One of the first things I learned upon moving to Toronto in 2013 was that at any given 20-something party, someone would inevitably play “Wannabe,” the debut single by the Spice Girls. The whole room would be drawn together by it, making faces at one another, singing along — sometimes ironically but usually completely in earnest. More often than not,“Wannabe” introduced the beginning of a late 90s/early 2000s wormhole, which usually signified the end of contemporary music for the night (though not, by any means, the end of the party).
When I first moved to North America from francophone Europe, and by the time I made my way to Canada, I had already pieced together the gaps in my knowledge of Anglo pop culture. The Spice Girls phenomenon, however, still escaped me, though I quickly realized how important they were. I can remember a couple of different occasions when I was asked which Spice I identified with growing up. (Ginger—both a Spice Girl and an actual literal spice—was the easiest to remember.)
No other music from that period elicited as uniformly positive of a reaction from my peers as the Spice Girls. There were a couple good bets, like B*Witched and All Saints, but the Spice Girls were different. I had known their music growing up, but because I was the only English speaker among my friends, we didn’t bond over them the way my Canadian peers did in their middle schools.
The only prominent female artist I can remember from my Spice Girl years is Diam’s, a tomboyish French rapper who was popular in the early 2000s. She wore cropped hair and sneakers and stayed away from more feminine accessories like lipstick or long earrings; despite being a woman, she still chose to forego femininity. She was a girl with power, maybe, but there was nothing Girl Power about her.
For my friends back home, even though we’d have lengthy discussions about gender equality, it wasn’t trendy or fashionable: feminism was for political discussions, not iron-on patches.
When I visited home in Switzerland a few times after growing most of my political conscience in California, I noticed that my feminism had a different flavour than my friends’. For me, feminism comprised of two seemingly disparate, but closely related elements. On the one hand, it was a political ideology which I had read about and that I seriously, fundamentally believed in. Alongside that, it was also an accessory, something that I embroidered into my backpack and bought pins and tote bags about. But for my friends back home, even though we’d have lengthy discussions about gender equality, it wasn’t trendy or fashionable: feminism was for political discussions, not iron-on patches.
Ultimately, it felt like feminism in Europe just wasn’t as trendy as it was in America.
It strikes me as significant when reading about the Spice Girls that for most fans, merch was a significant part of their experience with the band. Looking at their history, selling is exactly what they were designed to do. Their most popular narrative is one of friendship — five gal pals from London who happened to make it big. In reality, they met and became friends after being selected among over 400 other girls through an audition by Chris Herbert, an English talent manager who saw the market potential of a young, female audience.
Reflecting on their meteoric rise, enormous cultural influence, and the residual impact of their legacy helped me put my finger on what it was about the Spice Girls that left me, growing up in a Francophone country, completely outside of this overwhelming phenomenon, a shared cultural experience that loudly celebrated girlhood in a way that could be tangibly bought and worn. The revolutionary thing the Spice Girls did was prove that it was possible to be successful not despite but because you’re a woman.
We had known for a long time that it was possible to be a woman and successful: throughout history there have always been talented and successful female artists, but there was something different about the approach with the Spice Girls. Their pop-feminism was designed to make millions of dollars, not just for themselves but for the people who managed them, wrote their songs, designed their clothes, and sold their merchandise; not in spite of but through femininity.
When I told my roommate I hadn’t had a personal experience of girlhood with the Spice Girls, or that there wasn’t a French equivalent to them, she was stunned. She asked: “But you’re a feminist. Where did you get your sense of Girl Power from?” But I never had a single source for Girl Power: for me, the source was my mother, who raised me as a single mother; Micheline Calmy-Rey, my president right before I moved away; Marie-Ségolène Royal, whose politics I didn’t understand yet but who came damn close to becoming the French President; my best friend, who often showed up the boys in our classes at the subjects they were supposed to be good at.
The revolutionary thing the Spice Girls did was prove that it was possible to be successful not despite but because you’re a woman.
But unlike the Spice Girls, my idols weren’t really anywhere. My mom has no merch. Micheline Calmy-Rey certainly has no merch. I never wore a Ségolène pin. There were women to look up to, but they weren’t to be looked up to for being women. Being a girl was nothing special — in the mainstream, girlhood wasn’t seen as a source of power like the Spice Girls framed it to be.
The Spice Girls fundamentally changed the pop music landscape by using commercialization to give the young Anglophone world an easy entry to a fashionable, palatable, and perhaps most importantly lucrative pop-feminism. Today, this is the same approach that brings us to The Future Is Female t-shirts and other grown-up versions of Girl Power paraphernalia.
Probably the most tangible impact the Spice Girls had on today’s media landscape is that they turned into a girlhood-fuelled money-making machine. In doing so, they paved the way for artists like Beyoncé to sell t-shirts with FEMINIST in bold, pink print — but they also made feminism a desirable enough aesthetic that it could no longer be ignored. Thanks for the tote bags!