Just a Little Girl, Big Imagination

Scary, Sporty, Baby and Posh
Sold themselves as feminists and raked in the dosh
The world stood up and listened when our mothers burned their bras
Now Girl Power’s just a slogan for the latest superstars
Everybody knows and everybody cares
About their famous idols and the attitudes they share
But if you want my advice, don’t believe the hype
Each “Spice” is just a gender stereotype.

I wrote these words in 1997 and performed them as a rap (yes, actually), in my drama group’s end-of-term piece, Don’t Want “Wannabe” – critiquing pop culture through sketch comedy and showing off my command of GCSE Sociology terminology was how I spent weekends when I was 14. I recall my thankfully brief dabble in the rap genre because the Spice Girls were in the news again recently, and a piece in which Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett describes the group as her “gateway drug to feminism” got me thinking about how we relate to cultural objects we have left behind, and to the younger versions of ourselves that held them dear.

Though I never became a Spice Girls fan, I accept that they played a significant role in many girls’ early ideas about gender. Cosslett’s assertion that “Girl Power” is “the only discourse surrounding female empowerment […] accessible to a seven-year-old” is demonstrably untrue, but if she got something out of it, I won’t hold that against her. Others do, with comments rehashing a familiar argument: “You came to feminism through something I think is crap, therefore your feminism is crap.” This strikes me as poor form and flawed logic. When I was 6, feminism was imagining Barbie as the CEO of Bloomingdales: a jet-setting, high-powered, business woman who could buy all the shoes. At 17, I was emulating the shock tactics of Madonna, performing a provocative dance to “Human Nature” in hot-pants, fishnets and heels, on stage in my (catholic) school. These things don’t define me, but they don’t embarrass me either: they’re in the past.

Cosslett somewhat sets her up for this kind of criticism: if you suggest that the Spice Girls “made” you into a feminist, people may conclude that they made you into a particular kind of feminist – one you will be forevermore. Emphasising a single entry-point to feminism seems to me to obscure the subtlety of personal development. Maybe some people do have epiphanies – perhaps being visited by the ghost of Simone de Beauvoir, who, waving a fairy-Godmother wand, bestows the gift of feminism. Personally, I feel my feminism has been shaped and informed by a huge number of factors (personal experiences, influential people, engagement with pop culture)* and, like everything else about me, continues to change. Narratives of “awakening” draw a line between the benighted and the enlightened; the latter are fully-formed, beyond influence or critique, while the former are pitied and patronised.

Perhaps you’re familiar with “I used to love Sex and the City/ Cosmo magazine/Charlie’s Angels/My Little Pony but then I had my FEMINIST AWAKENING and I realised those things were BAD and that I was a DELUDED IDIOT for liking them.” I’ve participated in this kind of talk in the past. Now it makes me cringe, like when I found a diary I’d written at the age of 11, that my 14-year-old self had later scrawled over, describing my earlier words as “immature” and “pathetic”. It’s easy to roll our eyes at the things we did “before we knew better” (like rapping, for example). Yet I wonder what we imply about children and young people, and the value of their perspectives, when we vehemently dismiss the ideas and feelings of our younger selves, or shame others for their fledgling feminisms?

For all the great analysis of Twilight out there (amid fantasies of Buffy kicking Bella’s butt in an empowered-heroine death-match), I haven’t seen anyone really engage with fans, to learn what they get out of the story. This omission risks alienating those young people from feminism, as well as leaving a gaping hole in the analysis. I’m not suggesting we refrain from critiquing pop culture for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, but that a curious and empathic approach to fans’ experiences, rather than a judgmental one, facilitates a deeper understanding, and a better critique. As well as being, you know, nicer.

I don’t want scathing self-censure to be among the ways I relate to my younger self, both because I find it mentally unhealthy, and because I believe that treating myself with compassion is the necessary foundation for approaching others in the same way. This is a big and long-term project, but my interactions with pop culture are certainly part of the challenge (my Brian Harvey crush? Pretty hard to empathise with nowadays). Conversely, I’m wary of rose-tinted glasses. Critical capacities are easily impaired by nostalgia and by the proprietary feelings so carefully crafted by marketing execs (Cosslett writes, of the Spice Girls, “they were mine”), and another danger of the awakening narrative is that that which “awoke” us becomes sacrosanct.

I recently discussed with a friend our ambivalence about The Vagina Monologues, a play to which countless women attribute their feminist awakenings. I got a lot out of seeing and staging the play at uni, but have later come to share many of the criticisms of Ensler’s work – for example, around its essentialism, ethnocentricity, cissexism and anatomical incorrectness (The Vulva Monologues, surely?). That I, at the age of 19, found The Vagina Monologues unequivocally wonderful and totally empowering is no counterargument to these critiques – in fact, they illuminate how my white, middle-class, Western, able-bodied, cisgender privileges situate me as the implied audience of a play that purports to speak to all women. Yet I recognise in myself a troubling desire to defend or redeem the VMs, born out of a sense of loyalty and fond memories.

I want to be able to look at former treasures with an analytical gaze – neither clouded by sentimentality nor predisposed to scorn. I don’t want to dismiss the ideas, opinions and feelings of my 6, 14 or 19 year old self, and implicitly devalue the perspectives of my juniors in doing so. I want to acknowledge the impact that things have had on me at different times in my life, but look at them afresh from where I stand now. I guess what I’m trying to cultivate is a kind of compassionate critique – which will hopefully stand me in good stead in years to come, when I will no doubt have moved on from some of the opinions expressed on Lipstick and Teeth!

* Cosslett actually acknowledges that she came to feminism because of a range of factors, (“my mum, the existence of the Child Support Agency […] the Tories, an incident that I cannot discuss for legal reasons”) but presumably “the Spice Girls were my Gateway Drug” makes a snappier and more topical for a comment piece.