is girl power a useful form of feminism?

When researching the 90s phenomenon of “girl power” for my post on Smart Girls at the Party, I found this piece from BBC Radio 2’s The People’s Songs about the Spice Girls. It covers the history and evolution of women in popular music of the  20th century, and different voices weigh in on the validity of girl power as a part of the feminist movement. Several argue that “girl power” is nothing more than a marketing tool, which, though I’m aware of its commercial influence, I don’t think is entirely true.

I’m not naive or uninformed. I know that the Spice Girls were assembled because they responded to a casting call, and assigning each girl an identity (Sporty Spice and Scary Spice are my favorite, although I was always compared to Baby Spice) only heightens any sense of artificiality. When I was in the first grade, though, all of this information was far past my scope of understanding.


Here’s what I did understand: The Spice Girls were fun. They were powerful and confident and friendship was more important than boys. I was generally an anxious kid, but when I danced to “Wannabe” or “Spice Up Your Life,” I forgot about my nerves and turned into that child who had just discovered silly, unadulterated joy. I looked up to the Spice Girls, and I still do. As a teenager and a now a pseudo-grown up, my focus has always been on working hard to achieve my goals or enjoying myself with friends instead of finding a boyfriend, and I’ve never thought that strange. I was unaware of their lasting influence, but the Spice Girls ingrained in me that part of self-reliance is pursuing my interests and to have fun along the way… Hey guys! I can enjoy fashion just as much as I love deconstructing Shakespeare! Who’d-a thunk it? Sounds a lot like Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls to me.

In other words, the Spice Girls had successfully boiled down feminism to shape the way that a seven-year-old would later define her ambitions and worldview. That’s power, which brings me to this excerpt from the BBC Radio 2 story:

“The legacy of girl power is contentious. Doubting its validity, Amy McClure of North Carolina University claimed, ‘An ideology based on consumerism can never be a revolutionary social movement. The fact that it appears to be a revolutionary movement is a dangerous lie that not only marketeers sell to us, but that we often happily sell to ourselves.’ …It’s typical of the superiority and wrongheadedness of academia when applied to the world of pop culture, a world where often trends and movements happen without the commission of the establishment: political, commercial, or academic. Professor Suzanne Hopkins was more accurate when she saw a correlation between girl power, the rise of the Spice Girls, and the glut of late-20th century action heroes like Lara Croft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” narrator Stuart Maconie says (my emphasis added).

I’ll get to Buffy on this blog in a big way, don’t you worry, but I was particularly struck by the line that I italicized. The mission of this blog is to deconstruct pop culture with the help of critical theory that I studied as a Literature and Theory major, because what use is academia if it remains locked within the confines of higher education? (Seriously, though, I enjoy every discussion with a dissenting view about this topic–please let me know your thoughts!) Pop culture’s reach means that its direct influence on the general population is much greater than in the halls of a liberal arts college.

So here’s what I want to know: Does diluting theory into an easy-bake recipe for the sake of accessibility within pop culture change the meaning of theory? Does it become appropriated by corporations as a tool for advertising and thus, oftentimes, working against the original theory itself? Or, on the other hand, is it necessary to make theory accessible to the general population to avoid the Ivory Tower complex and instead incite real cultural change?

And finally, is girl power useful for feminism? I think so (and a zig-a-zig ah!)


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