Who Really Got Girl Power Going?
Ah, 1996, a time when the concept of Girl Power (!) on a mainstream front was still relatively novel. To a generation of young girls, the Spice Girls represented a fundamental embracing of everything it meant to be a girl growing up at the end of the 20th century: a celebration of femininity, sexiness, and sisterhood in five unique caricatures. For many, it was the start of accepting that it was okay to be an out-and-proud, female, sexual being, to demand respect, and to be unapologetically loud about it all. It felt, in short, revolutionary.
Image Description: Photo of someone's calves and ankles from the back. They are wearing black pants, rolled up, and long white socks with "Girls Rule" written on them in black, block letters. The person is also wearing maroon heels.
Except that … It really wasn't. In fact, the term "Girl Power" was coined by US punk band Bikini Kill. According to lead singer Kathleen Hanna, it was inspired by the "Black Power" movement, and the sex-positive, feminist message it represented was shouted from the rooftops for years by the likes of Salt-N-Pepa (formed in 1985), TLC (formed in 1990), Lauryn Hill, and Queen Latifah, just to name a few. These women had a few key things in common: they spoke frankly about sex, feminism, and power years before the Spice Girls showed up, and they were all women of colour making music in a particularly male-dominated genre. At the time, this genre had a more limited exposure to suburban white tween and teen girls (who would go on to become the Spice Girls' main demographic).
Before the Spice Girls were dancing on tables and espousing their right to be sexy and proud, Salt-N-Pepa had been there, done that. They had a host of songs dedicated to open and honest discussion of female sexual desire. 1993's “Shoop” turned the tables on female objectification, making a lusted-after man the song's subject ("Brother, wanna thank your mother for an ass like that!"), one the ladies are actively, even aggressively, pursuing.“None of Your Business” is a sharp, funny, opinionated admonishment of anyone who dares question a woman for sleeping around, bluntly asserting that: "If I want to take a guy home with me tonight / It's none of your business."
While the Spice Girls were shyly alluding to the importance of safe sex in songs like “2 Become 1”, where they sang "Be a little bit wiser baby / Put it on, put it on", TLC was actively advocating for HIV awareness and prevention on MTV and in music in 1992, a full four years before the Spice Girls even showed up. In fact, they were so serious about empowering young women to take control of their sexual health, they started wearing condom packets safety-pinned to their clothing and, in the case of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, even as an eye-patch. Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins told Teen Vogue, "We wanted to empower young girls to have their own stash of condoms and not to leave it up to the guys."
In perhaps the 90s most defining feminist anthem, Salt-N-Pepa sang, "Let’s keep moving forward, girls, never look back / Fight for your rights, stand up and be heard / You're just as good as any man, believe that, word.” Their message, emerging a full year before anyone had ever heard of the Spice Girls, wasn't the harbinger of the "Girl Power," mainstream phenomenon, though. The phrase only caught on a year later, when something popular predominantly with white girls and women, took the same message, repackaged it into something more palatable for middle-class suburbans, and became feminist icons. But they only reached this point by climbing on the backs of hip hop artists who had been saying the same thing, often much more explicitly and eloquently, all along. It's a tale as old as time, and (I say as a die-hard tween Spice Girls fan), one worth learning from.
By: Siri Williams
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