GIRL POWER

Just slogan spice? Or is it really happening?

It was the noisiest selling line of the year, and the most successful. But is there such a power? What does it mean? And did Spice advance the cause? Interviews by Nicole Veash and Xenia Gregoriadis.

Jilly Cooper, bestselling novelist

The Spice Girls are fun and harmless and I wish good luck to them but "girl power", it really means nothing to me. That's not to say that I warmed to 1970s feminism. Absolutely not. That was all about defeminisation, it was anti-glamour, anti-makeup. They grew the hair on their legs and under their armpits and they even burned their bras. In that respect I think the Spice Girls are far more healthy because they say people can look attractive if they want. Something beautiful should be allowed to be beautiful if it wants to be. My idea of womanhood is embodied by Joanna Lumley. Jo is perfect and so good. She runs around doing everything for everybody. Sheer wonderful beauty and charm. She's very clever, she makes wonderful television programmes, she's the best thing ever. She's kind, intelligent, sweet and warm. She's got a wonderful sense of humour and does so much for charity - and she looks absolutely stunning for her age. And that is real girl power.

John Lyttle, Independent gay columnist

Girl power definitely means something to me. I've only got to look at my five-year-old niece, who kicks her elder brothers and says "girl power" while she does it. That cheers me up immensely.

If a boy hits her she will hit him back with one of her dolls. Once a little boy showed her his peepee and said: "I've got a peepee and you haven't" and she said: "I've got a ponytail and you haven't."

Girls are definitely running the show. They are not timid and they have a real sense of themselves and their gender at the age of five, which is a great thing. So there has definitely been a cultural shift.

The Spice Girls are pop culture's manifestation of feminism. It is a way of making financial gains out of the ideas of feminism. I'm not totally keen on that because it is just another form of exploitation. My idea of girl power is Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. I think every little girl should be given an ice pick at birth.

The girl power thing goes a lot deeper than the Spice Girls and marketing hype. There is a change in atmosphere and that has been a long time in coming. We won't see the real benefits for another 10-15 years. And God help the man who asks my niece out when she's in her 20s.

Joan Smith, Independent on Sunday columnist

Girl power is a cheap and silly way of describing a real change in women's lives, but it has been refracted and distorted through the mirror of popular culture. The great campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s have come to fruition today. Younger women don't face the same prejudice that my generation faced when we grew up. They are much more confident that I was at that age. But then they are not politicised like we were. When I was 10 I was being discriminated against because of my gender and this made me a lot more aware of the struggle to get equality.

Although things are a lot better now there are still battles to be won, like women getting into the higher echelons of all sides of life. I wonder how they will cope when they are 30 and they hit the glass ceiling. Today women grow up with the assumption that everything is equal, so it may come as a real shock.

When girls behave badly they are showing that not only men can fill that sort of role. It is a sign of barriers being broken down. They probably think feminism is outdated and they may wonder why people like me still bang on about sex discrimination.

The Spice Girls have taken a real historical change and packaged it in the blandest of ways. Underneath all those layers of marketing you can see something of real significance.

Chris Eubank, former world champion boxer

I believe in equality all the way. But there's not enough around. To impregnate the subconscious of girls or women with the attitude that you have got power is a very good thing. Success is all about confidence. If the Spice Girls or any type of fad can give a woman even a superficial belief or inspiration in herself then that's fantastic and I'm all for it.

Girl power is a fantastic thing but then so is boy power, general power. I suppose that girls need it a bit more than boys because the rhythm of things in our society means that the female is somehow made to feel a little bit lesser than the male.

The Spice Girls are using what they have. I use my fists. They look good, so they use their sex appeal and their voices. It's a good lesson to use what you have to become powerful.

Power can be manifested in hundreds of different ways. It can be subtle, it can be aggressive. The singer Gabrielle is powerful in the sweetness of her voice and music. She may not be aggressive outwardly but the way she deports herself is powerfully solid. She is very feminine.

Girl and boy power comes from inner strength and humility. Greatness is humility. Girls need to find a trade, find a subject, get an education and be strong in what they know.

Just look at Margaret Thatcher. The fact that she's a woman made no difference to her position. It takes intellect to get to her position. She was powerful because she knew how to be successful in her particular trade.

Suzanne Moore, Independent commentator

The Spice Girls have just reinforced a mood that has been around for some time. These days young girls have a lot of loyalty towards each other.

There is definitely a girl power thing around at the moment. Girls are doing better than boys at school and they are in demand in the workplace. They don't accept that anything is boys only. They play football, they ask boys out and they do it with a lot of confidence. They think nothing is going to be denied to them on the grounds of their gender.They tend to stick together and don't dump one another for boys. But this mood has been growing for a while. The Spice Girls just used some clever marketing to catch on to this.

Blake Morrison, poet and writer

It's a real pity that the girl power phenomenon has been attached to the Spice Girls, because it reduces it to just a pop slogan with no real substance. However, young women are definitely more confident than their mothers were. But I prefer to look at it as women power. Women are everywhere now. I have a female publisher and a female agent and I sometimes work for a female editor, so there has definitely been a real shift. In the 1970s women would never have been in any position of influence, but in many sections of society this has changed for good.

I don't like that aggressive, noisy side of girl power. I've never liked men getting rowdy and going to pubs, so I don't see why I should like women doing the same. I suppose that is an inevitable part of egalitarianism, but that's not where real power for women lies.

If men see women behave like that, they inevitably fall back on old prejudices about women being slags. Real power is economic power and freedom from domesticity. Women shouldn't have to be superwomen. Going to the pub is not liberation and it just reinforces those old prejudicial stereotypes.

Elizabeth Beresford, creator of Alderney Womble, the newest addition to The Womble family

The Wombles are creatures that live on Wimbledon Common and spend their time clearing rubbish from the land.

This womble was created for the little boys and girls that live on Alderney in the Channel Islands, where I live. They are so cut off that some of them have never seen a double decker bus or even an elevator.

When I first wrote the series in the early 1970s, the only female womble was Madame Cholet. But there was a real need for another younger girl womble, who is less matriarchal and traditional than she is.

Alderney is a very modern girl Womble. She's very different from Madame Cholet. She goes around on a skateboard and she doesn't take herself too seriously. She does the same things as the male wombles. Madame Cholet still stays at home and makes clover buns, but Alderney is out there working hard with the other Wombles tidying up Wimbledon Common.

She is very confident, so I suppose she has been influenced by girl power. She has got two bunches on top of her hat which stick right up, like the Spice Girls, but they are a bit past it now, aren't they?

Professor Roger Scruton, philosopher

It is always hard to say whether girl power or the Spice Girls will have any lasting impact on our culture. But one thing is incredible.

Just think about a group of girls pulling faces and sticking their tongues out with such insolence and then think about the plaudits they received afterwards. They were courted by Blair and Major and they were called amazing just because they were so yobbish.

It is amazing to think that a nation watched them and this has got to have a significant political and historical impact on our culture in the long run. It shows that if you are insolent and you are attractive - which applies to very few people - then you can make an impact on the most important people of the day. Can you imagine Gladstone or Disraeli fooling around with a bunch of girls like that?

Jeremy Issacs, former head of Channel 4 and the Royal Opera House

I have always been in favour of giving talented women responsibility. In the mid-1970s when I was director of programmes for Thames television I advanced Verity Lambert up the career ladder then I hired Liz Forgan when I set up Channel 4 in 1980. But I find the Spice Girls absolutely terrifying. My four-year-old granddaughter had a birthday party recently and she and her friends were bopping all over the place making a terrible racket. I just had to run away and hide.

Sadie Plant, cyberfeminist

There's a lot of marketing hype and brashness around girl power. But having said that something new has become clear during the past year. There is a confidence among young women, for example girls are doing better than boys at school. The Spice Girls have picked up on these sentiments, but it is difficult to separate this pop phenomenon from tendencies of real significance.

Girl power is different from 1970s feminism. Instead of saying women are starting from a disadvantaged point, young girls grow up with brash self-confidence.

There is definitely an increased lack of respect for old taboos. Like the way girls and young women should be demure or non-aggressive, which I think is a good thing.

In my generation, these taboos were broken self-consciously, whereas young women today are not even aware of them.

I don't know whether girl power will be remembered. It is certainly not a movement, because the days of movements and campaigns are all over.

Some of the most advanced things on the net have been done by women. They are moving away from a typically masculine way of doing things and are exercising power on their terms.

A lot of features on the net are more suited to the way women work. For example, on the net you can assume a lot of different personas and women are quite used to doing this, they are mothers, wives and daughters. It's also like putting make-up on and changing your appearance.

The net is also a bit like a horizontal gossip network, without the constraints of older, hierarchical methods of communication.

Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy.

I recently interviewed four women and four men for a job. All the women were really confident and all the men looked self-defeated, which I found extraordinary.

Twenty years ago there seemed to be fewer women of any merit who seemed to make real art. Of course there have always been female artists of distinction but they are the exception. I have been criticised for not including women artists in exhibitions. It wasn't that I didn't want any, it was just that they appeared to me, by and large, not to have the strength of male artists, particularly in the early 1980s.

Since the 1980s they have found a way of standing up to men and of being noticed. Now they are greatly valued because they have broken into visual arts in a strong way and there is nothing between them and their male counterparts. For example, Rachel Whiteread and Damien Hirst are probably the most representative artists of their generation in Britain. And they just happen to be a man and a woman.

Yvette Cooper, Labour MP

I was visiting a class in my Pontefract constituency and the teacher told me that 60 per cent of the girls had achieved five or more grades A-C at GCSE, while just 30 per cent of boys had achieved the same grades. That is a shocking discrepancy. The girls I meet are a lot more confident, while the boys are generally withdrawn and spend their time playing pool.

I think it is wonderful for girls to have more confidence and be more assertive than they were 10 or 20 years ago. But at the same time I am worried about the boys, because they seem to be seriously underachieving.

But the Spice Girls are about something different. They have communicated with the under-sevens and given them real confidence which of course is a good thing. But they also have an aggressive, grabbing side, which I don't like.

The older girls have been influenced by some kind of different generational change. They have stepped on the shoulders of their mothers. But the younger girls have been affected by something different, the sentiment expressed by the Spice Girls.

On balance I don't think girl power indicates any great corner has been turned. It is just a generational thing that was bound to happen when you look at what has come before.

Vanessa Redgrave, actress

Look, there are much more significant things to life than this ridiculous girl power thing. At the moment I'm writing something extremely important about asylum which could actually help people and I can't dedicate my mind to thinking about girl power.

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider heroine

Being an adventurer I have to be very confident. If anybody stands in the way of my career I will definitely deal with them. I am very single- minded and independent and I suppose a lot of girls can identify with that.

I can be quite aggressive, but not brash and I still retain my feminine charms. I would always shave my legs, unlike bra-burning feminists in the 1970s.

Of course I am aware of the Spice Girls. Some people have called me Digital Spice. Sure I've got the same confidence they have, but I'm definitely not such an attention seeker.

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