Girl Power, Riot Grrrl, Feminism, Oh My!

August 1, 2016
By Nijah Glenn


“Girl Power: Equalization between the sexes”- Ginger Spice

As a young girl growing up in the 90s, I was not immune to the feverish love everyone had of the Spice Girls. They wore outrageous clothing (even by 90s standards), were the original group of independent women, and somehow had an anthem for everything. One of my favorite films as a kid was Spice World, their A Hard Day’s Night-esque film, which followed the Spice Girls as they encountered stalker documentarians, aliens, and everything else on the way to perform at Royal Albert Hall. Aside from the overall content of the film, a message constantly appeared: girl power. The phrase appeared as early as the opening sequence in which Ginger Spice/ Geri Halliwell is wearing a white dress with the slogan emblazoned across the front. As a young girl, seeing a group of women spout girl power and feminism helped spark the flames of feminism in me before I even knew what the term meant.

Fast forward nearly two decades to 2016. About a month ago, I ran across a bookstore selling a book which deplored girl power. Another feminist I was with praised the book for criticizing such a plasticine notion of what feminism means. I, however, was disgusted. We all have a right to express opinions, and by no means did I want the author or the girl I was with to feel as though their opinion was not valid. However, there is a problem when people start arguing about what constitutes as acceptable/ unacceptable feminism, and this has to stop.Girl power is rooted in the notion that girls are able to assert not only an independent attitude, but are also able to be ambitious, unique, and confident in the same way boys are. Though girl power was used by a riot grrrl related act (and thus initial connotations put it in this camp), the use of girl power at the end of the 90s by the Spice Girls produced divisive modern day notions of feminism and what acceptable feminism is. In all fairness, yes, girl power was branded in such a way that made it a commodity in pop culture. Yes, I understand a group of girls in skintight clothing that people stereotyped as not very bright screaming “girl power!” doesn’t seem like “true” representation. Who are we to decide who is really a feminist and who isn’t though? As a kid, I don’t remember seeing pop stars call themselves feminists other than the Spice Girls. Even today, the term feminist has negative connotations associated with it, regardless of the public figures who embrace it. Within feminism, no slogan/ wave movement has earned such ire as girl power.

I cannot actually count the number of times I’ve heard people express that girl power is not feminism because it’s directly rooted in capitalism. For all of you critics out there, I genuinely hate to tell you this, but every movement is rooted in capitalism because we live in a capitalist society. More frequently, I’ve heard girl power bashed because it focuses on “pretty feminism” to which many feel as though is not only capitalist, but sexist, promoting a stereotypical patriarchal notion of a woman while framing her to be for every woman. In truth, this critique deserves to be stated, because there is truth to people often embracing beautiful feminists faster than ones who are not conventionally viewed that way. On the other hand, many of the critiques I’ve heard which follow this direction refuse to acknowledge that for some, girl power is empowering because it gives women a voice. To state that coerced behavior will never be empowering is not untrue, especially if you view girl power as a coercive type of feminism.

But is there a brand of feminism that is not coercive? Often I’ve heard the counter that the opposite of girl power feminism is riot grrrl feminism. In all actuality, they aren’t different whatsoever. Perhaps in what we associate the base to be, sure. In theory? Not quite. In both cases, I’ve never had someone not associate both movements with beauty: girl power being conventional, and riot grrrl being “unconventional” (being a movement with women of color initially contributing to it before being co-opted); both associate girls as being independent, being unique, and not caring what others think of them. However, they are almost always presented as diametric opposites as though one is more real than the other.

If girl power is exactly how men expect women to act when they want equality, riot grrrl feminism is too. If it were not, why would riot grrrl traits such as brashness, loudness, and anti-conventionality still be associated with modern feminists if they weren’t? In my opinion, neither is a bad brand of feminism, the perceptions only make them seem that way. We as feminists put ourselves within the camps that resonate with us the most, and then judge the opposite side for how mainstream we view it as. Petty infighting, which often comes down to the physical attractiveness of a woman with a message is not feminism; working to dismantle it is. You aren’t more or less of a feminist because Kathleen Hanna or Scary Spice inspires you. You are a feminist because you believe in the equity of women, gender nonconforming people, and men. No, wearing makeup is not radical because we as women are expected to wear it, but bashing your sisters for wearing it isn’t radical either. Associating riot grrrls with a lack of beauty, lack of personality, and rudeness isn’t punk rock either; lifting your sisters up whether or not they fit into your feminist expectations of beauty and personality is.

Whether we wear glittery go go boots, Doc Martens, converse, or go barefoot, a feminist is a feminist. While we deserve to criticize current expectations or movements, we should not cherry pick which pieces of our movements deserve to be above reproach. Instead, we must look at ourselves in a way in which we can grow while changing our movements.

Nijah Glenn is a senior biology major and dedicated youth activist. She is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective, avid coffee consumer, and is dedicated to making both the scientific field & world more equitable.

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