In a brand new era of 'Feminism’ backdrops and Taylor Swift’s "squad", where does that leave the good ol’ British girl power of yesteryear? There was only one way to truly find out.
If you were a kid in the 90s, chances are you were part of that beautiful, brief period in which the Spice Girls not only adorned your TV screens and radios, but also your crisp packets, Pepsi cans, deodorant bottles, and bedroom walls. The tomorrow's world they presented in the video for “Spice Up Your Life” wasn’t that far from what surrounded us in the late 90s – girl power had truly taken over Planet Earth.
Spice Girls promoted girl power in a way that all young girls could understand and interpret in their own way. They were proudly individual, and if you watch any interviews with them, those prominent personalities were allowed to shine through, never competing with each other. They represented femininity in everything, from Adidas poppers to tongue piercings, platform boots to bunches – and with that, came a girl power that took up as much space as it could, shouting from televisions and high-kicking in playgrounds across the world. But in a brand new era of Beyoncé ‘Feminism’ backdrops and Taylor Swift’s squad, where does that leave the good ol’ British girl power of yesteryear? There was only one way to truly find out: a Spice Girls-themed club night in a British student town.
The venue for the night’s proceedings was Bristol’s Bunker – a place I stumbled into during my second week of uni (and my 19th birthday), promptly leaving after throwing up the cheap Jagermeister substitute I’d chugged in the toilets. It’s a fresher’s right-of-passage, with most attendees flying the nest come graduation, so I was interested to see whether the room would be filled with fresh-faced Spice Girls wannabes too young for genuine nostalgia, or die-hard fans who’d broken the postgraduate code of conduct.
I arrive early to get a good grasp of the Spice Girls fandom and, just like I remembered, the place is sticky and darkened to a hue that would make you forget your drunken fumbles. The fridges are glowing with a rainbow of VK wonderment, and the DJ looks like he's daydreaming about that time he supported Frankie Knuckles in 1992 and thought things could only get better. The Facebook event promised masks and 90s inflatables, but as we arrive we are told the only masks left are Scary and Posh, and there are no inflatables in sight.
The club isn’t exactly buzzing at this point. To be honest, it’s almost empty, and as it approaches 11pm, I can’t help but wonder where all the Spice Girls fans are. Are they irrelevant now? Did they all get accounting jobs and trouser suits? Or had the Spice Girls finally become uncool? There are a few groups of gal pals dressed up as their favourite, awkwardly jigging from side-to-side as a long forgotten track from Now That’s What I Call Music 43 blares out. The place looks more like a Pontins tribute night on the final Sunday of the school holidays, than a celebration of all that was pop and feminist about the 90s and 00s.
The first girls I approach seem have made quite the effort, with a ginger wig for Geri and standard animal print for Mel B. For Heather, 28, girl power means being independent and having fun. “Having lots of girlie friends around you and being sassy! Spice Girls taught us to be sassy!” she yells, as she slurps something blue and luminous. Sassy they may be, but doesn’t girl power mean more than just being sassy? Wasn’t it the first forays of feminism imprinted within our little 9-year-old minds?
“No no no! Absolutely not!” shouts an impassioned Emma, 26. “That stuff gets in the way of my childhood. I don’t want that tainting my childhood memories.” Maybe Emma’s got a point. The Spice Girls have often been criticised for pushing a vision of feminism that turned women into dim, perky, plastic-like playthings, who are only good for a soundbite, taking all the hard work Riot Grrrl had put in years before and mutating feminism into a sort of vapid, mainstream commodity.
Saying that, the initial message of the Spice Girls was, “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends”. It was a message of solidarity, of liking other girls, instead of fighting with your fellow woman over a boring old bloke. Sure, they could have replaced “I really, really, really want a zig-a-zig-ah” with “I really, really, really want equal pay” but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. The Spice Girls were themselves figuring out girlhood, giving it the headlining slot for years to come; telling girls they mattered and that sticking together was more important than anything else. They told us we could take over the world, even if we liked wearing short skirts and make-up.
I notice one particular short skirt across the room, worn by a slender figure hell-bent on carrying the most vodka cokes to the dancefloor. “My name’s Rob and I don’t give a shit!” says Rob. “I thought I’d have a go at something different. I’m feeling good. I’m looking good.” You have to hand it to him – with the spirit of Ginger Spice running through his veins, he feels like he can take on the world, even with the odd looks he received as he pre-drank at Wetherspoons.
By now, Bunker is beginning to open its doors to the kind of people who still think “bus wankers” is a reputable joke, with the room resembling a half-arsed school disco, and the DJ not doing much but looking at his phone and then looking at the door and then looking at his phone again. For a Spice Girls theme night, there isn’t much in the way of Spice Girls bangers being played out. We’ve been treated to “Wannabe”, but even “Viva Forever” was interrupted by a trance-remix of J.Lo’s “If You Had My Love”. The DJ clearly doesn’t give a shit, as he drifts in-and-out of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and an instrumental S Club 7 mix without even a hint of “Spice Up Your Life”.
Escaping the barren dancefloor, outside is littered with the kind of lads who would mimic blow jobs at you from the detention room in Year 7. “Spice Girls is all we pre-drink to!” they exclaim, as they fall over each other like a litter of excitable pups. When I query whether they’re actual fans or just around for the male:female ratio expected tonight, they suddenly split in half like a bunch of Tories debating Europe. “Spice up your life and that!” one shouts before another leans over to admit, “I’m not saying we’re terrible people, but we’re here to support our friends... because they’re desperate.”
Winking and nudging me in the ribs, it’s all fun and games until I bring up girl power. “It means absolutely nothing,” one sulks before completely turning his back on me. Pointing to his pal, another offers, “If he had to pick a side he would definitely pick [feminism] as he’s a bit of a pussy.” Feeling truly enlightened and refreshed about the future of mankind, I head back inside to see how the dancefloor is coming along.
Things aren’t looking great – empty Thatchers cans adorn darkened corners as 40-something men try and grind against unsuspecting groups of girls. I can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t what the Spice Girls would’ve wanted, but suddenly I spot three friends adorned in ‘Girl Power’ shirts. Despite just necking a bunch of shots, they’re quick to lay praise on the Spice legacy.
“Girl power is absolutely feminism,” Sarah, 23, tells me. “It means being strong and making your own decisions and doing exactly what you fucking want when you want to fucking do it. Don’t give a shit about anyone else. I think feminism is everything. Be you, in the world that you live in, and understand what you want for you. And that’s everything we’re doing this evening. We’re so different, but like the Spice Girls, we have a common ground.”
Looking around, I realise that Sarah is completely right. The Spice Girls can bring together the most surprising of friends. There’s the dude making out with a girl before moving onto her friend, there’s the blazer-clad bloke hopelessly searching for his girlfriend as she tries to do the splits on the dance floor, there’s the retching girl being comforted by her best friend outside the toilet stall, there's the Union Jack dress dude now doing lunges across the dancefloor, and there's this lot below, looking like they have no idea where the fuck they've ended up.
As I make my way home, I see a Scary Spice mask drenched in the rain, a foot-stamp imprinted on her perfect face, and I realise that although the concept of ‘Girl Power’ may have changed a lot in 20 years, the spirit of the Spice Girls remains valid. They might not have made much traction in the way of intersectional feminism, globalised equality, or ridding the world of systematic oppression, but the Spice Girls did teach us one thing: stick by your mates through thick and thin, regardless of whether they pinch the arse of Prince Charles or ditch you in favour of their own fashion empire. In an era of Tinder dick pics and Kardashian think-pieces, this might feel naive, but only because it’s simple – Spice Girls taught us that we should make it last forever, because friendship never ends.
You can follow Sammy on Twitter.