Spicing up girls’ lives

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.

Intrigued by the Spice Girls’ appeal to such a diverse audience, Krista Cowman and Ann Kaloski set out to discover what fifty young girls thought about ‘girl power’ and The Spice effect.

If you wannabe my lover
You gotta get with my friends
Make it last for ever
Friendship never ends
Wannabe (1996)

This is how the Spice Girls hit the pop charts and the westernised world in July 1996. A brash song full of energy and — we would argue — feminist-inspired concepts of female friendship, power, and desire sung by a sassy bunch of five ‘ordinary’ young women — why weren’t feminists celebrating in the streets, if not in the clubs? Even as late as a year later one of us (Ann) was at a women’s disco in York when the DJ introduced ‘Wannabe’ with ‘Well I never thought I’d be playing this at a women’s dance’ — though she had the grace to smile as most of us got up to dance. We women were celebrating — but what?

This question stimulated us to begin research into the whole Spice phenomenon. We were intrigued by the powerful appeal of the band and disturbed both by media hype and by feminist silence. The most visible audiences of the band seemed to be twenty-something heterosexual men and pre-teen girls. Surely, we thought, these two diverse audiences can’t be reading the group in the same way. And it is the young girls voices that are missing — the twenty-something men have a say in their own mags such as Loaded and Face. What, we thought, do little girls actually think about the Spice Girls? And how do they think about them — what kinds of theorising do the girls undertake?

Although some newspaper and magazines articles do offer comments from young Spice fans, there appeared to be no systematic empirical work of ‘the Spice effect’ on this age group. As the maxim ‘if you can’t find a good article on a subject you’re interested in — write it yourself’ could be the feminist academic’s version of direct action, and we decided to do it ourselves. We immersed ourselves in the Spice Girls, reading Spice books and mags, listening to Spice CDs, watching Spice videos, talking about the group with friends and, increasingly, friends young daughters. It became clear that most writers outside of the Spice industry tend to offer somewhat conservative and straight interpretations of the relationship between fans and idols: Geri is tarty — shock horror! little girls will become debauched overnight. Or: the band are just a product, therefore they offer no scope for girls to think creatively or radically. But as girls we had both been ‘fans’ (The Bay City Rollers in Krista’s case, the Beatles in Ann’s) and we know that fandom does not work in such direct ways. And most of the women we know have also been fans — it is how many of us came to define our girlhood — and yet there is remarkably little feminist work on the topic of fandom.

One relevant article we had both come across some years ago, and read with delight, is ‘From butch god to teddy bear?: Some thoughts on my relationship with Elvis Presley’ written by Sue Wise. In this piece Wise assesses the complexities of feminist responses to a (male) popstar with whom one might have strong ideological differences. She writes of her relationship with ‘her Elvis’ as one of pleasure and, perhaps more surprisingly, of liberation, and convincingly argues that feminists need to take heed of female fandom. Her mostly autobiographical essay concludes by offering three possible ways to write a feminist biography of stars. The first is similar to a traditional biography, but with ‘a sexual political analysis shot through it’, including the perspective of female fans. Her second proposal is for a feminist overview of relevant existing biographies, taking account of the inherent sexist assumptions. And thirdly she suggests a fusion of star biography and fan autobiography — taking further the methodology of her own article. Wise indicates that such strategies would generate ways of examining the powerful and frequently emancipatory effects of fandom for girls and women, without ignoring the source of their desires. We have found this article a wonderful exposé of the intricacies of fandom. It is also a timely reminder that fan-worship is not the same as having a role model — an important distinction when the idols are also female. Whereas ‘role-modelling’ is concerned with emulation and (direct) inspiration, being a fan involves — what? We decided to try to find out.

Tell me what you want, what you really, really, want?

We began our research with young potential fans of the Spices and contacted local schools in York to ask permission to talk to their female pupils about girl popbands. As a result, in March 1998 we interviewed fifty girls aged between six and eight in three institutions, an urban, a suburban, and a nearly-rural school. Alongside gender, age, and locality, the other clear structural homogeneity was that, as far as we could tell, all the girls we interviewed were white and certainly all spoke with easy local accents, suggesting they were assimilated into UK/Yorkshire culture, if not UK citizens. Later we’ll discuss the consequences of such a white raced group.

This research was conducted before Geri left, before Mel B and Victoria announced their pregnancies, and before Mel’s wedding and her solo chart success.

You don’t know what we are talking about?

OK. For those readers who have had little contact with TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines for the past two years, and (more likely) for those who just want to check their facts and clarify which Spice Girl is which, we offer a brief biography:

The group came together in 1994 as a result of flyers and a related advert in Stage magazine asking for ‘streetwise, outgoing, ambitious & dedicated’ females aged 18-23 ‘with the ability to sing/dance.’ Eventually five young women emerged — Melanie Brown (soon to be dubbed ‘Scary Spice’), Melanie Chisholm (‘Sporty Spice’), Victoria Adams (‘Posh Spice’), Geri Halliwell (‘Ginger Spice’) and Emma Bunton (‘Baby Spice’).[1] By all accounts they were not outstanding singers or dancers, but they did have one thing in common — they wanted to succeed. Interestingly, they did not present (at this early stage) as conventionally beautiful, but as five ‘ordinary’ women in their early twenties — four white and one (Mel B) self-identified as ‘mixed race’.[2]

The facts (such as we are able to find out) about the band are important: we do not want to use the Spices as some kind of text from which we can deduce all sorts of theories, while at the same time ignoring the real women who constitute the group. While our main focus is on how young fans interact with the whole package of ‘The Spice Girls’ in order to develop a sense of themselves, how, we wonder, after Sue Wise, would a feminist and collective biography of the Spice Girls look? This article is mostly about their fans but to represent the band as just a product would be to position them like so many girl bands — manipulated and marketable.

Not that the Spice Girls would stand for this! The people who first brought them together to develop as a group included men. Yet, before success, the Spices jettisoned this original management and chose another who helped them to fame and fortune — and then they ditched him to control their own careers. These men might have thought they were gaining a sweet girly group. If so, they were scuppered by such assumptions. Girl Power?

But what does all this mean for young female fans?

Once in the schools we interviewed the girls in groups of four or five at a time in order to give them space to talk around the band as far as they wished. In each of the schools we were allowed to work alone as researchers without other adults present, although in one school this was on condition we interviewed in an ante-room off the main classroom with the door open. In these circumstances we found the girls ready and willing to open up and share their thoughts with us. We presented our project as a ‘topic’ to allow the girls to work on familiar ground, and we began each session by talking about girl bands in general in order to ensure that we did not presume pro-Spice responses. Fortunately for our research purposes there was almost unanimous enthusiasm for the band.

We asked the girls quite simple questions related to the Spice Girls.[3]

1. Who is your favourite, and why

2. Who is your least favourite and why?

3. What sort of Spice Girl goods do you own? Who buys them for you?

4. Do you listen to the Spice girls alone, or with friends?

5. What is Girl Power?

6. If we had a magic wand and could give you Girl Power, is there anything you would be able to do that you can’t do now?

Who do you think you are?

The Spice Girls are clearly differentiated, unlike other contemporary girlbands like All Saints, or B*witched. In this, there has never been a girl band quite like them, although they have been compared to the 1970s gay group Village People, another band of ‘characters.’ The outright favourites among our respondents were Melanie Chisholm — Sporty — and Emma Bunton — Baby. Mel was universally admired because she could do backflips, but many of the girls also liked her clothes — Mel is seen mostly wearing tracksuits, Liverpool football kits, and tight aerobic tops — and her hair which is long and pony-tailed. Some of the girls mentioned her powerful voice as a reason, but it was ‘image’ rather than ‘talent’ which dictated preferences. Emma was liked because she is ‘sweet,’ ‘has lovely hair’, and ‘wears nice clothes.’ A majority of the girls identified with the Spice who looked most like them: we were soon able to predict that the blonde haired, sweet-looking girls would like Emma, the girls in trainers mention Mel C, and the red-haired girls go for Geri Halliwell. This last preference was intriguing. When Geri was part of the group she was the most condemned for her overt sexuality, and some nude shots of her taken before her Spice days appeared in the national press. Yet the ‘sexiness’ of Geri seemed to pass the girls by: what appealed was her red hair.

Such direct identification had its converse. Victoria Adams — Posh Spice — was not much liked. Her (designer) clothes are seen as boring by the girls: ‘She wears black or white all the time’ or ‘Her skirts are too short.’ An incident in the film SpiceWorld (of which the band say they ‘play themselves’) irritated several of them, and Grace voiced the feelings of many:

Everyone else is wearing trousers and they’re in the army and Posh is wearing a skirt and high heels . . . walking on the grass!

Being too grown-up was a clear turn-off for our respondents, and it would be interesting to see what happens as the girls get older, particularly as we both find Victoria’s ‘adult’ persona funny and ironic — certainly not an image of mature womanhood. For now, the more accessible styles of Mel Chisholm and Emma Bunton were applauded by the girls, and we would even go so far as to say that some of these young girls seemed to think that Mel and Emma copied them, rather than the other way around: Sporty and Baby reflected back something the girls had already found in themselves.

But Victoria’s adult manner and aloofness wasn’t the only factor in unpopularity: Melanie Brown was the least favourite Spice by far with most of our respondents. The girls mentioned her ‘too wild’ hair and her pierced tongue — ‘urgh!’ What can we make of this? Our interviewees found Geri’s unkempt hairstyle unremarkable, and many liked the other Mel’s pierced navel and nose. Melanie Brown is ‘mouthy’ (her definition) and has the nickname ‘Scary’, but white Geri Halliwell is hardly demure! Could our white girls find nothing to identify with in the dark-skinned Spice Girl? And, if so, why not? We were concerned by this and tried to pursue the girls thinking, but came up with nothing other than ‘I just don’t like her.’ Given that we both know young white girls (not in our sample) whose favourite Spice is Melanie Brown, we are loathe to make straight-forward assumptions of ‘racism’ without more research, in particular through interviewing Black and mixed-race girls fans. Do young sweet-looking Black or Asian girls favour Emma? Do the athletic youngsters have Mel Chisholm as their chief pin-up? How does Victoria — the ‘posh’ English girl — rate? While we have no doubt that Mel’s race is a factor — and our research indicates a problematic factor — in the relationship between star and fan, the precise ways in which race interacts with class, region, subjectivity, and image are waiting to be examined.

Spice Up Your Life

One of the major criticisms of the Spice Girls in the media is that they encourage young fans to buy lots of expensive fan merchandise. There is certainly a lot of it about! T-shirts, stationery, jewellery, dolls, mugs, calendars — not to mention the core items such as CDs, videos, and posters. A few of the girls we interviewed were carrying Spice Girl pencil cases, or wearing Spice T-shirts, or watches. Other girls spoke of merchandise in their homes. Yet one of our most surprising findings was that most of the Spice goodies were unsolicited presents from adults — mothers, fathers, aunties: ‘I’ve got a Spice Girl lunch-box, but I didn’t really want it’ It became clear that the girls sense of themselves as the fans of the group was not based on the amount of products they owned. Having access to the Spice songs was important, but some of the most ardent fans had taped material from their friends: for these young girls shopping and owning was not the mark of a fan. Most of our interviewees had posters, but these were usually obtained relatively cheaply from magazines. Given the sophisticated Spice marketing machine we think this could be an important finding, and again one which needs following up.

Playing with Spice

The girls we listened to like to ‘play’ Spice Girls. They do this in three main ways:

1. Through dancing to the records with their friends and family — mothers and girl cousins featured quite strongly here. Sally told us:

When me and my mum were in my room trying to pretend to be Spice girls er . . . we have to like shout it cos we can’t make the voices with just two of us . . . we have to shout . . .

US: You play Spice Girls with your mum?


US: Sounds great fun!

SALLY: We pretend to be all of them

Most of these performances were, as you might expect, similarly bedroom or at least home-based acts. And in fact the ‘public’ — here defined as male siblings or other kin boys — were excluded.

PAT: When we’re dancing along to the Spice Girls and my brother comes in and charges in and he goes.. Oh oh .. He ruins it

And we’re trying to record it and sometimes he comes barging in and says er get these silly Spice Girls off… And it records it…

Now we JUST shut the door.

This boy-exclusion zone was almost universal. The one notable exception was that boys were allowed in on girls terms — if they ‘played Spice’ too they could enter the hallowed bedroom. These girls, it seemed to us, had cottoned on pretty quickly to the idea that gender is not an essential attribute, but is about behaviour and attitude: boys who were like girls could play with the girls.

2. Through ‘public’ Spice-ette performances, in liberal school assemblies or at parish fetes. Here individual girls would take on a Spice personae and replicate dress and dance steps against a background of pre-recorded Spice Girls music. The particular Spice each girl played was predetermined before the act, and always involved them being one of the Spice band (and not an individually coined Spice, such as ‘Curly Spice’ or ‘Booky Spice’). The girls always wanted to be their favourite Spice, and often firmed up their performance through extra role-playing games. The dedication with which these performances are approached is awe-inspiring. When we asked one girl how much work her event had entailed she dismissively said, ‘Oh, not much, just every night after school for a week’.

and some productions took weeks of practice to get the details right for a five-minute act.

3. Through dismissing boys’ teasing and bullying. It might seem odd to deem such acts as ‘play’ — but this definition comes from the way the girls themselves talked about their defiance of boy-norms. Not only did they link their bravado in school with the gender exclusionary practices at home when they were singing and dancing to the Spices, but many of the girls identified one aspect of ‘Spice Power’ as the prerogative to stand up for yourselves against boys:

ALICE: boys think we’re weird but we do Spice Girls and stuff and they always pick on us

JANE: and then we get our own back

SOPHIE: they don’t know we can get our own back on them

ALICE: boys think they’re strong just cos they’re boys

SOPHIE: and we trip them up

ALICE: we sometimes go like that (sticks out foot) and trip them up.

Though some of the girls behaved in a physical way to ‘get their own back’ others were able to envision other ways, and this led us on to discussions about ‘Girl Power’.

What is this ‘Girl Power’?

This is the slogan most associated with the Spice Girls.[4] Anyone with only a cursory awareness of the band will probably have seen them shout ‘Girl Power.’ Some feminists have criticised the concept for being a vacuous brand of feminism — all mouth and no substance, all post-feminist individualism and no recognition of structural gender inequalities. But Girl Power makes no claims to be a coherent political theory. Rather, it is a jumble of female insights and hopes. Instead of criticising Girl Power for what it isn’t, we want to look at how the concept is articulated by both the band and their fans, and offer some provisional assessment of how Girl Power might function in feminist ways.

The Spices themselves certainly see Girl Power as a valuable idea on the road to women’s liberation. The first official book by the band is called Spice Girls: Girl Power and the ‘preface’ ends with a slogan familiar to many feminists ‘And remember. The future is female!’ The centre pages contain an intriguing representation of this ‘Girl Power’. There’s a prominently displayed caption:

Feminism has become a dirty word. Girl power is just a nineties way of saying it. We can give feminism a kick up the arse. Women can be so powerful when they show solidarity.

This is adjacent to a large photo of the band members lying on an unkempt bed, arms wrapped around each other, heavily made up, eyes closed. This is sexy female power, but although it gives an impression of grown-up sexuality, it can just as easily be read as a pyjama party where girls play at being adult women. Alongside this are comments from the band members on Girl Power. Critics such as Vivienne Westwood who condemned the group as ‘animals… who have been dragged up’ might be surprised as some of the sensible ideas passed down from the band as Girl Power:

Geri: If the kids in the playground are trying to persuade you to smoke or take drugs or steal, and you really don’t agree, make an excuse and leave.

Victoria: When I was at school it was considered a bit dweeby to join a club or get involved in a volunteer project, but it’s actually very cool. And it’ll get you a lot further than hanging around smoking.

Emma: It’s very hard not to give in to pressure, but you should always think something through before you do it… Ask yourself what could go wrong and whether you could hurt yourself or other people — then decide if it’s worth doing.

These kind of endorsements of ‘Girl Power’ by the band are reflected many times over in their other publications. But what did our interviewees make of the concept?

Some girls, particularly those at the older end of our sample — had definite opinions about Girl Power. ‘Have you got Girl Power’ we asked a group of lively eight year olds. ‘Deffo’ came the reply. ‘And what is it?’ This was Jenny’s response:

It’s doing what us girls do and sticking up for yourselves and not doing what boys think.

We think this is a brilliant definition of girls’ feminism, combining collective female consciousness, agency, and a defiance of sexism. It is both pragmatic and idealistic, and elicited a good response from the other girls in her group.

But many of the younger girls were less sure about Girl Power. When we brought up the subject some groups responded with silence, or mumbles. We don’t think this response should automatically be used to uphold ideas of Girl Power as meaningless. Our interviewees had all — without exception — been affected by the Spice Girls in varying ways. But if we — as adult, feminist academics — can’t explain their power, we can hardly expect the girls to find the ‘right’ words on cue. Some of the silences were particularly telling. One group suggested that the Spices had Girl Power because they were doing what they wanted and were in charge of their lives. Then a quiet girl spoke:

SUE: But they haven’t really got Girl Power, have they?

US: That’s interesting? Why do you say that?

SUE: (long pause) because…

US: (encouraging noises)

SUE: they… it’s not that simple… they do have power… but…

And that was all she was able to say. We both felt for Sue, trying to articulate the complexities of female life. Given that Girl Power isn’t, we argue, a lucid philosophy, it is perhaps best expressed obliquely. For instance, here it is as a kind of female magic:

JENNY: People in class 3 go up on the top of the field and we like play where we’ve got Spice Power. . . we touch each other on the head and then we pass it round.

After such a ritual the girls would return to the playground, empowered, in some way, by their act.

But there was also a more aggressive side to Girl Power — these are some typical comments:

MANDY: I think it (girl power) means… er… that it like kicks something

JANE: I’ve got it cos I can kick people really hard

ZOE: Well, it’s like kicking the men cos they (the band) don’t like men and boys

RACHEL: I don’t like boys either… they’re ugly and they push you about

US: And what do you do when they push you about?

RACHEL: I don’t do anything

US: What would you do if you had Girl Power?

RACHEL: Kick them (laughs)

We tried to take this further. Why kicking? It soon became obvious: Melanie Chisholm, the favourite Spice, is famous for her karate kicks and her backflips. Although when we had asked the girls why they liked their particular favourite Spice the major stated factor had been image, when approaching this question in a more oblique way other factors arose.

US: What would you do if you had Girl Power?

TAMMY: Do backward flips

YVONNE: You could put your hands on the floor and get your legs over your head

TAMMY : You could do lots of things with your body that I can’t do now


US: What would you do if you had Girl Power?

GERRY: Karate! Cos when I’m with Sandy and I play with her cos she’s my cousin and we have lots of fun doing karate… it’s powerful…

US: Is Sporty powerful?


US: So is Girl Power about being physical?

GERRY: Yes. Well, it’s about that and other things…

US: What sort of other things?

GERRY: (silence) don’t know…

Other manifestations are more bizarre from an adult perspective:

ALICE: Well with me and Jane and Mandy well we’ve got girl power cos we can always act as ponies and stuff like that

JANE: boys can’t do it

ALICE: and boys can’t do it!

While ‘acting as ponies’ is a fairly common girls activity in parts of English culture, it was clear that ideas of ‘Girl Power’ had enabled our interviewees to value their play, and not to gauge it against boys pursuits. They, in fact, could use the currency of Girl Power to develop ideas of femaleness without constant reference to male norms. There is a long history of girls popular culture (school stories, Bunty Magazine and the like) in UK society and it seems to us that these new domains of separatism and empowerment can be viewed in this light. Could the Spice Girls be a nineties version of ‘The Four Marys’?

A kick up the arse

So, how can we conclude? The Spice Girls, we suggest, can be a positive and valuable influence on young girls. We have presented a deliberately upbeat article about the Spices and their fans — we want to shake up feminist cynicism and antagonism to the band and to female fandom in general. We also want to encourage other closet feminist Spice Girl fans to be more open and perhaps analytical about their pleasure. Sure, the Spice Girls are no-one’s ‘ideal’ feminist group — but what would that be? We are glad that the group exist, putting a version of feminism on the popular agenda, and confident enough to take risks, to be flirty, feminine, and (arguably) feminist. Sure, we might wish that the band would take minimal wages, and give the rest to feminist organisations. There might be more ‘right on’ bands — the Riot Grrl movement, for instance, was an earlier less commercial and more politically aware young feminist pop music movement. What is so important about the Spice Girls is their mass popularity. They have, somehow, captured the mood of many girls and young women. If this doesn’t fit older feminists’ theories, then maybe it is time for feminism to have ‘a kick up the arse’ We’d like to end by reminding readers of Jenny’s definition of Girl Power:

It’s doing what you girls do, and sticking up for yourselves, and not doing what boys think.

We wish we’d had that kind of philosophy when we were eight years old!


A version of Sue Wise’s article was first published as long ago as 1984 in Women’s Studies International Forum, 7(1): 13-17, but we both read the piece in Liz Stanley, ed., Feminist Praxis: Research, Theory and Epistemology in Feminist Sociology (London: Routledge, 1990).


[1] Emma came later to the group, replacing Michelle Stephenson who left after a few weeks (before the band’s first single record). We wonder what story is left untold here, about the young woman who wasn’t ‘a spice girl’.

[2] Melanie Brown appeared on the BBC2 show Black Britain on 5 November, 1997 and spoke movingly of growing up in Leeds as the child of a white English mother and a black Caribbean father: ‘A lot of black girls used to hate me, but then I’d get a lot of white girls not liking me. I’d get it from both ends.’

[3] Many thanks to Heather Walsh, a teenage Spice fan, who was extremely useful in helping us come up with valuable yet simple key questions to ask the younger girls.

[4] Though the term was earlier coined by the band Shampoo in their 1995 song of the same name — many thanks to Louise Livesey for pointing this out to us.

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