Gateway Spice

On the 20th anniversary of the Spice Girls' first album, I reflect on two decades of defending their commercial approach to feminism. 

November 21, 2016

Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine.  She tries to write regularly about arts, pop culture, music and why we should all be nicer...

In the fall of 1997, I was studying at a small progressive liberal arts university—the sort of school characters in Whit Stillman films or protagonists in Bret Easton Ellis novels love. At a party during welcome week, I found myself deep in conversation about Bikini Kill—a band I’ve loved since my first listen in 1992—with a group of female classmates. We talked about the group’s singer Kathleen Hanna, the riot grrrl movement and how fast we could finish our red solo cups of warm beer and start revolution girl style. I was convinced I had found my new best friends and we would be trading baby doll dresses and seven inches until graduation. Then I uttered the conversational equivalent of a turd in the punch bowl—no easy feat since the party guests included at least three nineteen-year-old white males from Burlington with trust funds and dreads who alternated games of hacky sack with talk about the oppression they faced daily.

“I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with the Spice Girls,” I said casually, after one of my new besties equated the group’s co-option of girl power with all that was evil in the world. The grrrls looked like I had just crashed my Bratmobile straight into their feminist analysis. It was safe to say our upcoming zine making workshop was on hold.

Courtney Love, MTV's Jersey Shore, US Weekly, pre-Wes Anderson Bill Murray and that season of The O.C. with Chris Pratt—these are just a few of the things I have passionately defended over the years. These pop culture battles were nothing, though, compared to the fiercest battle I have ever fought. In the case of Ginger, Sporty, Baby, Scary and Posh versus the riot grrrls, I was the defence and in the ‘90s I never seemed to rest. I defended the Spice Girls in women’s studies classes and women’s centre potlucks, proving it was possible to love both. Being both a Spice Girls fan and a riot grrrl definitely wasn’t easy and was often met with, to quote the fab five, “Who do you think you are?”


This month marks the 20th anniversary of Spice, the Spice Girls’ first album. Released on November 4, 1996 in Europe, Spice—also one of the group’s first names after the slightly creepy sounding Touch was thankfully vetoed—sold more than 31 million copies worldwide and remains the best-selling album by a female group. This past July, “Wannabe” the Spice Girls’ debut single, turned 20. The song was both the biggest-selling debut single and the biggest-selling single by an all-female group and reached the number one spot in 37 countries. According to a 2014 scientific study, “Wannabe” is the catchiest song of all-time and Spotify recently announced that the song had been streamed on the service for the equivalent of 1,000 years.

The success of the Spice Girls—in just seven weeks Spice sold 1.8 million copies in Britain alone, making them the fastest-selling British act since the Beatles—came at a time when British boy band Take That ruled the charts and Britpop bad boys like Blur’s Damon Albarn and Oasis’s Noel “Potato” Gallagher and their feuds made daily headlines.

The Spice Girls wouldn’t cross the pond until 1997, releasing “Wannabe” in the United States in January of that year, where the single held the number-one spot for four weeks. Spice was released a month later and would go on to be the biggest-selling album of the year stateside. By the time I arrived on campus in that fall, the Spice Girls were huge.

The band was definitely prepackaged bubble gum pop goodness, their platform sneakers had more depth than most of their music, but their music was a perfect fit with their fan base. The group’s fans were young girls and the Spice Girls’ music and message reflected this. If you watch 1997’s Spiceworld—which you should just for Meat Loaf as the bus driver of the girls’ Union Jack-sporting double decker bus—or any of the countless documentaries about them, the average age of an audience member appears to be about eight. Live show audiences were seas of preteens and their tortured-looking parents. Riot grrrls didn’t like the Spice Girls, but they weren’t supposed to. Two really was never supposed to become one.

In a 1998 Sojourner piece about the Spice Girls and girl power, author Jennifer L. Pozner commented, “It’s probably a fair assumption to say that ‘zigazig-ha’ is not Spice shorthand for subvert the dominant paradigm.” The Spice Girls' wannabe feminism may not have been heavy on feminist analysis, but that wasn’t the group’s intention. Were eight-year-old Spice Girls fans supposed to be listening to songs about sexual abuse and reclaiming the word slut? Trading in their teddy bears for Huggy Bear? Stealing all the Sharpies from the supply closet and using recess for local riot grrrl meetings?

The Spice Girls’ message stressed friendship, positivity, determination and being true to yourself. I think even riot grrrls would agree these aren’t necessarily bad messages for preteen girls to embrace. “Girl Power is about being able to do things just as well as the boys—if not better—and being who you wanna be,” said Sporty Spice (a.k.a. Mel C). Variations of Sporty’s message would be repeated in interviews and sound bites, and while it may have seemed manufactured to a twenty-four-year-old, to an eight-year-old it was fun and, maybe, even a little empowering. A chart-topping girl group that went on to be one of the biggest bands of all time telling young girls they have the power, not boys? I have to admit I was slightly envious. At that age, the only chart-topping girls I had to learn from were the ones in Duran Duran videos.

While their girl power message definitely lacked the substance of my friends’ grrrl power, hopefully a preteen would embrace the Spice Girls slogan and grow up to be a girl who puts a little more politics in her power. 

Criticism of the Spice Girls often focussed on the commercial nature of the band. They certainly didn’t embrace the riot grrrls DIY ethos (unless you count Gerri’s Union Jack dress, which was actually a tea towel sewn on to a Gucci dress). “We wanted to be a household name,” said Posh Spice. "Like Ajax." With earnings of up to $75 million a year, the group was definitely a household name and fans could buy everything from Spice Girls lunch boxes and Spice Girls Impulse Body Spray to Ginger Spice Cadbury chocolate and Spice Girls mini-backpack keychains. The Spice Girls wanted to be everywhere and they achieved that goal, but had fun doing it.

Many objected to the degree of control men and the male-dominated music industry exerted on the band. The Spice Girls formed in 1994 after members responded to an ad in The Stage asking: “R U 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance? R U streetwise, ambitious, outgoing and determined?” We just call this American Idol now. But for all their talent show beginnings, the Spice Girls weren’t always under the thumb of male managers and record executives. When the girls left their original management team, they performed the musical equivalent of a midnight move, stashing their demos in Ginger’s pants to ensure they maintained creative control. When their record label suggested the Spice Girls reshoot the “Wannabe” video to project a more polished image the group insisted on the original video, just as they had insisted “Wannabe” be their first single and not a more radio-friendly song that reflected the sound of popular girl groups at the time, like British R&B act Eternal. The Spice Girls regularly clashed with managers, media and record labels who wanted to tell them how things should be in Spiceworld.

In interviews, the girls were loud, crass and prone to pranks. Hardly the lady-like behaviour the mainstream press and music industry expected from a girl group. My first exposure to the band was the “Wannabe” video—hard to avoid since it was broadcast up to 70 times a week when it was released—which showed a group of in your face, brash and misbehaving ladies. They were clearly having fun and taking the piss out of the idea of making a video. It was also my introduction to the band’s archetypes and the idea the band championed that any girl could be a Spice Girl whether they were a tomboy, a girly girl or a ginger. Girls could see themselves represented in the Spice Girls and learn that, despite individual differences, the girls remained a tight unit. A peace sign-flashing girl gang where, it’s true, friendship never ends.

Though they were definitely not without their problems. The sole woman of colour in the band was called “Scary” and frequently exoticized, with leopard prints and wild hair. The girls sang about a “yellow man in Timbuktu.” Also, rumour has it they regularly turned off Posh Spice’s microphone, which isn’t very girl power.


Critics, such as Manifesta authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, worried the band’s mass commercialization resulted in what they called “Spice Girls Pencil Set Syndrome,” that fear that young girls would spend their babysitting money on products created by men that featured a slogan like “girl power,” but lacked the message’s meaning. My riot grrrl friends often argued that the Spice Girls took girl power, replaced the punk with pop, diluted it, depoliticized it and made it mainstream. Ginger Spice defined girl power—the group also named their first book after the slogan—as a “voice for the voiceless, screamed from a megaphone and kicked out hard: anything is possible.”

While their girl power message lacked the substance of my friends’ grrrl power, hopefully a preteen would embrace the Spice Girls slogan and grow up to be a girl who puts a little more politics in her power. Even Kathleen Hanna was optimistic, saying the Spice Girls’ girl power lite could be cool if “little girls are turning it into something that works for them or if people hear ‘girl power’ and they want to know more about it, so they go to the library instead of going to the mall.”

Riot grrrls liked to point out they used the “girl power” slogan first after it appeared on the cover of the second issue of Bikini Kill’s zine. Actually, neither the Spice Girls nor riot grrrls can lay claim to the slogan. One of the earliest uses of the slogan was in 1987 when it appeared in the song “'Girl to the Power of 6” by London all-girl band the Mint Juleps. The Oxford English Dictionary would add “girl power” in 2001 and both the riot grrrls and the Spice Girls would get shout-outs in the entry.


By the time the Spice Girls zigazighaed their way onto the scene, arguing about who had co-opted what just made me want a long nap—thank god there was a set of Spice Girls bedsheets for that. The scrappy Sassy had become the still cool—but with way more Esprit ads and way fewer cute band alerts—Jane Magazine. Most of the riot grrrl bands, like Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile and Bikini Kill, had disbanded or were on hiatus. They had been replaced with the Biore Strip Lollapalooza known as Lilith Fair and with radio-friendly, acceptably angry female musicians like Alanis Morissette and Meredith Brooks. Even grunge goddess Courtney Love had gone mainstream.

The Spice Girls followed up Spice with 1997’s Spiceworld and Forever in 2000. They sold more than 80 million records worldwide and remain the best-selling female group of all time. They supposedly split for good in 2008, but reunited in 2012 for a brief stint to promote their musical Viva Forever! In July, a short video clip announced that three of the girls—Ginger, Baby and Scary—would be reuniting as Spice Girls GEM.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Wannabe,” Project Everyone’s Global Goals campaign released a makeover of the single’s video in July as part of the group’s campaign to raise awareness of women’s issues before a September meeting of world leaders at the United Nations. The popular viral video highlighted a list of issues; including violence against women, child marriage, the lack of quality education for girls and the gender pay gap. It didn’t feature the Spice Girls, but instead included lip synching from global girl power including; Sri Lanka’s Jacqueline Fernandez, Canada’s Taylor Hatala, and Nigeria’s Seyi Shay. “Girl power has come a long way. Take it further,” said the video’s call to action.

I like to think all those Ginger Spice Barbie-wielding six-year-olds who listened to “Wannabe” when it was released in 1996 harnessed that girl power and are now making videos like Project Everyone’s and advocating for the same issues the campaign does. Vagenda blog founder and co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett once referred to girl power as the millennials’ “gateway drug to feminism.” She just might have been right.

Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine.  She tries to write regularly about arts, pop culture, music and why we should all be nicer to Lindsay Lohan. She is sometimes referred to as “the girl who talks a lot about Nirvana on social media.”