I felt a lot of things when I read that it was the 20-year anniversary of the release of the song Wannabe by the Spice Girls – initially, a spiritual and physical shudder reverberated deep inside my bones at the comprehension of how incredibly old I am, that each and every one of us are not long for this world, and that life is but a fleeting blip that will be over before we realise. The other main feelings were nostalgia, and gratitude. Nostalgia makes sense; I remember being 13 and completely overwhelmed at leaving a primary school in the country that consisted of 32 students in total, and starting at a school 40 times the size, where I bonded with others over this bold and new and exciting song.
The gratitude made less sense, but soon became obvious: the Spice Girls helped me realise that the world was a big place, with many different personalities and places, full of campness and diversity. They not only helped me find people to bond with – but they actually helped me on the path to becoming the feminist I am today. It might sound ridiculous, but bear with me.
Everyone needs an entrance to feminism. Through family, role models, education, or experiences, there are so many ways young women can be introduced to the concept in broad terms. For some of us, especially those who came of age in the 90s before the ‘wokeness’ of the Internet, it wasn’t through feminist theory books, or family discussions about patriarchal societal structures over dinner served from those disposable metal boxes your mum prepared on the weekend. For those of us who grew up in families where discussions mainly revolved around where this week’s rent was coming from, or whether or not you got to see your mum that week because of her work hours, dialogues about issues like feminism were not prioritised, no matter how incidentally feminist your parents happened to be.
What started me considering my place in the world as a girl, the thing that delivered me to the existence of feminism, was mainstream female-led pop music. Specifically, it was being 12 years old and experiencing the No Doubt song ‘Just a Girl’, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album, and the Spice Girls’ entire oeuvre. ‘Just A Girl’ felt like it spoke directly me – the girl with three brothers who was treated differently purely because she was a girl. Alanis was more in the spirit of the 90s, appealing to the girls who were more politically minded and angry at the world. All of this music rebelled against the grunge and Britpop era we were living in, where sad, cool boys reigned supreme. Especially the Spice Girls, who were brash, loud, vibrant, slightly obnoxious, positive, and fun.
The thing that delivered me to the existence of feminism was mainstream female-led pop music.
The mainstream part of ‘mainstream music’ is important to note here – I grew up in regional Queensland, went to a tiny school, and my family did not get a computer until 1999. Yes, the Spice Girls coopted the idea of Girl Power from the riot grrrl movement, and yes, ideally 12-year-old girls would have been listening to Bikini Kill instead of buying into a manufactured feminist-lite group of voracious capitalists that sold feminism to the masses in the shape of Spice Girls Impulse body spray – but that just was never going to happen for me.
Instead, I bought into what the Spice Girls were selling – which was, yes, actual products – but importantly, then and for the rest of my life, the concept of Girl Power.
Acts like the Spice Girls and Alanis got me hooked onto the sweet, sweet narcotic of women having a voice, and being dominant. I would listen to Alanis and her righteous anger, and I would watch interviews with the Spice Girls where they would constantly talk about the importance of female friendships, of women sticking together and being powerful and not needing men – and I hooked those concepts up to my young and supple veins. I would see their faces on the cover of Smash Hits instead of the usual men. I would watch their video clips and see women espousing the messages of sexual autonomy and female solidarity. And with these messages flowing, it led me down the path of learning more. It led me to broaden my horizons, to listen to riot grrrl music, to read about feminism, to be aware and educated and passionate. It led me to espouse the Good Word to others.
Where Alanis felt feminist in the way she carved out a space in a very male-dominated field, and was unabashedly herself – the Spice Girls were overt, and shouted about Girl Power everywhere they went. They weren’t Taylor Swift, saying that they wouldn’t call themselves a feminist, only to backtrack later when the value of feminism as a commodity made itself clear. This was the Spice Girls’ thing. And at the time, it was huge – we didn’t have access to the kind of information and knowledge that young people do now, where it is easier to be critical of the commercialisation of feminism, the impact that capitalism has on women, and to have instant access to a huge array of different knowledgeable voices.
The Spice Girls were never perfect… but they were my gateway drug to feminism.
Information was not thrust into our faces in the same way. It would have been much easier to remain ignorant of feminism. So the small moments mattered. At one point in the 1997 movie Spice World, Ginger scares off an interested guy by talking about feminism. He literally runs away, and all of the Spice Girls laugh at him. They planted the seeds in my mind, and the minds of countless other young girls, that feminism is important and valid and should be thought about and yelled about wherever you go.
Wannabe recently got a 2016 makeover by the Global Goals campaign, emphasising the need for greater awareness of women’s issues, from the gender pay gap to child marriages. It stars a range of women from across the globe, from Sri Lanka to Nigeria. Unlike the Spice Girls’ version (and their careers), it focuses on issues that affect the most disadvantaged of girls and women, not just the problems of privileged white Western women who have money to spend on branded Impulse deodorant cans. The Spice Girls were never perfect, nowhere near it. I am not a perfect feminist either. But they got me started. They were my gateway drug to feminism, helping to put me on the path that led to the creation of the feminist monster I am today. And that is pretty zig-a-zig-ah, if you ask me.