“Girl power” tells us that girls can do anything—but can this sugary sweet message actually prevent us from fixing a world that doesn’t let young women realize their full power? 90’s “girl power” like Buffy and Xena were created by men, while popular men’s magazines like Maxim were redefining the feminine ideal as a woman who was loud, brash, and unapologetic. Today we can see the dark sides of capitalism-friendly girl power in its descendent “girlboss feminism” which is increasingly condemned. And it’s this commodification of feminism—turning it into a sanitized, child-friendly brand—that is girl power’s most enduring legacy.
“Girl power” tells us that girls can do anything — but can this sugary sweet message actually prevent us from fixing a world that doesn’t let young women realize their full power?
In the ‘90s, the “Girl power” movement embodied by pop icons The Spice Girls brought feminist thinking into the mainstream. It was positioned as a more accessible and fun evolution of old-school feminist ideals
“It’s like feminism from the ‘60s revitalised for the ‘90s.” - How Girl Power Changed Britain
But girl power also was shallower, commercial version of feminist ideas that were, previously, a lot more edgy and disruptive. It took what was a political movement, and depoliticised it. The philosophy of girl power implied women should empower themselves as individuals, instead of dismantling the systems that stood in the way of gender equality. Perhaps the most revealing issue was that many girl power icons were effectively designed by men. ‘90s “girl power” heroines created by men like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The Powerpuff Girls, and Xena: Warrior Princess all looked great while kicking ass. Meanwhile, popular men’s magazines like Maxim, Loaded, and FHM were redefining the feminine ideal as a woman who was loud, brash, and unapologetic like one of the guys — but still (of course) centerfold-ready. Today we can see the dark sides of capitalism-friendly girl power in its descendent “girlboss feminism” which is increasingly condemned. And it’s this commodification of feminism — turning it into a sanitised, child-friendly brand — that is girl power’s most enduring legacy. Here’s our take on Girl Power, and what happens when a revolutionary movement is embraced and absorbed by the structures it tries to fight against.
A Movement Co-opted
The first thing to understand about girl power is that its origins were far more radical. Punk band Bikini Kill, pioneers of the Riot Grrl subculture of the early ‘90s, used the term as the title for their second zine in 1991. That zine contained the Riot Grrl Manifesto, which reads as an outwardly political, angry, anti-capitalist statement.
Riot Grrl: “We hate capitalism in all its forms and see our main goal as sharing information and staying alive, instead of making profits of being cool according to traditional standards.” - Riot Grrl Manifesto
Within that manifesto, though, we can see kernels of messaging that would be taken up by the more commercial advocates of girl power. Take the lines: “We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak,” or “us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.”
This mainstreaming and commercialization of the Riot Grrl ethos was most clearly seen in the Spice Girls, the British pop group phenomenon formed in 1994. The Spice Girls were explicitly girl power all the time, bluntly preaching empowerment and strength in sisterhood in very mainstream spaces.
Emma Bunton: “Spice Girls is fundamentally about friendship. That’s what this group runs on” - Oprah
The availability of these messages on the radio, TV and at the record store served as a kind of entry-level feminism for young girls who might not have otherwise been exposed. And they basically boiled girl power down to three values: confidence, independence, and female friendship. Female empowerment done within a commercial space isn’t inherently bad and girl power impressively did usher feminist ideas into the mainstream to a powerful degree. This manifested in network television shows featuring badass, assertive, and audaciously “unladylike” female characters like Xena, who captured a big following through a take-no-prisoners mentality that felt indebted to the Riot Grrl ethos. Perhaps the greatest legacy of girl power à la the Spice Girls is that it made feminism feel fun and open to everyone. As activist Nimco Ali told Stylist, “feminism is often heavy with academia, or too technical. What the Spice Girls did wasn’t life-saving, but it was dynamic.”
Nimco Ali: “They were, for us as teenagers, the embodiment of sisterhood. They encouraged young women to stand together and look out for each other. And what’s more, they did it in a brilliant way.” - Stylist
And by modeling that girls could be sporty or outspoken as well as girly and fashionable, it pushed against gender polarization, or the idea that men and women are polar opposites who must live and behave in different ways appropriate to their gender.
At the same time, because of the Spice Girls’ and girl power’s rapid rise to immense popularity, The market transformed the idea of girl power into extremely profitable merchandise and barbie dolls, playing into the kind of “clothes and dolls” female stereotypes both Riot Grrl and girl power claimed to fight against.
“Girl power is moving merchandise by the tonne-load. 7-14 year olds are clamouring to buy the stuff stacked up on the shelves around me here.” - How Girl Power Changed Britain
Even the one-word monikers each Spice Girl was known by (Sporty, Ginger, Baby, Posh and Scary) encouraged young fans to compare themselves to a narrow archetype of womanhood that’s mostly about appearance (and in Mel B’s case, many now question if labeling the one black woman in the group as “Scary” had racist undertones.)
Whenever a political movement that seeks to empower the disempowered gets co-opted by mainstream capitalist forces, it’s likely that those original ideas will get twisted to instead reinforce the existing structures of power. And the girl power of the 1990s did get used to essentially put forward pretty young females as symbols of masculine ideas of strength and intense individualism. Buffy The Vampire Slayer turned a regular teen girl into an action heroine and subverted tropes of valley girl blondes; yet as professor and avid Buffy-studier Lorna Jowett wrote, “Buffy may be a Barbie with a kung-fu grip, but she’s still a barbie.”
Joss Whedon: “I germinated this idea of how much I’d like to see a blonde girl go into a dark alley, get attacked by a big monster, and then kill it. That was sort of the genesis for the idea of the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” - Fox
Moreover, the show’s feminist themes have been somewhat tainted by reports that its creator, Joss Whedon, allegedly abused his power, and has been verbally abusive and cruel to female actors.
Girl Power’s message also coincided with the rise of a specific type of woman in pop culture. Enter: the ladette. This “guy’s girl” could binge-drink, be sexually promiscuous, get into brawls, and show a blatant disregard for long standing female etiquettes.
Carolyn Jackson and Penny Tinkler: “(Ladettes) presented as occupying space outside the traditional feminine domestic sphere, and crucially, as taking space once regarded as the principal or sole preserve of men.” - The Sociological Journal
In the UK this manifested in the hard-partying, ultra cool aesthetic of supermodel Kate Moss, and in television hosts like Zoe Ball, Denise Van Outen, and Sara Cox. In British sitcom Game On, “one of the lads” Mandy swigs beer, dresses casually, and has sex instead of relationships. In the US, the face of MTV’s reality dating show Singled Out and later the star of her own sketch show, Jenny McCarthy subverted people’s idea of a submissive former playboy bunny with a loud, unapologetic, and confident brand of “bro-y” femininity. Pamela Anderson rose to prominence in the same era with a persona that was, while sweeter and soft-spoken, always cool, laid-back and ready to go along with whatever the guys wanted to talk about.
No doubt many women liked watching or identifying with plenty of free-wheeling ladettes, who weren’t repressed or “proper,” and got to enjoy being sexy while having a lot of fun. But in the ladette, we also see the genesis of what would become known as the “cool girl” trope expertly dissected in Gone Girl.
Raha Murtuza: “The main problem with the cool girl is that she’s meant to put down other women…The idea is that other girls are obsessed with makeup and clothes, while the cool girl likes football and buffalo wings instead.” - The Tide
And you can see how this partly emerged from these proto-cool-girls of the 90s and 00s who combined feminine beauty with boorish male fraternity culture, yielding an easily sellable product for male-oriented entertainment.
Meanwhile, even though they were supposedly empowered women carving out space in male arenas, these pre-cool girls could end up receiving a fair amount of toxic backlash and moral panic. Simran Hans explicitly links the shaming, misogynist tabloid culture of the ‘00s to the supposed gains made in the 90s, saying: “We’d had the rise of ladettes and this reclaiming of being a ‘boy’s girl’. The 2000s felt like a punishment for women trying to get in on the act.”
From Girl Power to Now
The phrase girl power may not be used with the impunity it was in the 90s, but we can still see its legacy in the blueprint of popular, commercial feminism today — especially in the modern archetype of the “girlboss.” In the mid-2010s, peaking with the “#MeToo” and “Times up” moments of 2017, girlboss characters and real-life female CEOs were framed as empowering disruptors. But after a number of Girlbosses (including the creator of the name, NastyGal founder Sophia Amoruso) fell from grace, many questioned whether “becoming financially successful while being a woman” was really enough to be championed as a feminist icon. The girlboss became known for fostering toxic work environments, leaning into her privilege, or just not being any better than the guy CEO — but it’s her hypocrisy of claiming that her success leads to all women’s success that makes her so hated. The “girl boss” can be seen as the worst incarnation of girl power — a woman of privilege who performatively espouses feminist ideals while leaving other women out of the capitalist, patriarchy ruling class she’s infiltrated for her own personal profit.
But this gets at the underlying problem: any capitalist-driven version of feminism — or of any movement that’s supposed to be about disrupting the status quo — will inevitably become about making more money for people already in power. And it’s not hard to see that big commercial narratives today — from superheroines to heist films to Disney princesses — often espouse a popular feminism that’s really a descendent of feel-good, reductive girl power.
As feminism has become more indisputably mainstream, it’s been increasingly commodified and watered down, to the point where one can brand themselves as a feminist without really thinking about what that means, or meaning anything by it. There’s a Girl Power-esque marketing-driven idea that, if we teach young people not to buy into gender inequality, it won’t exist
“What does it mean to you when I say run like a girl?” “It means run as fast as you can.” Always #LikeAGirl
Contemporary children’s books transform the stories of empowered women into bedtime stories. And in spirit of 90s girl power, this surface-level feminism seems to assume that any woman who obtains power or prominence is automatically a feminist icon. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls includes Margaret Thatcher, who (though historically notable for being the first UK woman prime minister) has been described as an anti-feminist and even called feminism “poison” policies. Revealingly, Thatcher was also heralded by Geri Halliwell as the “first lady of Girl Power.”
Today, another largely superficial incarnation of girl power feminism is the Disney princess girl boss. Emerging in the late 2000s, these bolder, independent female characters have mind-blowing powers, embrace self defense, and sometimes openly mock the idea of fairy tale love. They were a response to public backlash against the traditional Disney princesses, who came to be perceived as too submissive, passive or defined by their relationship to a prince. But Enchanted’s Giselle, Tangled’s Rapunzel, and Frozen’s Anna still fit within a proven, commercially viable Disney movie formula — girl power is again leveraged as a marketing tool. Promisingly, though, even today’s commercial, popular feminist tales are getting more political and starting to acknowledge that systemic problem need systemic (and not just symbolic, individualist) solutions. The adaptation of and revitalized interest in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — whose red robes attained cultural icon status while representing real threats to women’s reproductive freedom in our time — embodies how “girl power” messaging in today’s film and TV can, and should, be confrontationally political.
Girl power and the Spice Girls deserve credit for changing the global conversation at a time when huge all-girl bands weren’t really a thing (let alone bands made up of young, working class women). Riot Grrl may have called for a revolution, but what we got was more of an evolution — a change by degrees, that has been meaningful over the years, even though we still get steps backward.
But feminism today is taking on a more collective, intersectional mantra that’s more in line with the true, countercultural origins of Girl Power. The ideals of 90s fun-loving girl power have become fused with political feminist action by a generation of women who grew up with figures like the Spice Girls as role models.
Kimberle Crenshaw: “Many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.” - The Urgency of Intersectionality
And mainstream voices across industries are getting the message through that “women-power” can’t be achieved through empowerment of the individual, but through concrete shockwaves to the system.