Spice Girls

Did the Spice Girls “trash feminism”? Channel 4’s new documentary deconstructs what girl power really meant in the 1990s

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The first instalment of three looks at the formation – and feminism – of one the biggest girl groups of all time.      

It all started in an audition room in London’s Soho – like so many history-making events did in the 1990s. Geri Halliwell met Victoria Beckham there, as they were both hoping to get the lead part in a film about Tank Girl, the star of an anarchic futuristic Australian comic strip. Davina McCall was auditioning too.

The first instalment of Spice Girls: How Girl Power Changed Britain begins here. Before Spice Up Your Life, Mama or even Wannabe.

Throughout the documentary, the likes of Chris Herbert, the talent manager who put the Spice Girls together, the band’s hair stylist, Jennie Barnor-Roberts, and author and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer – who was also in the Soho audition room that day for journalistic purposes – are interviewed, shedding light on what the early days were like for themselves and the members of the band. 

We are shown a glimpse into the formation of the Spice Girls – which, at the very beginning, looks like many other young modern women’s experiences of pipe dreams and ambitions in their 20s, shoddy-looking houseshare and all – and how they went on to pave the way for the likes of Little Mix and Girls Aloud, who were also “manufactured”, but went on to enjoy huge commercial success.

The backdrop of the 1990s is undeniable – Sporty, Baby, Ginger, Scary and Posh stepped into a huge gap in the market, taking a largely male-dominated music and media industry, let alone political landscape, by storm. Their mascot? A slogan: girl power.

Sawyer calls girl power at that time “diluted feminism”, making a seemingly radical concept seem more palatable because it was being screamed out on stage by pop stars. Scenes are shown of schoolgirls claiming the slogan – which was inspired by, or merely plucked from, the American punk “Riot grrrl” movement – as their own, talking about using their “girl power” to rise above the words of bullies and break away from an obsession with how they look. One asks, quite understandably, “Why do we call it MANkind?”

Spice Girls: How Girl Power Changed Britain on Channel 4
Spice Girls: How Girl Power Changed Britain on Channel 4

It was a welcome message during the days of page three and the prevalence of smooth-chested male-fronted pop acts. The women were silent no more.

But it wasn’t all smiles and high kicks. While fans gloried over being able to identify with a different “spice” depending on what interested or attracted them, and loved basking in their feminine power, not everyone was convinced.

A young woman interviewed at the time protests on camera: “The Spice Girls took feminism and they trashed it up, and they’ve made girl power into a slogan and marketing to try and sell records. Feminism should come from the heart.” Throughout, it’s clear that there was a battle going on during the band’s meteoric success: “the clashing of the desires of the advertising industry with girl power”. 

So the Spice Girls were the subject of the “sell out” accusations before these arguments became mainstream, because they wanted both success and the “girl power”. The documentary zips back and forth, asking if they should have been allowed to own their success – like any man would – or focus on purely feminist goals only, away from selling “girl power” as a brand. Some argued you were doing the latter by doing the former, empowering yourself the only way you can in a capitalist system.

Sawyer calls the band’s £1 million merchandising deal with Asda “incredibly capitalist” and, to be honest, it was. But it was also a marker of success that a female pop band had never seen before. The band’s then-manager, Simon Fuller, is credited for some of this and his insistence that “releasing a record wasn’t enough, it’s got to be music and brands together”. In 2021, the golden age of social media branding, we know this all too well.

But before long, the band took control of their own merchandising and sacked Simon as their manager in 1997 – amid reports that he’d had a relationship with Emma Bunton, something they both deny. Some of the Spice Girls’ crew left with Fuller, according to hair stylist Jennie Barnor-Roberts, even some security guards and their cook. Barnor-Roberts didn’t, insisting she felt part of the family. Fuller went on to form S Club 7, and the girls stepped into their power. So far so good?

Spice Girls

We are only at the beginning, or perhaps mid point, of the story, though. The first instalment doesn’t look particularly closely at the women’s individual personalities during the early days – only Geri’s outspoken nature (leading a legendary “bunk off” day from rehearsing) and sparse footage of Emma’s nerves before moving in with the rest of the band. But a deep dive into Geri’s increasing distance from the band is teased in episode two.

Mel B, Mel C, Emma, Geri and Victoria’s brand of girl power was complicated, lucrative and, above all, influential – whether people at the time viewed it as right or wrong. But either way, Channel 4’s first instalment showcases five unapologetic, ambitious young women becoming outrageously successful. Complications aside, it’s a hell of a ride.

Watch the second instalment of Spice Girls: How Girl Power Changed Britain at 9pm on Tuesday 21st September. Catch up with the first episode online.

Images: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock, Channel 4, Getty 

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