to be fearless, flawless, and feminist.

What do you think the modern landscape would look like if the Spice Girls had never happened?

JILL: Uggghhh! That’s so—I’m so bad at time travel-y type questions because I’m just like, I think I’m always under the impression that had they not existed, if we were living in the universe where they didn’t exist, there would be something else, you know? I think that had they not existed, there would be something else because clearly, there was a market at that time for that. There was millions, billions worldwide of women who needed that and wanted that. And so, had they not existed, I think maybe it would’ve been a couple years later. I don’t know. There would’ve been some sort of phenomenon because that was where culture was headed. That’s a weird answer where I just really can’t reconcile time in my mind and what ifs, but…. [Chuckles.]

CARMEN: No, that makes sense. So basically, the Spice Girls were inevitable.

JILL: Yes. I do think, yeah. Feminism and the matriarchy are inevitable.

CARMEN: But our memories of the time aren’t exactly comprehensive. After all, my only political memory of the early ’90s is leaning over at the dinner table and asking my aunt why everyone was mad at Bill Clinton for talking to someone on the phone.

Whatever else was swirling—in the headlines, in pop culture, and in the feminist movement—was lost in my Spice mania and also to my baby brain. Unsurprisingly, though, it’s not too late to dive head-first into the debate that the Spice Girls started about marketplace feminism, mainstreaming the movement, and whether celebrity feminism is worth celebrating.

SADY DOYLE: I think this tapped into a dialogue that’s really still ongoing and still raging on today: How much is feminism, how much is marketing, and how dangerous is it to take feminism and turn it into a form of marketing? The concern back then was that girl power was something that, it was associated with Riot grrrl. I think the slogan was “Revolution, girl style now.” And that was something that had come out of a really organic, anti-corporatist, sort of leftist-grounded punk scene. Now, whether that was any more or less performative, especially when you consider the whiteness of some of these punk scenes, the fact that that, in itself, belonging to that subculture required you to a pretty good performer of its signifiers in a lot of ways. And often, you would have to come from a specific socioeconomic background, or you would be like a specific kind of white person.

We can talk about authenticity all day long. But the concern was the Spice Girls had taken this, and they had watered it down into something you could buy at K-Mart. They had dolls of themselves, you know? They had t-shirts to sell. They were a commercial act. And I think that the instinctive repugnance that people have for the idea that a pop star might be woke, that’s faded quite a bit.

CARMEN: That’s Sady Doyle, author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why and the forthcoming Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers. She’s also a contributor to the bestselling collections Book of Jezebel and Nasty Women, and a journalist and opinion writer whose work has appeared regularly at Elle.com, QZ, Rookie, and In These Times, and popped up at The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Awl, and BuzzFeed

SADY: When we see Beyoncé talking about feminism and standing in front of that feminism sign, when we look at something like Lemonade or Homecoming, which is so clearly steeped in her politics, we no longer think, oh Beyoncé is making this up to get gullible girls who care about feminism to give her their money instead of organizing. We understand that you can do both. You can do Get Out the Vote while you listen to a Beyoncé song. You can campaign for reproductive rights, and you can watch Spice World every weekend. And I would recommend you watch Spice World every weekend. It is an amazing movie!

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

SADY: It is one of the great bonkers movies that’s ever been made. That’s what made me a Spice Girls fan. I was like, Okay! But we understand that you can do both.

I think that the concerns about feminism being commodified and marketed and turned into something that some grim, grisly, old male CEO is using to build up his own profits, those are good and strong and necessary critiques. We should always be looking at where the money goes. But I think that I will always stand up for the value of a gateway drug.

If you find in “Wannabe” an affirming, powerful message that says, “You are okay to be the way that you are. You deserve to be in community. You deserve to be in community with other women. And your community with other women, your solidarity with other women should be what informs you. Don’t go out there looking for male approval. Go out there looking for women who have your back,” how is that a bad thing, for a 7-year-old or an 8-year-old to become obsessed with that message? How is it, in any way, a bad start in life for someone who is swimming in commercialized pop culture to find one particular bit of commercialized pop culture that says, “Love yourself. Being a woman is amazing. Find other women. All of them are amazing.” You know?

That can put you on a start and hopefully, yeah, sooner or later, you read Audre Lorde. Hopefully, it doesn’t end at, “Well, I’ve listened to this song, and now I’m a feminist, and that’s all I need to do.” Hopefully you go out, and you start making positive change, and you start connecting with other women in a way that is not just fun. It’s also political and effective. But you might not get there if you didn’t have that really great feeling you had listening to “Wannabe.” That feeling can just sort of open up a door, and it’s up to you to walk through it.

CARMEN: Sady is also the founder of the feminist pop culture blog Tiger Beatdown and the author of a handful of online essays about her love for the Spice Girls, including a viral defense of the band for Rookie. I reached out to her for some help putting them in context.

Word on the street is that you are a fan of the Spice Girls.

SADY: [Laughs.] I don’t know if I would say—I wasn’t a fan at the time. At the time, my response to them was really kind of dismissive because I am of the age where by the time they came out, they were considered kids’ music, and I was too old for it. I was maybe I think, 14, 15 years old in 1996. I was in high school, and that was a little bit out of their demographic. What I had grown up with, as feminism in pop music, was Tori Amos or PJ Harvey or Hole. I wasn’t cool enough that I knew, that I owned any Bikini Kill albums, but I knew who Kathleen Hanna was. I knew that that was the model to aspire to.

And the Spice Girls, coming up on that really sort of raw, angry, rock-driven moment in feminist music, they were seen as like the corporate co-optation of it. They were seen as, oh, the Man has decided that girls are into feminism, and he wants to use it to sell them Barbie dolls. So, I wasn’t really a fan of the Spice Girls for a long time, not until college, really, when I started to revisit them in a different light, and I realized how strange what they had done was. I think that the Spice Girls gave girls just a little bit younger than me a luxury that we never really had before in pop music, where feminism wasn’t necessarily a transgressive pose as they were enacting it. For us, it always had to be like, “No, I’m taking up my space, and I’m fighting the patriarchy, and I’m doing this even though it makes you uncomfortable.” For little girls that age, feminism in the Spice Girls music was presented as the norm. It’s the natural evolution of you loving to hang out with your friends at slumber parties and have a good time. [Chuckles.]

And I didn’t really realize how powerful that was until the tide shifted in the early 2000s, and you had a lot of pop music that was still aimed toward younger women but that just didn’t have any feminist message at all. It was all about performing for boys, or “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It,” and I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it! That kind of thing. Or Taylor Swift slut-shaming somebody had become the norm. And I didn’t really realize how lucky we had been to have five women, not all the same women, not all with really conventional gender performances onstage, having a good time together, talking about liking each other, and talking about liking women, and finding power in womanhood as a good, fun thing to do.

[“Love Thing” by the Spice Girls plays]

♪  “Stop pushing/
You’re rushing (you’re losing my lovin’)/
I hope it (I see it)/
Just play it (you feel it)/
Gotta be bold (bold and oh so strong)/
Get with this and you got it goin’ on/
On and on with the girls named Spice/
You wanna get with us then you’d better think twice/
God help the mister (yeah God help the mister)/
That comes between me and my sisters/
I’m not afraid….” ♪

CARMEN: What was the moment for you, what was this moment of transformation in college for you where you sort of realized that liking the Spice Girls wouldn’t make you a bad feminist?

SADY: I honestly don’t wanna do this by bagging on another woman, but it was the Pussycat Dolls. It was that don’t you wish your girlfriend song, where it was just like it was still a bunch of women up onstage, but the content of this song was, I’m singing to you, the man, the neutral observer, the only person I could possibly be pitching myself to. And I’m describing how all the women in your life are garbage, and I’m the only one who can perform my heterosexuality flamboyantly and wonderfully enough to truly captivate your dick.

[“Don’t Cha” by Pussycat Dolls plays]

♪ “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?/
Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?/
Don’t cha?/
Don’t cha?/
Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was raw like me?/
Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was fun like me?/
Don’t cha?/
Don’t cha?” ♪

SADY: And it was just, it was such a bad song, and just the realization that, not, I think, not 10 years before, we had had groups of women up onstage, talking about liking each other and loving each other and how every girl in the audience was beautiful and cool in her own fun way. And wasn’t it fun for women to be different and yet still find ways to connect? And I just realized that it was just such a nice vibe, that if I were 8 years old, I feel like that Pussycat Dolls song would just crush my spirit in some really important way that “Wannabe” might’ve built me up. So, it was really that where I just started looking at, we could do a whole lot less to have a multimillion dollar, culturally ubiquitous mega-phenomenon that is five women hanging out and having a good time and telling girls to like themselves. We have done worse than that many, many times over. So, let’s kind of appreciate what we have when we have it.

CARMEN: Yeah, I do think when you think about other girl groups even, that the Spice Girls were uniquely capital F feminist. And I know that there’s also references to feminism in their music that I’m sure I was absorbing, but when I look back, I’m like, I had no idea that was even happening even though I turned out like this, so.

SADY: There was a tradition in the ’90s of like, you get women together on a stage, and they’d say something political and important about women, and you could also dance to it. I feel like that needs to come back. The Pussycat Dolls killed the girl group, you know? We need to build it back up. It’s a lost art form.

CARMEN: And the idea of the Spice Girls as this gateway drug to feminism, do you feel 20 years now, looking back as they’re launching this reunion tour, do you feel like girl power’s promise is present?

SADY: I think it’s manifested in a lot of complicated ways, and I think one of the ways it’s manifested is in the current sort of obligation female pop stars now have to be avatars of female power. If you look at so many of the pop stars today, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, I think is heavily indebted to the Spice Girls, even Beyoncé, even though she’s kind of an heiress, you know there’s only one Beyoncé in this world, they’re all coming at being a pop star with the idea of how do I present you with an image of a powerful woman? What does power look like to me? How do I embody female power in the way that I present, in the topics I choose to speak about, in the spectacle I create around myself?

[“Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé plays]

♪ “Girls, we run this motha, yeah/
Girls, we run this motha, yeah/
Girls, we run this motha, yeah/
Girls, we run this motha, girls/
Who run the world?/
Girls (girls)/
Who run the world?/
Girls (girls)/
Who run the world?/
Girls (girls)/
Who run the world?/
Girls (girls)/
Who run this motha?/
Girls/
Who run this motha?/
Girls/
Who run this motha?/
Girls/
Who run this motha?/
Girls….” ♪

SADY: The idea about us having a political edge, as being grounded in feminism, the idea of pop as a potentially feminist form, I think a lot of that, sure, goes to Madonna who is gonna be our most famous influence on that discussion forever. But a lot of it also goes to the Spice Girls. I think that there is a generation coming up, sort of like a micro-generation or a half-generation behind me, who sees pop as a perfectly suitable venue to work out complicated stuff about gender and sexuality and politics. And I think reclaiming that, saying there’s no such thing as smart fun or dumb fun. There’s just fun, and all fun is situated in a political context, and it’s telling you something politically. That was something that they did, and it was, I do wanna stress that they were a lot more responsible for themselves than I ever gave them credit for.

The immediate response, and it’s our response to so many pop stars, right, is to be like, well, what man told you to dress that way? What 50-year-old guy decided this was what women should be doing? They were put together. They were straight-up manufactured through auditions, but once they had auditioned, they found that they actually liked each other, and they didn’t actually like the dudes managing each other, they sort of jettisoned the whole structure that had been set up to make them pop stars and reformed themselves as their own act. They’d been assigned to be a band, and to everyone’s disappointment, they actually became a band.

So, there was just a lot in that sort of chaos energy that is Spice World where we’re gonna have one of us that’s really into sports, and isn’t that traditionally femme? And we’re gonna have one of us that’s kind of a baby, and Geri will wear a flag, you know?

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

SADY: [Laughs.] Like the endless what if we did this energy where you could just— I think even some of their songs are clearly just cut together, like everybody went into the studio and was like, “I’m gonna make these noises now!” And that’s what the song turned out to be. That chaos energy kind of came from them claiming their own mantle and having a lot more control than anyone gave them credit for. And that’s exactly what’s fun about them. You really did have the sense that these were women who enjoyed being around each other and enjoyed what they were doing. And that’s very rare in the context of an industry that’s often pretty brutal about chewing women up and spitting them out.

CARMEN: I wasn’t expecting my conversation with Sady to echo my own feelings about the Spice Girls. But if looking back at them in the midst of an even less political pop culture made her realize how impactful they could’ve been, I decided maybe I should look back with truly fresh eyes on the band right now and put them to the same test, but in the middle of an era of resistance, feminist celebrity takeovers at major award shows, and dinner table conversations about intersectionality.

That’s how I ended up at Brittani’s house.

[Spice World opening sequence plays through the next section]

BRITTANI: …based on an idea.

CARMEN: [Guffaws.]

BRITTANI: That’s not a real credit.

CARMEN: [Still laughing.]

Brittani Nichols is a comedian, writer, and actor based out of Los Angeles. You may recognize her name from bylines on Autostraddle, Jezebel, The Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed, or from the writing credits on TV shows including Take My Wife, Drop the Mic, and Strangers.

BRITTANI: So, they’ve taken over the photoshoot.

CARMEN: And they’ve turned it into a feminist history lesson!

BRITTANI: Ha! That’s Marilyn Monroe.

CARMEN: That’s Cher, right?

BRITTANI: I have no idea.

CARMEN: I think the red dress is Cher, I mean.

BRITTANI: And then Danny Zuco.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]…. School marms.

BRITTANI: [Gasps.] Ooooh!

CARMEN: [Screams.] I’m honestly surprised I wasn’t gay sooner.

BRITTANI: Ha!

CARMEN: Her voice will sound familiar to you if you listen to the Brand New Podcast or Hamilton the Podcast. And I know you can’t see her right now, but if you could, you’d probably recognize her face from her recurring role on Amazon’s Transparent and the acclaimed indie feature Suicide Kale.

CARMEN: So, one evil man—

BRITTANI: Is this movie absurdist? What’s happening?

CARMEN: That’s a generous term.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

CARMEN: I think, so one evil man just hates them, and the other evil man hates feminism.

BRITTANI: Did he just say that?

CARMEN: He said [cockney accent] “I’m gonna bring girl power crashing down!”

BRITTANI: Oh, okay. Okay, yeah.

CARMEN: When I decided I was gonna have to watch Spice World again, I texted Brittani. Because she is a saint and a selfless human being, she agreed to watch it with me. We both haven’t seen the film in about 10 years. So, I brought popcorn and Perrier to her house, and together, we revisited the movie that defined my childhood and launched my feminism. Watching Spice World didn’t necessarily—

BRITTANI: I will say I am newly invested in their music. I mean all of their singles, all of the things that I came to know, I think, after their heyday, good songs. I like them. They are fun.

CARMEN: Yeah? Good songs. Good songs to dance to.

BRITTANI: And only two albums? I can definitely listen to only two albums. It’s not like they have an extensive discography.

CARMEN: No, well, I think that’s also the crazy thing I was thinking about when I watched this is that the Spice Girls were not famous for a very long time. In my head, the Spice Girls were famous for like 20 years.

BRITTANI: Ah ha ha ha haaaa!

CARMEN: There was like no landscape before or after them. And then I was watching this movie, and I was like, basically, right after this movie came out, Ginger left the group, and the Spice Girls kind of stopped being a thing.

BRITTANI: That’s wild ‘cause they were huge.

CARMEN: Yeah. It was absolutely insane how much people were obsessed with them, and they just, it was like a three-year run.

BRITTANI: And also because they sort of pre-dated the big boy bands of our youth, right? Backstreet Boys and NSYNC weren’t really out yet.

CARMEN: But yeah, I do think the Spice Girls were the first band in our generation to have that kind of huge moment where they were really famous. And that was something, when I was talking to Jill, I was like, feel like what was crazy for me as a girl was to watch other girls be as celebrated as the Spice Girls were. By everyone.

BRITTANI: Yeah, because the artists that came after that, the teeny bopper Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, etc., they weren’t doing girl power. They were doing like sexy teen.

CARMEN: Yeah, Britney Spears was doing like, I’m a high schooler that you can legally be sexually attracted to.

BRITTANI: Ah! [Laughs.]

CARMEN: Christina Aguilera, well, I mean I also think Christina Aguilera did those things because she wanted to. But it was definitely male-gazey, or girls singing about their boy problems, like Mandy Moore kinda types.

BRITTANI: Yeah, no. They didn’t set out to empower. That might’ve been a byproduct or something that happened along the way, but they weren’t set out to be like, this is for young girls who wanna feel strong.

CARMEN: Yeah. And the Spice Girls were like, “We’re gonna sing about friendship and how boys shouldn’t rule your life.” And they very much so—whether or not the merits of what they did are up for debate in the feminist community—they were explicit about the fact that girl power was supposed to be a way for girls to embrace feminism and feminist values without having to engage in what was, at the time, still a highly-contested word. They were like, “We’ll call it ‘girl power’ so that they don’t have to use the F word.” And obviously now, people get to use the word “feminist” because everyone’s a feminist.

BRITTANI: Yeah. But even if they didn’t have anything that went along with that, that even was cool. It didn’t even really matter that girl power didn’t go beyond just saying, [laughing] “Girl power.” That still was enough.

[“Sound Off” by Spice Girls plays]

♪ “We’re the Spice Girls, yes indeed/
Just girl power is all we need (bring it up)/
We know how we got this far/
Strength and courage and a Wonderbra/
Could this work with only one?/
Just with me, I’d have no fun/
Could this work with only two?/
We need more for what we do/
Could this work with only three?/
Three’s a crowd, bad company/
Could this work with only four?/
No way girl, we need one more/
Listen up, take my advice/
We need five for the power of spice/

Give it up/
Give it out!/
Take a stand!/
Better shout!/
1-2-3-4-5 spice girls!/
1-2-3-4-5 spice girls!” ♪

CARMEN: Spoiler Alert: Watching Spice World didn’t get me any closer to a final verdict on the merits of girl power. Another spoiler alert: all those women I mentioned before? They’re still right. The Spice Girls weren’t perfect. They were patron saints of capitalism. They were adult women who embraced infantilization and sexualization. They were bubble-gum cute in a world where marginalization is really ugly and uncomfortable.

But they also knew that they were playing the game, and their power came from how they sought to subvert it.

[“Wannabe” by Spice Girls plays]

♪ “So, here’s a story from A to Z/
You wanna get with me, you gotta listen carefully/
We got Em in the place who likes it in your face/
You got G like MC who likes it on a/
Easy V who doesn’t come for free, she’s a real lady/
And as for me, ha you’ll see/
Slam your body down and wind it all around/
Slam your body down and wind it all around/
If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends/
(Gotta get with my friends)/
Make it last forever, friendship never ends/
If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give/
(You’ve got to give)/
Taking is too easy, but that’s the way it is/
If you wanna be my lover….” ♪

CARMEN: Twenty years ago, I promised I would spice up my life. Today, I’m an unabashed feminist loudmouth, an openly misandrist queer woman, and an agitator working from the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality to do all I can in service of women and girls.

I don’t think it’s possible to declare that girl power succeeded or failed because 20 years later, its core message is still salient. We’re still trying to raise girls to be strong and self-sufficient in a society that does its best to contort them into boxes and observe them under the male gaze. We’re still urging women to stand together across lines of difference and lift each other up. We’re still out here demanding relationships where we have agency and power. And really, we’re still trying our best to bring joy into our resistance, now maybe more than ever.

I doubt the Spice Girls ever intended for girl power to be a substitute for deep feminism. But what eventually came of what they were doing was just as powerful. The Spice Girls gave us a way for women and girls to survive in a system intent on destroying them. And they showed us how to have a hell of a good time doing it.

[“Viva Forever” by Spice Girls plays]

♪ “Viva forever (viva forever), I’ll be waiting (I’ll be waiting)/
Everlasting (everlasting), like the sun (like the sun)/
Live forever (live forever), for the moment (for the moment)/
Ever searching (ever searching) for the one (for the one)/
Viva forever, I’ll be waiting (I’ll be waiting)/
Everlasting, like the sun/
Live forever (live forever), for the moment/
Ever searching for the one….” ♪

CARMEN: Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was produced by Cher Vincent and hosted by me, feminist writer, editor, and activist, Carmen Rios, as part of our HEAT season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. And special thanks to our guests Jill Gutowitz, Sady Doyle, and Brittani Nichols.

The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like this in your feed (algorithm willing), and find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr.

If you love Popaganda, you can help make it possible by joining The Rage, Bitch’s membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at bitchmedia.org. If you wanna send me hate mail or fan mail, you can do that too at carmenfuckingrios.com. And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Stay tuned for our next episode: We’ll be digging into feminist burnout and figuring out how to make modern activism sustainable. Until then, I’ll see you on the internet. And please, tell me which Spice Girl you are.

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by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”