Why don't the boys get the joke?

What girl power means
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The Independent Online
I am as concerned as the next woman about adverts which show women being violent towards men. I don't think there are anything like enough of them. The three ads that have been singled out by the Advertising Standards Authority - for Lee Jeans, showing a woman's stiletto-heeled boot resting on the buttock of a naked man, with the slogan "Put the Boot in", the Nissan ad with a man clutching his crotch and the line "Ask Before You Borrow It", and the Dress to Kill campaign for Wallis which shows men in danger of being killed because they are distracted by beautiful women - have attracted almost 100 complaints. The complaints were not upheld, but the ASA has warned advertising agencies that they should think twice about using such "Girl Power" imagery.

Three advertisements hardly constitute a trend in my book, and yet suddenly we are supposed to worry about men being demeaned and exploited in advertising imagery. These ads are said to be tasteless and sexist, and to encourage violence against men.

If men are really such sensitive and humourless souls then it's no wonder women have murderous feelings towards them. Actually, I don't think most men are like this. Indeed, from the contents of the little cards pinned up in telephone boxes everywhere, it appears that some men are more than happy to pay for the privilege of being demeaned and exploited by supposedly powerful women. Most men, I'm sure, take these ads with a pinch of salt, even though they haven't had the years of training that most women have had in turning a blind eye to offensive images of their gender. Still it is always instructive to find how any perceived shift in the balance of power, however tiny, is seen by certain men as the beginning of the end. On the whole the advertising industry, despite its relentless trendiness, has lagged behind societal change in representing the lives of modern women. We are still Stepford Mums whose main topic of conversation is washing and gravy, or dutiful wives prepared to have sex with our husbands only because they have a new car.

It is fitting that Girl Power should be a concept picked up by the ad industry. For Girl Power is, in essence, a kind of re-branding.

No one wants to use the word "feminism" any more. Its just so old-fashioned, puritanical, and horror of horrors, political. Girl Power on the other hand is all about sex and fun and being up-front. Girl Power is young and streetwise and highly individualised. Girl power is not about collective action, organising creches or any of that dull business. It is about self- confidence and self-esteem, and if you are a spotty 12-year-old you may well need all the help you can get in this department.

The Spice Girl version of Girl Power to which we are now in thrall is a sugared-up version of the original Girl Power which was far more angry, disturbing and underground. Girl power meant young women talking about self-harming and menstruation rather than it being just another way of pulling boys. It meant pictures of girls with too much make-up who had scrawled "whore" on their stomachs, who were refusing the traditional discourses of femininity, who were slightly scary and out of control. The Spices, we know, are very much in control and not really scary at all. They're so in control, in fact, that after giving Nelson Mandela the best day of his life (he said it, not me) they decided to sack their manager and go it alone. It's all slavery, you see.

I fear for their future mainly on the grounds that I don't know a single girl child who thinks they are cool any longer, and as this their core market I wonder what this bunch of millionaires will do with themselves. They have saturated the market to such an extent that there hardly appears to be a product that they haven't endorsed. Their talent is not singing and dancing but marketing and promotion. Eventually, though, even the little girls understand that at the centre of all this marketing, the product itself, the music, is not that interesting. In a dizzying spiral of consumerist confusion the Spice Girls have been so busy lending credence to other products that they have almost forgotten to produce one of their own.

Girl Power, as a form of branding, as a way of pushing yet more product, is ultimately unthreatening, as it is always about sexuality and little else. The central notion - that girls or women are more "up for it" than they were before - will hardly bring about the collapse of the West. Indeed the men's magazines are falling over themselves at the moment to produce surveys that suggest that young women are increasingly sexually predatory and "experimental". In your dreams, you might even believe what you read in sex surveys.

Genuine Girl Power may, of course, be about not caring what men think, about something more than a titillating fantasy. It is still difficult to correlate the imagery of Girl Power that is prevalent in all teen magazines - for instance "20 Ways to Insult a Boy" - with what is really going on for most girls.

Certainly there is a confidence amongst young women that is very hopeful, a realisation of the importance of female friendships and an expectation of equality both at school and in the future. Yet the same old sexual double standards exist and are reported to exist by miserable teenage girls who are terrified of the names that boys might call them.

What would really help these girls is to see images of powerful women that are not reducible to sexuality. Girl power as a kind of sexual bravado is essentially limiting. And that is all that is going on in these supposedly offensive ads. The people who complained about them are doubtless the same people who talk about humourless feminists, who resent every penny given to research into breast cancer on the grounds that men get testicular cancer, who think that women because of positive discrimination get all the best jobs, and who feel that men should not have to provide for any children that they father.

The fragility of contemporary masculinity is wondrous to behold. Is it such a delicate thing, that it must be protected at all times by bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority? Women, I suppose, are simply hardened by being bombarded by imagery about what women should be, so they take it all rather lightly - unless of course they acquire an eating disorder and kill themselves. Men who will fare best in a changing world are surely the ones that do not take themselves so seriously, and who realise that Girl Power is more of a cheeky giggle than the demented cackle of a power-crazed dominatrix. Women, you may rest assured, are still a long way from having the last laugh. In the meantime, the odd snigger at men's expense is only to be expected.