Natasha Walter: Please leave the stage now, girls

'Camille Paglia thought that the Spice Girls were "living embodiments of a new kind of vampy feminism" '
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It's more than five years since the Spice Girls launched their squeaky debut, Wannabe, and made girlpower momentarily fashionable. Over those five years, we've had wodges of print and hours of airtime that have blown more and more hot air into the Spices – the Spices together, the Spices apart, the Spices with babies and the Spices without, the Spices thin and the Spices thinner, the Spices successful and, over the last painful months and years, the Spices slipping down the greasy pole. But finally, five years and a few weeks after that debut, isn't it time to call a halt?

Because even though the charts are increasingly immune to their presence, the attention given to them shows no sign of dying down. ITV documentaries, tabloid newspaper headlines, OK! cover stories – and that's just this week. Look, even yesterday's edition of the "left-wing" Guardian has an intriguing little news item on page five. It's on a page that is headed "national news", and it bears the byline of not one but two intrepid journalists. Obviously vital stuff, then.

And it brings the nation's attention to the fact that a ring that seemed to be placed through the lip of Victoria Beckham when she was singing in Birmingham earlier this week was not, in fact, a genuine piercing, but simply a fake clip-on, attached precariously to her lower lip and creating, with her long hair extensions and rubber outfit, an appearance that looked more like that of a computer game character than a 27-year-old woman.

Why does this discovery merit such attention? Certainly, Victoria Beckham is not such an intriguing artist that her every accessory deserves rapt criticism. Nor is she somebody who can tell us much about the current attitudes of young women, since the girls who once looked so fresh have now become the dinosaurs of popular culture. But perhaps you could say that journalists are so intrigued by it because the absurd lip ring bears some analogy to the appeal of the Spice Girls over the years.

We mustn't weigh the little ring down with too much portentous interpretation, but you can see that once upon a time body piercings were seen as rather threatening. They were rebellious. They said, I'm doing something a little bit unexpected, something that freaks people out, something that you wage slaves who need to toe the line would never dare to do. But when this rebellious attitude was taken up by Victoria Beckham, the threatening element was completely defused.

Should we see the Spices' erstwhile games with the language and attitudes of feminism in something of the same light? Should we accept that all of it, fresh and feisty as it once seemed, was, in fact, only a clip-on accessory?

Many people were seduced in the early days. I liked the idea that here were girls who wanted to prance about in cute clothes, as so many girls do, but who also said to journalists, "Girlpower is about equality and having fun and trying to rule your life. Just because you've got a short skirt and a pair of tits, you can still say what you want to say. We're still very strong."

Well, yes, I thought at the time. This isn't new. It isn't a revolution. But it is what young girls should be saying. It's a good sign that their generation is learning to be comfortable with their bodies and, at the same time, to speak up and be confident with their opinions and their desires.

And I wasn't alone. I remember Germaine Greer commenting with enthusiasm on Late Review that she found the Spice Girls' brand of junior feminism appealing, so long as you took it for what it was and didn't expect a Mars Bar to be a full meal. I remember Suzanne Moore saying that she liked seeing little girls of her daughters' generation pushing the boys out of the way in the playground in order to do their Spice Girl routines. I remember reading Camille Paglia's opinion that she thought the Spice Girls were "living embodiments of a new kind of vampy feminism who exude this kind of wholesome, girl-gang quality".

But five years is a very, very long time in pop culture.

Would anyone want to see little girls in the playground taking their cues from the sad remnants that are left of the Spice Girls now? What cues would they be? How to get on the front pages of newspapers for losing a couple of stone, or for having your breasts enlarged, perhaps? Far from exuding a wholesome girl-gang quality, the Spice Girls now seem to exude an unwholesome lonely-girl quality. If you click on to one of many websites still devoted to gossip about current and former Spices, you can read that Mel B isn't speaking to Victoria, that Victoria isn't speaking to Geri, and that Geri isn't speaking to Emma. And the music? Well, it never was the point, but sadly it's the music that younger women have latched on to, and while the feisty slogans have long been junked, the number of girl bands turning out chirpy ditties to be played and ignored in Top Shop is ever increasing.

When the Spice Girls were in their first flush of fame, I remember being asked by interviewers on more than one occasion how I felt about the fact that feminism was suddenly fashionable. I would reply that I thought it was a good thing, but that the problem with something being fashionable is that it will, inevitably, go out of fashion. And so it has proved. The attitude that the Spice Girls once took on, that something called girlpower would help girls to stick together and get what they wanted, has fallen right out of the limelight.

That doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. As I so often say in these columns, there is a neglected feminism out there in Britain at the moment – the feminism that, for instance, got a bill allowing positive discrimination in political selection into the last Queen's speech, or that fuelled the 200 dinner ladies who yesterday won their case under the equal pay act for nine years' back pay. But the kind of feminism that gets noticed – there's a real dearth of that.

And that means that the true exponents of girlpower are left out in the cold. Inequality for women still runs right from top to bottom of our society. More women than men still live in poverty, and even the smart, lucky, middle-class girls can't run with the boys. A survey of top executives' incomes published yesterday found that nothing is really changing in the world of real power, as opposed to the candy-floss version of girlpower that the Spice Girls sang about. There were only 10 women to be surveyed among the 639 executive directors in Britain's top 100 companies, and four of them left their jobs in the last year.

If that signalled that women were turning away from the rewards of capitalism to seek power in the grassroots and in rebellion, there would be nothing to be regretted in such a figure. But sadly we all know what it means – that as many women as ever are finding that girlpower hasn't yet delivered for them, that they are still toiling in the backrooms of capitalism, without the rewards of wealth and influence that are available to the men.

Girlpower will live to fight another day, under another name – and without the flimsy images of the Spice Girls it will find other, more substantial figureheads. But for the time being, if all they now have to offer us are their diet tips, their exercise regimes, and their clip-on lip-studs, could we send them back, please?

n.walter@btinternet.com

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