girl power and having it all



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A few weeks ago, I rewatched Spice World, the kitsch 1997 movie that charts the adventures of the Spice Girls. The plot is mostly a series of cameos from British glitterati—Elton John, Jonathon Ross, Jennifer Saunders. The Spice Girls meet aliens, one of whom Ginger Spice—characterised as ‘promiscuous’—kisses on the cheek. They spend a night in a haunted castle. They are victims of a proto-Murdochian phone-tapping scandal. Everywhere they go, the paparazzi and an idiotic documentary maker trail them. Through these trials, they are brought back together as a band by their friendship—much of which is facilitated by their pregnant mutual pal, Nicola.

It’s consciously self-conscious, unserious, and meta-cinematic in that the ‘plot’ is described by characters during the film. Of course, the entire movie is ridiculously gendered. Naturally, their manager is male. The band’s major bonding experience comes through the most cisfemale of actions—childbirth. They are infantilised as ‘girls’—Spice Women just wouldn’t have the same ring, and the branding was undoubtedly a marketing ploy to make them more relatable to their young target audience. Yes, the sexualisation of “Baby” Spice is particularly problematic. Yes, their delineations of difference—‘sporty,’ ‘scary,’ ‘ginger,’ ‘posh’—curated female clique culture everywhere for years to come. Yes, that sucked.

But ignore this all for a second and slip on a pair of 90s rose-tinted glasses, preferably heart-shaped. The Spice Girls sold Girl Power! packaged in shiny triangular crop-tops and pigtails, and they sold it better than any pop star before them (see: Madonna). They made platforms sexy (the easiest heels to run in, boys.) They let girls know that they could be different—‘sporty,’ ‘scary,’ or ‘ginger.’ Undoubtedly, that difference came in pop’s cookie-cutter delineation, but they told girls that they could be one of five characters. Blinkered, uniformly attractive, but still, girls could be something.

They owned that Girl Power. In Spice World, Gerri addresses the arguments against them head on: “It’s not as if we want to be threatening to a man’s masculinity or anything… we don’t want to be dominating.” Of course, they are and the man runs away. Here, it’s comical, and the Spice Girls don’t care. As the famous line goes, if you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends. The Spice Girls made preadolescent us believe that women could and should be friends over everything.

Recently, Anne Marie Slaughter spilled 12,647 words on The Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Part confessional, part how-to advice essay, Slaughter flooded the page with experience from her time raising two children as both a Princeton professor and as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department.

Like Slaughter—and women everywhere, by Slaughter’s measure—the Spice Girls struggled with the societal roles they had to play. About 22 minutes into Spice World, Crazy Spice starts examining fish in the tour bus tank, leading to a collective existential crisis of sorts.

Posh: “I’m really fed up of people thinking I only talk about clothes all the time.”

Baby: “Yeah people are really shallow–they only judge you for what you look like.”

Sporty, while ironically pedaling on a bike machine: “I don’t get it, why do people stereotype us all the time?”

Cut scene to a photoshoot, where they decide to give each other new characters. Sporty suggests: “What about ‘Sporty-but-I’m-actually-interested-in-other-things?’

In her essay, Slaughter writes: “I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today … ” Like the over-simplified characterisations of the Spice Girls, “having it all” just isn’t as simple as Slaughter’s definition makes out to be.

The problem is, as Lindy West points out at Jezebel: “Nobody “has it all”—not women, not men, not presidents, not heiresses, not babies, not kittens (maybe kittens). The idea that there is one homogeneous definition of “it all” that all women are supposed to desire is painfully reductive.” Rather, the “having it all” debate itself is rotten through and through. There will be endless arguments of how different ethnicities can’t have it all, how men can’t have it all – we’ve already made the most postmodern move possible and decided there is no “all.” It’s a debilitating recursive feedback loop, and we’re stuck in it.

Racialicious picked up on just this, questioning the privilege necessary to facilitate the notion of wanting power in the first place. Tressie McMillan Cottom writes:

I do not aspire to power. I do aspire to do well and to do good, but I am somewhat ambivalent about power. That is a result of my upbringing, but it is also a result of the many small decisions I have made during my emotional and intellectual development about who I am in relation to power. I will also admit that it is greatly shaped by social processes that limit the potential of my access to power. Whether I am accepting those or asserting my own agency is unclear but, either way, I know that fat, black, southern bodies that went to low-status schools and come from rural, formerly enslaved people have limited avenues into power.

Cottom takes issue with the notion of ‘trickle-down’ feminism displayed in Slaughter’s piece i.e. the idea that powerful womens’ struggles will eventually spur change that will positively affect all women.

To say Cottom considers this unlikely is an understatement.

Two weeks ago, the Spice Girls announced their new musical, Viva Forever!, set to premiere on the West End come December. Girl Power, in all its idealistic, simple slogan-shouting joy wants us to grasp onto something–anything–equalising, even if it’s just a dumb pop song. The sisterly solidarity of the Girls, so resolutely displayed in Spice World, is exactly the antidote to the trickle-down power of Slaughter which Cottom finds a problem with. Perhaps we should all—‘breadwinners’ or not—take a leaf out of their book.

In Spice World when their manager, Clifford, berates them saying, “You don’t have a life, you have a schedule,” Mel B insists: “Some things are more important than gigs, you know.” “Like self-respect and freedom for a start!” Halliwell interjects. “Yeah, and friendship,” Baby Spice concludes.

Be something, they said. Don’t worry about having it all, they said, but for now just have something.

Of course, what rewatching Spice World conjured was nostalgia. Nostalgia for birthday cakes smeared with their sugary faces, parties dressing up as them, ponytails and lollipops and a Baby that isn’t Justin Bieber’s. And what hits home about Slaughter’s piece is that it creates fear. I’m 21 and beginning to tiptoe into a career, and Slaughter’s article explores worries I’m likely to juggle with in the future.

Images via tuxedojin, 69th street, The Princess Blog






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nrobehmed

Natalie is a UAE-raised third culture kid currently studying music and English literature at Columbia University. She has written for CNN's international site and Business 360 blog, as well as Abu-Dhabi based The National newspaper. At her day job, she covers entrepreneurs for The Man, Steve Forbes. @natrobe





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