Ten years ago the Spice Girls were born, and with them, so-called Girl Power. But in this coruscating denunciation, CAROL SARLER argues their message was a perversion of feminism for which a generation of women have paid a terrible price
The heat was unbearable then, too, in July 1996. But even hotter than the blistering sunshine was the spectacularly branded, packaged, marketed, hyped and, frankly, horrible first single, Wannabe, from a new band called the Spice Girls.
Whoooosh, it went: right up to No 1. For seven weeks. And cheers all round as something called —with risible inaccuracy — Girl Power arrived in Britain.
This week there will be those who raise another glass to mark the ten years since this phenomenon burst onto our social landscape. But there will also be those, and please count me among them, who can think of nothing except the bad that came from the influence of those petty, shallow icons of what was once dubbed Cool Britannia.
It would be absurd, of course, to lay every teenage pregnancy, every inebriated ladette or every cheap tart sleeping with her sixth holiday ‘romance’ in a week at the feet of five barely competent girl singers.
It would be fair, however, to recognise that they presided over a period that saw young womanhood spiral into a previously unimaginable decline; that they wrote its soundtrack, they sang its theme, they invited a generation to play along — and that altogether too many women sadly did.
Just when we thought we were doing so well, too.
The 30 years before the Spice Girls came along had seen unparalleled changes in the lives of women; it’s hard to believe, now, that in 1966 there was not even ready access to the contraceptive Pill that would hand us the chance, for the first time ever, to control our bodies, and therefore our lives.
We seized that chance with relish. If we never quite managed to have it all, we nonetheless gave it a damn good shot as we taught ourselves and, later, our daughters that diligence, hard work, honed skills and the occasional good old strop for ‘wimmin’s rights’ would win the day. In the process, perhaps we even persuaded reluctant men that they could trust us to be competent, able and equal partners at home and at work.
Who would have thought, then, that a few short years later, women in professional life would be rewarded with such paltry returns compared with the millions ‘earned’ by reality TV ‘stars’ such as Jade Goody or Chantelle, or footballers’ partners such as Coleen McLoughlin, for doing absolutely nothing at all?
But then, who could have guessed, only ten years ago, that the path would have been forged for them to do so by an indifferent little band who would turn our happy revolution on its unsuspecting head?
From the start, artistry was not involved. The Spice Girls came into being precisely as they would remain: an artificial construct, designed and marketed by what, at the time, was a word still new to most of us — spin.
An advertisement was placed in The Stage, a usually venerable journal of the dramatic arts, inviting ‘streetwise’ young women, between the ages of 18 and 23, to audition for a band. If ability entered the list of requirements, it was hard to see where.
Only one of the group, Melanie Chisholm, 20 at the time the band formed in 1994, was ever considered to have a decent voice, while the others varied from passable to dire; is there anyone who can forget Geri Halliwell serenading the Prince of Wales with a Happy Birthday so off-key as to make the royal teeth ache?
What was worrying, however, was not the inevitable caterwauling that would emerge from such ungifted vocalists, but that it taught diehard young fans that the absence of talent does not matter a jot in this day and age. My daughter would patiently explain to me that the pouty one, Posh, was the one who couldn’t sing at all — so that’s why she rarely had lines to herself, but just joined in on choruses. The message was: girls don’t need actually to be able to do anything; just get that image right and, honey, you’re off.
It was a credo that would permeate every aspect of the band and its presentation, from the vapid, passive lyrics (‘It’s you I know that I have got to feed / Take from me what you feel that you need’) all the way to the carefully-selected nicknames imposed upon them. Dismally, depressingly, you could choose to aspire to Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger (which, until the very last moment, was supposed to be Sexy) or, most enduringly but least plausibly, Posh.
No trace of clever, sharp, brave, smart, kind, ambitious, resolute or strong; just come-hither Ginger, in that ridiculous union flag dress, squeezing breasts from its top and flashing knickers from its skimpy bottom.
Hard as it is to credit, there were attempts to describe these promoters of under-achievement as viragos of feminism, a claim that would make even those of us who have never described ourselves as feminists choke on the word. It was a claim that drove a feminist friend of mine to declare ruefully that: ‘This is not why we stormed the barricades.’
But I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really, really hate — and that is the trump card in the promotions package, the most outrageously inaccurate of all slogans, ever: Girl Power. Power? The Spice Girls were the antithesis of the very idea, in both their professional and their personal lives.
At a stroke they put the sexual clock back by decades.
They mocked the efforts and the goals of their predecessors by reviving an image of young women that depended entirely on the superficiality of appearance, looking and acting as if they were unthreateningly stupid, and all the while emphasising the importance of flashing enough flesh to grab yourself a man.
While their slightly older sisters had striven to get the jobs to earn the money to buy the hammers to smash through glass ceilings, and while their slightly older cousins, especially, perhaps, the Asian girls of modest backgrounds and equally modest dress, were queueing to take their places to study medicine, finance and law — in other words to prove, to really, really prove they were as good as any man — this bunch of chumps thought their over-sexed antics constituted female power. As if.
One of the greatest ironies, of course, is that the Spice Girls were the invention of a man.
Several, actually — but most especially an invention of the manager who took them to the top: Simon Fuller, by all accounts a nice enough chap and a brilliant practitioner of image control.
It was Fuller, mindful of men’s fantasies and women’s spending power, who exercised control of his new pets; his master-stroke was to take what was in fact his manipulation and allow these girls to call it their Power.
The pity is that it was such a seductive idea that plenty of girls bought in, wholesale, to the Fuller philosophy.
Today, every day, you see what it did for them. You cannot open a newspaper without bearing witness to what some of these girls still like to call Power.
This is the ‘power’ that takes them, cut-price and gagging for it, all the way to Faliraki, there to lay bare their bodies and souls under the numbing influence of the least expensive ouzo, bought by Greek lads who can’t believe their luck.
These are the British girls who honestly think that because they made the first move — ‘Do you think I’m really cool and sexy / I know you want to get with me’, sang the Spices — they’re the ones in charge.
It is the ‘power’ that fills the gaps between such salubrious vacations with sodden Friday nights in wine bars, where girls show off their sophistication to the boys by drinking them under the table.
Today, more than a quarter of our 15- and 16-year-old girls are binge-drinking, outstripping boys of the same age and, while they’re at it, most other European countries, too.
So what’s a little vomit between friends? It’s their choice, innit?
It is the same ‘power’ that takes them — of their own volition, naturally — to hang around, scarcely dressed, wherever the most stupid football players can be found, so that they may be sexually used and abused.
Power, to these girls, has come to mean doing exactly what you want to do, exactly when you want to do it.
As the Spices sang: ‘Give me what I’m needing / You know what I’m dreaming of / Don’t wanna know about that love thing.’ So that’s romance firmly in its place then.
This was presumably much the thinking when seven — yes, seven — girls made the news earlier this month for getting pregnant by the same teenage boy: ‘Give me what I’m needing’ — never mind the consequences, they say. I can manage. Except, we know, they can’t.
Nearly 40,000 girls under 18 are getting pregnant every year, which is a disaster for them, whether or not they choose to have the baby — and, nine times out of ten, it is a disaster for the baby if they do, that being the proportion of single mothers who end up officially in poverty.
They have discovered that the ‘power’ to chuck your body about as you please becomes horribly powerless without the resources to take care of what happens next.
Meanwhile, even those young women who don’t have children to support are playing irresponsibly with financial fire; a survey this week showed that eight out of ten of them, between 21 and 25, out-spend what they earn.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised, when Victoria Beckham appears on the ski slopes in £8,000 of designer ski-wear, with little intention of actually skiing.
And what lessons do the lives of the Spice Girls themselves have for us?
Although two of them, Geri and Mel B, are single mothers, the early efforts — not of their own, but of the genius of Simon Fuller — ensure that, whatever else, their little girls will be fed. But what else can we say for any of them?
Professionally and personally, the bells began to toll after they arrogantly split from Fuller late in 1997, believing they didn’t need him; when they finally disbanded, early in 2001, all the Girl Power they could muster did not save them from, at best, a swift tapering of a career and, at worst, public humiliation.
Geri Halliwell perhaps is the most desperate to cling to waning fame. She moved to Los Angeles to ape the properly famous, complete with ‘bug’ shades and bodyguards, and going to acting classes that nobody takes seriously because nobody believes they’ll work.
Then she had a child alone, which was exposed to public scrutiny for no better reason than that she cannot decide whether or not she likes its two-week-stand father. Power, Geri? It’s pathetic.
And Victoria Beckham? Girl Power for her has come to this: big hair, small thighs, false breasts and an air of desperation that makes Geri Halliwell look fulfilled.
In fact, if I’m to propose a toast to anything on this grim anniversary, it will be to the continuing, inexorable decline of the Spice Girls, their legacy and all who sail in it.
When young women have finally lost all respect for these faded relics, they might turn it instead to where it’s long overdue and urgently needed — to themselves.