Girl Power: Revisited

Curator's Note

In 1995, when Shampoo, the British pop group released their album Girl Power and the accompanying video, the pre-millennial world was aroused by the energy, dilemma, excitement and consumer power of the girl. Looking back on this pop cultural phenomenon classified and enriched by the Spice Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Reviving Ophelia (Pipher and Ross, 1994), what has changed and what have we learned? Was Girl Power simply a case of scopophilia and the girl the last frontier of the socially accepted voyeur? Or did the Girl Power of Shampoo significantly shift the traditional construction of femininity and offer a possible source for resistance to hegemony?

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Elizabeth Franko has amazing

Elizabeth Franko has amazing timing. How could she have known when she posted this video that the Spice Girls would announce their reunion tour? Kudos! This video is interesting in that the resistance here seems structured well within working class tropes — I imagine they’d be branded as ‘anti-social’ if they released this song now. The positioning seems much more Lily Allen then Mel B. Something happened in the intervening couple of years after this song to water down the inscribed working class resistance. By the time the Spice Girls were performing their version of girlpower it had moved further away from this track suited (though, yes sporty wore a track suit), motorcycle riding, tough girl to a somewhat friendlier, more consumable image. A girlpower that could be stretched to include the piggy tailed insipid baby spice version as well.

As Maureen Dowd would have

As Maureen Dowd would have it, 21st-century gender relations and roles have regressed to pre-second wave levels. Feminism itself seems to be the new “F-word.” My female students often say, “I’m not a feminist but…” and routinely use the word “Feminazi” to differentiate themselves from what they perceive feminists to be. At the same time, Mary Celeste Kearney points out that more girls than ever are producing their own media (music, films, blogs, websites, zines). This contradictory state of affairs suggests that if dominant culture rewards girls and women for their competence in areas other than physical appearance it does so only if they remain “feminine.” In (perhaps oblique) answer to Elizabeth Franko’s questions, it’s possible that the evolution of girl power is a case of hegemony at work: dominant culture’s incorporation of parts of radical discourses and disavowal of others. Auto mechanics may be a perfectly acceptable career goal for 21st-century young women, but only if they can change spark plugs in their Jimmy Choos (or Manolo Blahniks). This is actually nothing new, of course. In the 1970s, empowered-but-feminine was the liberal feminist compromise with patriarchy.

As a post-script, I’d add that the version of girl power we get from Shampoo, the Spice Girls, or even Our Blessed Lady Buffy is much less unruly and messy than that put forth by Riot Grrrl, which preceded but continued to co-exist alongside other girl powers in the 1990s. Shampoo, the Spice Girls, and Buffy present girl power in glossy packages that only weakly challenge conventional beauty standards, consumption, and bourgeois mores.

This is not to say that at the level of reception, corporate commercial versions of girl power cannot be put to more radical uses by the audiences for Shampoo, SG, or Buffy. In fact, without diminishing Riot Grrrl’s importance, its revolutionary message traveled through more rareified channels than did its corporate counterparts, meaning that the Shampoo/SG/Buffy version of girl power reached more people.

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