The Spice Girls represent “bustier feminism” in the 90s. It is no accident that Enlightened Sexism, Susan J. Douglas’s new book, opens with a discussion of this band. They represent the negation of feminism by commercial cooptation. The Spice Girls are the pinnacle of Girl Power and bustier feminism. They placed Girl Power, a frosted cupcake of an ambiguous message about feminism, front and center in the public imaginary at the turn of the century.
According to Andi Zeisler’s Feminism and Pop Culture, the Spice Girls and the Girl Power they promoted were a “shorthand for a kind of a diet feminism that substituted consumer trappings for actual analysis.” Such vacuous feminism is easy to brush aside, easy to dismiss, particularly when it fades into a distant memory that occupies a small drop in the vast ocean of popular culture.
Fast forward to fourteen years later where the Web 2.0 and new communication technologies have changed the terrain by turning consumers into producers. In this new landscape, the Spice Girls anthem, “Wannabe,” gets remade over and over again, cutting the song from its moorings as either a “feminism lite” anthem or the hyper-commercialization it represented.
YouTube contains dozens and dozens of lip-synched, homemade “Wannabe” videos created by both females and males of different ethnicities and ages. The representational power these videos actually have is questionable. Some are overtly campy, while others are simply efforts at self-amusement. Some attempt to stick closely to the official video in style and dance moves, others bear little resemblance to anything but kids having a good time in their living rooms. Ultimately, the connection between these videos and any messages about feminism of either the “real” or cotton candy type recalls Douglas’s point. Pure fluff. Or maybe not…
The range of gender representations in these performances is ironic and accidental even though the stylistic choices the creators have made are obviously conscious and oftentimes self-referential. The range itself challenges normative gender roles by multiplying what sorts of genders are out there. We see young drag queens overtly camping it up, and straight males just goofing off with the squealing voices of the Spice Girls in the background. We see young girls caught up in the high-heeled baby-doll drama of Girl Power, to girls with tomboyish appearances who are rolling their eyes at the song even as they perform it.
Cumulatively, these performances throw into question not only the commercialization of femininity, but also feminist desires for powerful girls. The Seventeen Magazine style of femininity, which capitalism foists on women, deserves challenge, but the trick is to do so without negating the feminine. Take the tomboys. Yes, they roll their eyes at the commercial silliness of the Spice Girls, but they also uncritically reject femininity in and of itself, Spice Girls or otherwise. Similarly, take the (presumably) straight young males with their half-assed attempts at performing femininity to get a laugh. Their antics illustrate the fictive nature of gender, but they also denigrate girls and girlishness through ridicule.
It’s crazy that there are dozens and dozens of these videos. I don’t understand the underlying attraction. Moreover, as I try to squeeze meaning out of the multitudinous videos, I realize that the proliferation of Wannabe Spice Girls is also meaningless because representation, intention, and interpretation all slip and slide endlessly through the channels of Youtube. What does it add up to? Nothing, except a collection of the nothingness of self-amusement, self-creation, and self-gendering locked in the amber of YouTube until some DRM or copyright police takes it down with a cease and desist order.
My three faves: