Spice World and Josie and the Pussycats: feminist heaven or capitalist hell?
There’s nothing like an anniversary to remind you of the rapacious passage of time. A couple of weeks ago, Spice World The Movie celebrated its twentieth birthday, and thereby forced me to start coming to terms with my own mortality. I was six when the film was released and although it fast became a firm favourite of mine, it’s perhaps unsurprising that critical reception was lukewarm at best, scathing at worst. In the late great Roger Ebert’s half-a-star review, he remarks that ‘the Spice Girls could be duplicated by any five women under the age of 30 standing in line at Dunkin' Donuts.’ He took similar umbrage, four years later, at the existence of another comedy about an all-female band. The eponymous heroes of Josie and the Pussycats were condemned as ‘as dumb as the Spice Girls, which is dumb enough.’ Ouch.
Ebert considered Spice World an abject joke, and Josie a missed opportunity to satirise it, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Spice World was created as marketing material for the Spice Girls brand: it is, undoubtedly, an exercise in increasing the sales of albums, gig tickets, and merch. Josie, on the other hand, is a film that condemns the use of both music and film as marketing tools. The band literally overthrows an evil conglomerate slipping subliminal messages into their songs for god’s sakes. So far, so satirical.
On the face of it, Josie is on the money. The Spice Girls were a pre-fab pop group who were thrown together by a record label and contracted to act as though they’d been friends forever. They used their stardom and their music to sell products (see this, now notorious, Pepsi commercial). There’s no denying that they existed at the intersection of capitalism and the music industry.
Having said all that, to view Josie as a takedown of five evil automatons of capitalism is to suggest that its writers, like Ebert, missed a lot of the winking, self-aware fun of Spice World. Take, for example, a subplot in which their manager has increasingly bizarro meetings with script-writers who pitch him insane ideas for a Spice Girls movie, one of which, in a nice little meta-theatrical twist, turns out to be the narrative backbone of the very movie we’re watching. It’s hardly Oscar-worthy writing, but it does hint at a little more sophistication than Ebert would give it credit for. Spice World parodies itself, revelling in its own artifice.
Where Josie accuses the music industry of peddling lies to a willing public, the Spice Girls were actually fairly transparent. They were here to sell albums, sure, but they also used their platform to sell something altogether more important, ‘Girl Power’, and they didn’t use subliminal messaging to do it.
It’s a concept that leaves me highly conflicted. I don’t believe that feminism is something that should be sold. The commodification of a political movement that, in large part, seeks to destroy (or at least vigorously shake-up) existing capitalist structures is a contradiction in terms. ’This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirts, for example, were manufactured in a Mauritian sweatshop where women were paid 62p an hour and made to work 45 hour weeks, and The Spice Girls’ success off the back of their ‘Girl Power’ mantra lined the pockets of countless white, male music execs.
However, anecdotally speaking, Spice World The Movie had a lasting impact on my early conception of feminism. I am absolutely aware that ‘Girl Power’ is a marketing tag-line, co-opted from the Riot Grrrl movement by way of British girl-band Shampoo and repackaged to sell albums to little girls. The only thing is: it worked. Not just in inciting me to ask my parents for a Geri doll (which I did), but also to take on a proto-feminist attitude, even as a little girl at primary school. My friends and I formed a group where each of us celebrated our talents: I was Disco Spice because I was a dancer, another was Art Spice because she was the best at drawing. We recognised each other’s strengths, and owned our individual talents. When boys made fun of us choreographing moves in the playground, we chased them away like a little wolf pack.
For all my conflicting feelings about the veracity of the Spice Girls’ feminism, I’m glad they existed. Because, let’s face it, how likely is it that a six year old is going to ask their parents for a Bikini Kill record? Whether their intentions were cynical or not, I actually did learn the basics of feminism from songs like ‘Wannabe’, ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ and ‘2 Become 1’ (which, by the way, includes a lyric about safe sex, see: ‘be a little bit wiser baby, put it on, put it on.’). And if there’s one thing that Spice World The Movie is far more successful at selling than Josie and the Pussycats it’s the radical strength of self-possession and female friendship. I’m not sad I bought into that.
Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond