In the early 1990s, the women’s movement seemed dead to the mainstream, as documented in Susan Faludi’s Backlash. Few pop cultural figures embraced the term “feminist.” The underground punk movement known as “Riot Grrrl” scared anyone outside of it (which was part of its point), while Alanis Morissette’s breakthrough single “You Oughta Know” scared everyone else even more.
Then, in the middle of the decade, the Spice Girls took all of that fear and made feminism — popularized as Girl Power — fun. Suddenly, regular girls far outside Women’s Studies classrooms had at least an inkling of what would be known in wonky circles as Third Wave Feminism — led by Generation Xers pushing for sexual freedom and respect for traditionally “girly” pursuits like makeup and fashion, among many other issues.
Preaching Girl Power to worldwide masses in the 1990s was no small thing. It was a commercialized message, to be sure, but alas, so is any message that permeates American consumer culture. Sure, the message came in the empty vessel of the most derivative of pop music, but no one ever said feminists have to be great artists. In fact, their accessibility was their superpower. As we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their first single “Wannabe” this year, we can see how far women in pop music have come, to the point where the pop world is dominated not just by women, but by women who publicly identify as feminists, such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Girl Power, indeed.
From the very beginning with “Wannabe,” the Spice Girls were the original Sex and the City crew, with all the conflicting ideas about feminism and femininity that entails. Their clear identities allowed girls to choose a favorite with whom to identify: Were you a Scary, Sporty, Posh, Ginger, or Baby? These nicknames, of course, were the very definition of problematic: Scary went to the sole woman of color, while Posh, Ginger, and Baby were obvious stereotypes of femininity. At least Sporty was an option, right?
On the other hand, they demonstrated real, noncompetitive female friendship. “If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my friends,” they sang. “Make it last forever; friendship never ends.” Message-wise, this is leagues better than their spiritual descendants, the Pussycat Dolls, singing “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” a decade later.
The refrain of “Wannabe” could be a war cry of liberation from good-girl syndrome: “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.” (A great 2011 feminist guide to sex by Jaclyn Friedman swiped this wholesale for its title: What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety.) The Girls even embraced the word “feminism” at a time when it was risky to do so. In their 1998 movie Spice World, Ginger gets rid of a guy who’s hitting on her by dropping the F-bomb, laughing as he runs away. Not only was feminism cool in Spice World, but guys who didn’t get it weren’t worth your time.
They also embraced their sexuality in songs such as “2 Become 1.” In Spice World, girls could want sex and want to look sexy — a major tenet of Third Wave Feminism. Baby Spice said it best in an interview: “Just because you’ve got a short skirt on and a pair of tits, you can still say what you want to say. We’re still very strong.”
These messages were going mega-global, thanks to the success of “Wannabe.” The song hit No. 1 in 37 countries, and led to the Girls eventually selling more than 80 million records worldwide. Affection for the Spice Girls hasn’t waned. They delighted fans with a reunion at the London 2012 Olympics. Recently, three of the Spice Girls — Geri Halliwell (Ginger), Emma Bunton (Baby), and Mel B (Scary) — announced they’d be reuniting as GEM (without international fashion icon/former Posh Spice Victoria Beckham or Sporty Spice Mel C., who’s said she’s still undecided about joining in).
It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to push pop feminism forward in 2016. Girl Power has evolved far beyond what the Spice Girls did in 1996, moving from the cheerleader chants of “Wannabe” to Beyoncé sampling a feminist speech by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and featuring poetry by Warsan Shire in her videos. But the Spice Girls’ legacy is real, as shown by the Global Gals campaign’s recent use of “Wannabe” to express an explicit feminist message. The group’s delightful, multicultural video has women dancing and lip-synching along to the classic song while explaining that what women really, really want is quality education, an end to child marriage, and equal pay. “Girl Power has come a long way,” says a message at the end. “Let’s take it further.”
After working at Entertainment Weekly for over a decade, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is currently a TV columnist for BBC Culture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2013. Her new book, Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing that Changed Everything, is currently a New York Times best-seller. She now lives in Manhattan and teaches for Gotham Writers Workshop.