If you need more proof that the ’90s are dead, look no further than the Spice Girls, who are promoting their imminent comeback tour with some disturbing messaging. The women behind one of the most popular feminist anthems of all times, and the authors of the 1997 manifesto Girl Power!, have officially pivoted to gender neutral empowerment. Live long enough and you’ll get to see your childhood feminist icons back conservative politicians, and eventually betray their “girl power” rallying cry for “people power.”
For a while there, everything was looking rosy. The beloved, sorely missed girl group added new dates to their highly anticipated 2019 stadium tour. They also launched a t-shirt campaign to support Gender Justice for Comic Relief, #IWannabeASpiceGirl. In a post about the campaign, the remaining Spice Girls—Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, Geri Horner and Emma Bunton—tweeted, “This is all about supporting women and helping them be heard.” This kind of rhetoric is in line with the group’s brand of girl power: vague, stirring, and (mostly) inoffensive. Not quite radical, the Spice Girls nevertheless inspired a generation of young women with lyrics like the iconic “If you wannabe my lover/you gotta get with my friends.” Less revolution girl style now, more super empowering sleepover.
But even at their girl power peak, the Spice Girls often indicated that their feminist-lite branding was just a brilliant marketing ploy. In a 1997 sit-down, Geri Halliwell mused, “I didn’t really know that much, you know, history, but I knew about the suffragettes. They fought. It wasn’t that long ago. They died to get a vote. The women’s vote. Bloody ass-fucking mad, do you know what I mean? You remember that and you think, fucking hell.” Later in the same interview, Mel C revealed that she doesn’t vote, because “I don’t know anything about politics.” Against her better judgment, Halliwell started talking about her admiration for Margaret Thatcher, before demurring, “But we won’t go down there!”
And in 2002, Victoria Beckham told Cosmopolitan that she wouldn’t call herself a feminist, explaining, “I like a man who opens doors for me, takes me out to dinner, buys me flowers. I like men to treat women like women, and I think many other women do too.”
More recently, Halliwell sparked controversy when she tweeted and then deleted in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013, “Thinking of our 1st Lady of girl power, Margaret Thatcher, a green grocer’s daughter who taught me any thing is possible,” in tribute to the Conservative Party Leader and first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In a subsequent blog post, the Spice Girl expressed regret over deleting her tweet, saying, “Now I realize that I do admire a woman, whether she is right or wrong, regardless of her opinions…I look at my behavior, which exposed how weak I was under fire, not like Margaret Thatcher.”
Still, the Spice Girls have clung to their feminist bona fides; in 2016, “Wannabe” was given a “feminist makeover,” courtesy of a new generation of women and girls across the world. The revamped music video was an effort to raise awareness around the U.N.’s Global Goals, and launched a hashtag for women to share what they really, really want. Beckham joined in, tweeting, “is no more girls dying of HIV.” In a statement, she enthused, “How fabulous it is that after 20 years, the legacy of the Spice Girls’— ‘Girl Power’ — is being used to encourage and empower a whole new generation.”
Given this complicated legacy, it’s hardly shocking that the 2018 iteration of the Spice Girls have some new, not-so-great opinions to share. In a recent interview with The Sun, Emma Bunton offered an updated take on the “girl power” mantra that made the group famous, saying, “It’s people power. We’re about equality and bringing everyone together.” Geri Horner (née Halliwell) emphasized, “Everybody matters to us. It’s the philosophy of Spice Up Your Life. Every boy, every girl, it doesn’t matter what you look like, where you are, everybody’s welcome…We all know that the Spice Girls stand for equality for all, OK?”
Horner also voiced support for another Conservative politician, Prime Minister Theresa May. “Britain, come together whatever it is, come together and sort our solutions out together, that’s the most important thing,” Horner told The Sun. “We don’t have to agree on politics, it’s bigger than that. You can just support a woman doing the best she can and that’s it. Not an easy position.”
As Sarah Ditum wrote for The Independent in March, “The case against Theresa May’s feminism is easy to rack up. There’s the support for reducing the abortion time limit to 20 weeks, compounded by giving the role of Tory vice-chair for women to anti-choice MP Maria Caulfield. There’s her record of voting for cuts to Sure Start centres and tax credits, two measures that have done much to lift up women in poverty. And there are the harms that her authoritarian immigration policy has done to women.” But go girls, right?