As observed before, the vexing question on many-a-bloggers’ poised fingertips has prompted of our brave opiners to defer to the lowly masses for relief. With such varied and clever headlines as Dolly Parton: Feminist Icon?, or Dolly Parton, a Feminist Icon?, or also Dolly Parton: Feminist Icon?, we are (I think) asked to decide: is Dolly Parton a feminist icon?
Let me save you some sweaty, thrashing nights: Yes.
Is Ann Coulter a horrible bitch? Is pizza delicious? Is U2 the most perplexingly overrated band of all time ever–quite possibly agents of an elaborate global conspiracy to drive me slowly, torturously insane? Yes, yes, and yes. These are elegant human truths. Let’s not needlessly waste more time confirming them as such.
Now, I’ve been putting this off for one reason or another, but I feel it is finally the right time to investigate the merits of a true feminist enigma. I speak of course of the Spice Girls. Let me rephrase that.
Spice Girls: Feminist Icons?
I suspect most are inclined toward “uh, no” for understandable (if predictable) reasons. They are a product out of the capitalist pop music-machine, crafted to exploit vacuous tween consumer binging, with half-hearted offerings of “girl power” which is little more than an elaborate marketing ploy to contain and trivialize the seeds of true feminist leanings and regurgitate it back to the undiscriminating masses who actively participate in the their own subjugation to the capitalist regime.
What I take issue with here is the assumption that Spice Girls fans (which I suspect is a fair chunk of the girl population in the 1990s industrialized world) are morons, that they as consumers are blank canvases passively lying down while consumer capitalism mounts.
Despite curmudgeonly rants of the Frankfurt School, girls (and consumers in general) are not an undifferentiated inert mass. They are a dynamic and diverse public, warring constantly against the escalating implications of patriarchy, the dangerous and thrilling power of sexuality, the domination of their parents, the Total Institution of school, the alienation of youth, and on and on. The terrifying speed with which these forces escalate require her to hastily fashion a culture from readily available resources resulting in a gaudy, tacky bricolage. She’s like a prototype of “the bag-lady”, hiding behind shields junk, finding refuge in the otherwise discarded the excess of the mainstream.
Now on the flip side, we have the hot-pink clad warrior angels swooping down to the mosh-pits of earth delivering feminism as it should be (or so I’m told): The Riot Grrrls. Feminist aesthetics has yet to evolve much beyond the abrasive legacy of this punkish movement, for alas we are still cooped up in the Amherst dorm rooms of our mind, oscillating pathetically between Bratmobile and Lilith Fair alumni (I love both btw, but lets be honest…).
I think it’s fair to say that, for better or worse, the Spice Girls would never have been possible without Riot Grrrls forging the path. In fact, they are viewed by much of the feminist community as a coopt of Riot Grrrl ideology by the mainstream, thus a desecration of feminist ideology.
But this far too simplistic a reading. The Spice Girls, as a text, is negotiable. One major reason Spice Girls were so successful is thanks to their semiotic overflow. They offered up a hurricane of iconography, over here “girl power”, over there “sex-sells”, we have the local and the international, the sacred and the profane, pop and film, merchandise and costume, honesty and parody, the list goes on with endless baroque, anti-bourgeois offerings to the alter of popular culture, to be consumed and selectively read by the receiving public.
Most analysis seems to stop at the point of purchase. If the Spice Girls are marketed just so, within a system that desires this that and the next, then when the 12 year old exchanges $3 for a Spice Girl poster at Wal-Mart, then they have been duped and “the system” wins.
Does no one wonder what these girls do with the product once it is theirs? Is she simply putting the poster up on a blank white wall, to be admired as she contemplates how else she might feed the capitalist beast, OR does the poster find its place in a milieu of patched together imagery with complex and personal significations on her desecrated bedroom wall? Does she listen to the album in a silenced bourgeois forum, or does she get together with her best friends and blast it full volume while they bolt around her front yard in costume, tearing their voices as they make a spectacle any drag queen would admire? Spice Girls products were not treated with respect, and admired for what they were– they were used up, destroyed and refashioned to suit the personal purposes of their possessors.
In the latter hypothetical, these girls are living the ideology of the Riot Grrl movement. They are being loud, unapologetic, adorning themselves in the tropes of femininity with that wild pastiche of the adolescent girl, in a girls only, girls rule, fuck you everyone else, zigazig-ah bitches, culture not strictly of their own making, but made to conform to their requirements of it. The ability of the Spice Girls to shape-shift in the hands of their possessors is responsible for their international appeal. Spice Girls in Hong Kong are used by girls differently than they would be used in Hallifax. The semiotic excess of the Spice Girls makes it possible for the consumer to pick and chose what is relevant to them and fashion a (mostly) girl-centered folk culture out of the available material.
Riot Grrls were waging an overt warfare, but warfare is not what these girls need, or are even capable of. They are far too disempowered. Guerilla tactics are the art of the weak, and guerilla feminism is the sort of feminism The Spice Girls offered up– it creeped around in camouflage. The Spice Girls are not only a commodity but a resource for girls—a menu of possible meanings, to be chosen from by their fans whose choices include the group’s message of “girl power”, their wild behavior, their loud, gross, kiss-my-ass attitude, “girlfriends before boyfriends” ideology, and more all piling up in a cultural junk-drawer to piece together a personalized feminist-thought, the most subversive aspects of which are hidden in plain sight.
To my memory, girls didn’t choose a favorite Spice Girl, they chose the Spice Girl they “were”. During lunch time in my 5th grade class, I was always Scary Spice, but at home with my Ginger Barbie, I would “be” her. It was an amazing position to be in as a girl—in becoming a Spice Girl I felt like the link between my mundane suburban reality and the jet-set, glitter-glamour, big-mouthed, pow, kazaam world of these women. I walked between the two worlds when I wore leopard print and laughed with my friends as we acted out the music videos, which required us to kick and scream and jump and twirl, if we were to properly inhabit the Wannabe world before us.
The Wannabe video, after all, positions the Spice Girls as the carnivalesque “other”, infiltrating and desecrating the severe world of the bourgeois who are aghast but helpless before the destructive power of these crude girls. The above behavior is emblematic of the rock ‘n’ roll male disrespect for authority, which is seldom seen enacted by women in the mainstream. They align themselves with the liminal teenager– recognizing the impulse for rebellion in the teenage girl.
I still get that kind of maniacal feeling when I listen to Wannabe, which opens with a door slamming, laughter and “Yooo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want” mwahaha! Brilliant. Given the many readings so plural an act as the Spice Girls offered up, why on earth wouldn’t more feminists chose grasp this jubilance and hold on tight?
Anywayz, the Spice Girls were rather grown up when they traipsed around the globe, professing “girl power” acting in solidarity with a demographic all too often loathed and shirked by the idols who stand on their shoulders. The Spice Girls never tried to alienate their fan base and they never sought to “trade up” their audience (we hear this kind of language used for idols that graduate to the masculine forum like the Beatles, or recently Justin Timberlake). The Spice Girls were proud girl-culture ambassadors.
I am not suggesting that the Spice Girls had revolutionary potential. They did not. But they had progressive potential, where girls like me could scavenge for scraps of validation and camaraderie in the otherwise unfriendly place this “world” was shaping up to be.
So, Spice Girls: Feminist Icons? No elegant human truth in this one. As mundane as it sounds, the only honest answer is: it depends on who you ask.
I’m going to go with, “uh, yeah.”