Notes on Girl Power

The Selling of Softcore Feminism

September 23, 1997

From the moment do-me feminism was coined (by a male Esquire writer) in 1994, it was inevitable that a magazine like Jane would be born. Although the term was reviled by the women it supposedly defined—attractive, prosex feminists of the Naomi Wolf genus—it did expose a growing trend among young women: a backlash against the perceived puritanism of traditional feminism, and a move toward the politics of pleasure.

But do-me feminism also described an emerging niche in the marketplace: young, free, and single 18- to 34-year-old women. Targeting this demographic, Jane—the monthly that made its debut last week—is the grown-up sister of Sassy, Jane Pratt's legendary teen magazine of the late '80s. Sassy had a serious agenda: to break through the sickly sweet fodder of Seventeen and its ilk, and put teenage girls in touch with the pleasure principle. Says Debbie Stoller, coeditor of the zine Bust and one of many then-twentysomething women who guiltily enjoyed reading Sassy, "The other teen magazines were about 'just say no' to everything, whether it was french fries or dick. Sassy was all about yes—the older you get, there's more and more things you can say yes to, and isn't that cool."

Jane arrives with little of this heady idealism. With more than $5 million of Fairchild money riding on it, Pratt's not likely to make many daring moves. At an idle glance, it looks a lot like your standard women's magazine: beauty and fashion advice, and endless ads featuring models so skinny it's hard to see where their internal organs might fit. Yet, within the narrow confines of the genre—one pretty much defined by its ability to stoke female anxieties and insecurities—Jane makes some subtle inroads. It avoids old chestnuts like "How to lose 15 pounds in 10 days," or "How to trap a man," instead continuing Sassy's emphasis on fun and independence with first-person accounts of a nudist retreat, kickboxing, and the hazardous life of a female pirate-radio DJ. The tone is feisty and the attitude is encapsulated in the subscription card: "Ever notice how most magazines are either for teenyboppers or baby boomers—filled with lame stuff about how to get a life? Hey, you've got a life! You're in your prime."

In her debut letter from the editor, Pratt, the perpetual teenager, admits that her first choice for a magazine name was Girlie. The appeal of that word is no fluke. Girl power has come to represent a whole new school of softcore feminism for thousands of (mostly) white, hip, middle-class young women. Girl reserves the right to think about clothes and makeup, but she still expects to be taken seriously. Girl isn't afraid to be obnoxious or snarly for fear she'll be seen as unfeminine. Girl wants a boyfriend but values her female friendships more. Girl knows she's as good as a guy, but she's proud to be girlie and to wield her girl power. Independent but not adult, pursuing a career but not exactly a "career woman," fierce but feminine, girl is a mess of contradictions and conflicts, sure. But when you get right down to it, she expects a lot from the world. As the online girlzine Minx puts it: "Can we please be smart AND want to get laid? We propose: Yes. We demand satisfaction. Meaning: Don't waste our time. Stay true to your word. Equal pay for equal work. And make us come."

At 34, Pratt herself is pushing the upper limits of girldom, heading toward arrested development. Yet she cannily understands that girl power is more than just a passing trend; it represents a new life stage. "It used to be that you would go from your family's home to your husband's home and that family," Pratt told the Voice. "Now there's this whole time in your twenties that gets ignored. The things you're interested in as a teenager don't necessarily drop off when you hit your twenties. Women in their twenties are not all dying to settle down and get married." In fact, in Jane's premiere issue a survey of women 18 to 34 conducted by Yankelovich reveals that "82 per cent believe a woman does not need to marry and have kids to have a full and rewarding life." Even more remarkably, "One in five say they don't know when they will feel like a grown-up."

Jane is a pioneer in the impending gold rush for the girl-power dollar. Waking from a great sleep, marketers, trendspotters, and product developers are discovering that the single-female 18-to-34 demographic is dripping with disposable income. (The average 25- to-35-year-old woman makes $25,000 a year, and spends about $1000 more than her male counterpart.) Several new young women's magazines are now in production hoping to capture this market (one of which, Siren, hit the newsstands this summer with the tagline FOR WOMEN WHO GET IT).

In the wake of Daria, the Beavis and Butthead spin-off about a supercilious teengirl, MTV is developing more female-centered programs, including a video show hosted by a Tank Girllike animated character called Cyber Cindy, and a program created by the editorial team behind Bust. Lifetime, the cable channel for women, has been working on a block of programming for twentysomething women called The Place, which they hope to spin off into a separate channel someday. Videogame creators, once fixated on the testosterone target, are struggling to create girl-friendly products such as Sega's new Enemy Zero game, which stars Jill Cunniff of the band Luscious Jackson. As for consumer goods, according to Nick Bennett of the brand-design agency nickandpaul, "It'll take about a year, and you'll start to see loads of products that reflect this new idea of femaleness. That's what everyone's salivating to tap into."

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!"

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."

Girl power may turn out to be fleeting, edged out by the culture's perpetual hunger for ever more risky pursuits, but chances are that in the process, it will expand society's ideas about what is acceptable and what's possible for young women. So perhaps, in the end, it's worth the price.


Additional research: Kelcey Nichols

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