Just two months before my 11th Birthday, the Spice girls released ‘Wannabe’ which hit me like a tonne of platform shoes. They were, quite simply, life.
I was flicking through music channels at my Mum’s house the other day. I don’t watch TV at home, so it’s always a rare treat to see what’s playing on Magic or Vintage.
‘Too Much’ by the Spice Girls came on which gave me a nostalgic giddiness only music from my childhood can. It was their second Christmas number one, and anyone who lives in the UK knows what a coveted trophy that it is.
That year, I had Spice Girls everything! Chupa Chups branded lollipops, a jigsaw, high-quality collectible photos and of course, the ‘Spiceworld’ album. It came out in November ’97, but I’m sure I had to wait until Christmas to have it. This was back in the day when singles came before albums and you’d have to ask Santa instead of instantly streaming.
While watching the ‘Too Much’ video, I couldn’t help but cringe inside at the obvious female stereotypes these five grown women were peddling to the youth of the day, myself included.
Yes, their brand of girl power was palpable but so was the power of suggestion.
Don’t get me wrong, they made me feel good on a surface level. My favourite past time was re-creating dance routines and I worshipped their style. As a creatively driven, imaginative kid, I’d stare at the same pictures of their outfits over and over again. I even had my own scrapbook and Spice Girls magazine I was the editor-in-chief of.
Typically, young girls would pick out their favourite member, usually if they had a relatable quality. Or they’d automatically inherit a girl to imitate within their group of friends due to physical attributes.That was clearly the idea and a very clever marketing ploy. The fact they hired five very different personalities was no mistake. As much as they’ll try to dress it up in documentaries, talking about instant connections, we all know there was a blueprint.
Who was my favourite Spice Girl? As with most things in life, I flip flopped between a few of them because I never truly felt like I identified with one in particular. Perhaps if they had an ‘Overweight, Shy, with a Strange Sense of Humour Spice’ I would have felt more included.
I guess I was lucky because it meant I didn’t throw myself into a box and get wrapped up in the ‘shoulds and shouldn’ts’ of a stereotypical childhood. Fitting in has never been easy for me and as a kid, it crippled me with fear. Now, I embrace it.
It’s not exactly breaking-news that pop groups are big business and dissecting the Spice Girls isn’t what some may deem a crucial matter. But let’s get real, pop music and celebrities sometimes have a far greater impact on a child than a school teacher or a subject ever will.
It’s sad, but it was completely true for me. I hated academic life and all I ever wanted to do was listen to music, sing and dance, even if it was just for my teddy bear audience of five.
The era of the Spice Girls and the subsequent bubble gum pop years were important for female kids, tweens and teens. The likes of Britney and Christina set the tone, and I’m pretty damn sure that the 2017 equivalent is even more influential.
Today, pop stars are purposefully intertwined through-out social media and into the lives of young girls. They’ve got access to a steady stream of celebrity Snapchat stories and religiously follow their (cough) real life on Instagram. What’s more, pop stars of today release singles and music videos like it’s going out of fashion. It’s all consuming, all of the time.
So, how did the Spice Girls perpetuate female stereotypes? Did they really pass the Girl Power torch to young girls across the world, or help to oppress girls further into stereotypical roles.
Baby Spice | Emma Bunton
You’d never get Mel B playing that role, even if her real life persona was Holy as Christ and as sweet as a maple glazed doughnut. Mel B does not fit the baby brief.
So a ten-year-old blonde kid would always play the role of Baby. Encouraged to smile, suck lollipops and wear short skirts. But it’s ok because the pigtails make it less sexual, right?
So did Emma’s character paint a picture for the youngster trying to imitate her? Did it subconsciously set a standard? Do the blonde hair and innocent eyes give her a leg up within society that would not have been afforded to one of the other girls?
Scary Spice | Mel B
Scary Spice, otherwise known as Mel B, had possibly the most shockingly stereotypical role of the group. The only woman of colour, deemed the ‘crazy one’ with big hair, ferocious animal patterned threads and a ball busting attitude.
Young black girls who were likely to relate with Mel B were fed the same old story. Scary Spice? Scary? Of all the five girls, her name is the only one that has any negative connotations. It’s the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype that black women are, quite rightly, sick of seeing within pop culture.
In recent years, there’s been some what of a backlash against the ‘Scary Spice’ title as racism in the music industry is increasingly put under the microscope. Mel B has been quick to point out that it was a ‘lazy journalist’ of a teen magazine that nicknamed the girls.
Other girls groups and pop stars of the time were a certain shade of white, so to have a strong black woman in the group was a refreshingly positive change. But I suspect it was only their intention to have one black girl, even if they came across three or four other brilliant candidates for the job.
I read a brilliantly written perspective on The Debrief website, by Tobi Oredein who praises Mel B for keeping her natural hair and not giving in to white beauty standards. I wonder though if this was the objective? What if one day Mel B felt like straightening her hair and dressing like Baby? The limitations the Spice Girls set in place perpetuated the stereotypes. It was as though girls were put into a pigeonhole and forced to make a home there.
Sporty Spice | Mel C
Sportswear was big news at the time, trust me, I had the Liverpool kit to prove it. Mel C represented young girls from economically challenged areas. She was aggressive and just like the girls I’d be scared to walk past at the park. She called out Liam Gallagher live on stage at the Brit Awards, gold tooth and all.
Sporty was actually one of my favorites because she was the singer of the group. Everyone loved singing her parts, but Baby had the cute outfits. I doubt many girls looked up to Sporty for her fashion or image. She wasn’t typically attractive in a mainstream pop culture sort of way, which reinforced the idea that girls who were into sports aren’t the ‘hot’ ones. Also, many accusations flew around of Mel C being gay which is yet another sporty girl typecast.
I really enjoyed this interview with Mel C on The Pool. She’s actually pretty chill and softly spoken.
Her struggles with bulimia and negative body image are well documented. All five girls were beautiful in their own right, but Sporty was always branded ‘the ugly one’ by boys or ‘the boring one’ by girls. That’s got to chip away at your self-confidence, and it clearly did have an impact.
Posh Spice | Victoria Beckham OBE
Posh Spice was my least favorite due to her wooden, robotic model like persona you’d see in those fashion magazines I was too young to read. I suspect older teens were her target audience. The kind of teens who were scraping together their wages from babysitting to buy the latest issue of Vogue. She was also a bit of a favorite for the Dad’s. She was a ‘real lady’ after all.
I can’t imagine any young kids relating to Posh spice. No one in my group ever wanted to be her, but then I didn’t have any posh friends. Her character confirmed the notion that if you’re posh, you like expensive shit and sleek, Chanel-esq fashion. This further solidified the idea that fashion is for rich people.
Posh was the opposite of Sporty. While Sporty rocked an Adidas track suit for the council estate kids, Posh donned an LBD for the middle-class wannabes. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like her. I grew up in a single parent home, and although my Mum did a wonderful job of making us feel like we weren’t poor, we were. It was pretty much an unspoken rule to hate on people who had money, which is sad.
Victoria Beckham’s persona in the Spice Girls set the precedent that women should be seen and not heard, love handbags and never smile.
Ginger Spice | Geri Halliwell
Ginger Spice was the Jessica Rabbit of the group. Big boobs, curves, a raspy voice and a cheeky wink. She’d spill out of her dress, pinch bums and nude photos from the past were always cropping up on the front cover of The Sun.
Clearly, the least amount of effort went into the name Ginger Spice. It probably went something like, “Well we can’t call her Big Tits Spice. She’s got ginger hair, so… Ginger?”
Women are more than tits and ass, way more. While the other four were sexualised to a degree, none more so than Geri Halliwell. For a woman who obviously had something to say and truly believed in the girl power manifesto, she was overshadowed by her chest size.
Perhaps this is why she shed so much weight on her return to pop? Her breasts defined her in the Spice Girls and as a woman, I imagine that’s pretty fucking annoying. She also had issues with bulimia, and it’s easy to see why being Ginger Spice would encourage that illness.
I’m not taking away from the individuals within the Spice Girls. I’m sure the characters they portrayed stemmed from a place of authenticity, but it also glamorised the stereotyping of women. It’s a blue print which will continue, I’m sure. Maybe the lines will be a little blurry as time moves on but I couldn’t discuss pop stars of today with any level of authority because quite frankly, I know fuck all about them. A fact, I am grateful for.
I checked out of that bubble when I discovered nu-metal. That’s not to say nu-metal is any better, stereotypes are everywhere. Loving nu-metal as a teen somehow led me to believe that someone who had a spiked metal belt, tattoos, and baggy jeans made them a better person.
Obviously, realisation comes with age, or at least it should. As an adult I know someone who listens to Pantera can be as much of a wanker as someone who listens to auto-tuned, sexually charged, manufactured pop garbage. I’m not exactly on the fence regarding my tastes, apologies if you’re a fan of the latter.
Spice Girls were my everything, but with hindsight, they probably didn’t help me as a young kid who constantly felt pressure to be pretty, thin and popular. Their overt sexuality and the age of the target demographic will never sit right with me. But at the same time, they did promote a girl group culture and help open the floor for a ‘girl power’ discussion in mainstream pop culture.
I’ll forever cherish those memories of busting out the ‘Say You’ll Be There’ dance in front of the whole school wearing an orange mini skirt and leopard print silk blouse. It was probably inappropriate, but I didn’t realise at the time and ignorance is bliss.