Notes on Girl Power

The Selling of Softcore Feminism

Originally, of course, girl power was never meant to be consumer friendly; it was supposed to stick in the mainstream's craw. When Riot Grrrls rehabilitated the word girl in the early '90s, they were looking back to the wild, unsocialized tomboys of prepubescence for inspiration—chiming with sociologist Carol Gilligan's idea that adolescence is a calamity for female confidence and self-esteem. Riot Grrrls had seen firsthand, through their mothers, that being a grown woman involves making awful choices and sacrifices. Whereas girls still had all options open to them—none of life's roads were blocked off yet.

In place of sugar 'n' spice 'n' all things nice, the new grrrl was bratty, angry, and as nasty as she wanted to be (something Courtney Love made visual by wearing frilly, sexy little-girls' dresses that she called her "kinder-whore" look), while brandishing protofeminist slogans like "Grrrl Power" and "Revolution Grrrl Style." These attitudes circulated over the years through bands like Bikini Kill and fanzines with names like Girl Germs, Hungry Girl, Bust, and Bitch and their more recent webzine successors like Maxi, Wench, and gURL. All share a cynical, sarcastic tone—imagine Heathers meets Valerie Solanas with a smidgen of Parker Posey thrown in—that Bust's Stoller calls "shebonics."

Gradually, the shebonic voice and the nasty grrrl attitude hit the mainstream, first through Love, and then, in much diluted form, with the multiplatinum-selling Alanis Morissette. Faint echoes of girl-power edginess persist in such crass post-Alanis pop product as Meredith Brooks's "Bitch," and the Spice Girls' anthem "Wannabe." The Spice Girls' official book, Girl Power!, is plastered with slogans like "Girl power is when...you believe in yourself and control your own life." Pushing sisterhood ("You stick with your mates and they stick with you") and equal rights ("I expect an equal relationship where he does as much washing up as I do"), the Spice Girls have done the seemingly impossible: they have made feminism, with all its implied threat, cuddly, sexy, safe, and most importantly, sellable. As Paul Bennett admits, "All our clients are like, Find us the next Spice Girls!"

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The selling of softcore feminism

With their boisterously physical, unladylike antics in videos and a kung fu kicking member whose nickname is Sporty Spice, the Spice Girls have tapped into what looks like the next stage of girl power: a weird mix of tomboyish athleticism and coquettish seduction. Call it "rad femme": rad as in surfer and skate-punk slang for cool, femme for the traditionally feminine trappings like lipstick and barrettes.

Gwen Stefani of No Doubt could be the poster girl for rad femme. In concert, she cuts a striking if somewhat unnerving figure: her buff body stomps boisterously around the stage, sweat dripping from her quarterback shoulders and washboard abs as she lunges and leaps, while that squeaky, Betty Boop voice emerges from her heavily made-up, almost doll-like face, complete with lacquered '40s bob. Stefani simultaneously revels in her femininity ("I'm a girlie girl type and I like to...get all made up and do all that stuff," she told the online zine Foxy) while mocking, in the hit song "Just a Girl," those who would rein her in or belittle her.

Marketers seem to be betting their money on the rad femme: Both Lady Footlocker and Mountain Dew have recently run commercials that showcase feisty but feminine girls. Lady Footlocker's ad features a menacing grunge remake of Helen Reddy's saccharine pseudofeminist anthem of the '70s, "I Am Woman," while Mountain Dew's ad relies on a punked-up version of an old standard—the condescending Maurice Chevalier ditty "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"—sung by Ruby (a/k/a Lesley Rankine, formerly the aggressive front woman of Silverfish, for whom she coined the protoRiot Grrrl slogan "Hips, Tits, Lips, Power"). Crooning the patronizing lyric "Little eyes so helpless and appealing," Rankine tilts her shaved head sardonically and sneers, "then they flash and send you crashing through the ceiling." All this is intercut with shots of lanky, raucous girls, and footage of wildwomen—young ski champion Picabo Street, a skydiver, a rollerblader attached to helicopter—careening off dangerous precipices. As they take the plunge, they each let loose a savage girl-holler—the kind of roar you might hear in a Hole or Bikini Kill song, but stripped of anger and transformed into purely joyous exuberance.

It's thrilling to see such female fierceness portrayed on TV, something unthinkable even a few years ago. Yet below the surface lies a very traditional kernel. The commercial ends with a bunch of dopey, awestruck skate dudes who gaze dizzily back at the gang of tough girls; one of the boys bleats, "I think I'm in love." A crucial coda, these boys have been tacked on to reassure the target market of young women that you can be ferocious and girl-powered but also desired.

The rad femme's composite of tomboy and hyperfemininity raises the question: Is this new Mountain Dew-approved version of girl power merely feel-good feminism, with all the struggle and critique removed; a defanged politics that's about being active instead of activist? Probably. But it could be argued that, in this mediagenic age, being stylized and diluted is a fair price for being disseminated throughout the wider culture. Sure, these commercials leech on girl power, but in a weird way they also act as advertisements for softcore feminism as much as for a soft drink. You might even say that the Spice Girls, those sex kittens in rebel's clothing, have given many prepubescent girls their first taste of feminism, however compromised. As Bust editor Marcelle Karp says, "Let [the Spice Girls] get up on MTV or in the movies and remarket feminism and call it girl power. Put that out there, let the girls soak it up and think about what girl power really means."

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