Girl power 


Don't rely on your sexuality, but don't be afraid of it.
-- The Spice Girls

Perhaps it was my new school coat, a lime-green plaid maxi, or my tie-dyed tights, or maybe it was the way my hair was parted in the middle, with two braids hanging down in the front. Whatever it was, on that morning in the 1970s I was sure that I was a 12-year-old bordering on cool.

With the confidence of a runway model, I strode toward the bus stop, but began to slow as I approached. The only other kids standing there were two boys whose names were trouble. Suddenly I went from mod to meek: a preadolescent, skinny-legged kid with glasses, terrified that I would become their next victim.

But the boys already had someone to pick on -- each other. And as I neared, the taller growled the ultimate insult at the shorter: "Shut up, you girl!" The two immediately tangled in a bloodthirsty fight, one reveling in his ability to select the perfect four-letter word, the other struggling to defend his masculinity.

Yards away, I stood in my chic maxi and hip hair, stunned. What, I wondered, was so bad about being a girl? Yet at that moment I was ashamed of my fashion statement, my bountiful hair and my developing body.

I remember thinking: "They hate everything about me."

Twenty-five years later, when I was asked to describe my life's "defining moment," my mind went to triumphant memories. But if I'd been honest, I would have thought about moments like the one at the bus stop, when it became clear that the world had stopped defining me neutrally as a child and had pushed me into political territory defined instead by gender.

Perhaps that's why now, as women who embraced feminism in the '70s and '80s are raising girls of their own, the concept of "girl" is being revisited.

"When second-wave feminists fought for equal opportunity at work and equal pay for equal work, something got left behind," says Debbie Stoller, co-editor of BUST magazine in New York. What they forgot, she says, was to value things that are uniquely female.

"We considered ourselves feminist," says Stoller, "but Ms. `magazine` wasn't creating a positive alternative culture for girls."

That's why the 35-year-old established BUST in 1993 with two of her friends. The purpose of the magazine, says Stoller, is to provide an alternative female media voice that is neither as frivolous as many glamour magazines nor as stoic as more feminist ones. The winter/spring 1998 issue of BUST, for example, includes the witty "Barbie Was My Original Ho" and a feminist criticism of the movies "G.I. Jane" and "In the Company of Men." That kind of celebration of she-hood, says Stoller, is the genesis of the new, girl-oriented brand of feminism called "girl power."

"`Girls are` loud, they're physical, unabashedly indulge in whatever they think is fun. They're a lot stronger and cooler than women," she says. "Girls retire at adolescence, then women emerge."

But now, girls are in. Grown women are wearing barrettes and donning tiny T-shirts that say, "Girls Rule!" Girl rock bands such as the Spice Girls, who sold out an Orlando Arena show on June 16, are topping the charts. But behind the hype, there may be something deeper brewing: the beginnings of a movement.

"I've been to countless conferences and have been asked to speak all over the country," says Susan Douglas, a communications studies professor at the University of Michigan and author of the acclaimed book, "Where the Girls Are.," "What I get to see is something that's running below the mainstream media: a groundswell of parents, kids and activists who are embracing the notion of girl power."

Defining the girl power movement, however, is not so easy.

"It's a term that's being used both by the Spice Girls and Donna Shalala," says Douglas, who has spent years studying how the depiction of girls in the media affects their self-esteem. "In its most popular version, girl power means that you can be even hyperfeminine with makeup and push-up bras. You can deliberately objectify yourself sexually but still demand respect from men.

"But that's not what the Girl Scouts mean when they use the term," continues Douglas. "They are striving to put sexuality in the background and help girls get involved in athletics, in their communities and academics. They are not copping to the message that the most important thing is how a girl looks or the size of her thighs."

While the latter is more akin to the traditional feminist perspective, the power of the ultrafemme has a growing group of supporters.

Stoller says the girl power movement is about reclaiming the word "girl" and all its trappings, then daring society to discount women because of it.

"It's totally stolen from the queer movement," she explains. "Young queers wanted to be as swishy as they wanted to be, to use the word ‘queer' (usually considered derogatory) and flaunt it proudly. Calling myself a ‘girl' now has a new meaning."

Margaret Thatcher is the first-ever Spice Girl. I admire what (Madonna's) achieved being mediocre.
-- Geri "Ginger Spice," the most vocal proponent of "Girl Power" (although she's also the one who recently left the group)

My 7-year-old daughter, Rae, is a preener, an all-frills chick for whom pink is a mantra. I have watched her development in horror, and even considered taking her to an X-chromosome exorcist to rid her of her relish for baubles and creature comforts.

Her every desire is anathema to the male paradigm of power. I once caught her sitting beside a pool, after parading around for hours in her new bikini. When I asked why she wasn't swimming, she answered, "I don't want to mess up my hair." Resisting the urge to throw her into the pool, I smiled sweetly through gritted teeth and said, "Rae, NEVER let fashion stand in the way of adventure."

But the girl power movement has made me face a disturbing question: What if my daughter likes nail polish -- not because she's an unwitting pawn of the male-dominated, misogynist, oppressive fashion industry -- but because she likes nail polish? Is my disdain for all things girl symptomatic of my own self-hatred?

C'mon, maybe it's time for feminists to admit that we had fun playing with Barbies, that nothing's better than dressing up for a tea party and that chatting with your friends at an all- night slumber party is a great thing about being a girl. And if you've got a problem with that, screw you.

That's the line 24-year-old Ophira Edut walks both personally and professionally through her Ann Arbor, Mich.-based magazine, HUES.

"There's a lot of things I like to do as a woman which are OK on an individual level, but which take on a different meaning when they become institutional," says Edut (pronounced Ay-doot).

For example, Edut says she enjoys cooking, crocheting and painting her nails. "If that makes me feel good, then I should be able to indulge in those activities."

On the other hand, when media and social norms dictate what you should like because of your gender, the line is crossed. It's a tension that runs through the magazine, which Edut started three years ago with her twin sister, Tali, and their friend Dyann Logwood. HUES, which stands for "Hear Us Emerging Sisters," is subtitled: "A Woman's Guide to Power and Attitude."

"The bottom line is that if getting your nails done makes you feel oppressed, then you're doing it because of some notion about what is properly female," says Edut. "But if you like getting your nails done, then do it. It's the freedom of choice which gives those actions power."

But many argue there's no real freedom of choice until women have gained social and economic equality. That is, until women are free to carve out their own concepts of who they are and what they want to be, claiming old stereotypes about femininity may be a dangerous experiment.

Girl power, for Edut, doesn't reject being feminine. But it does mean that it's wrong to focus on superficial qualities -- qualities that can lead to a false sense of security.

"We definitely have to be aware of what the symbols of femininity mean before we embrace them," she says. "We have a long way to go before we can make feminism be about nail polish."

It's all about girl power! It's about equality and having fun and trying to rule your life.
-- Mel B. "Scary Spice"

Though some people thought it was about group sex.
-- Geri "Ginger Spice"

When I ask Rae whether she'd rather be a boy or a girl, she considers the question carefully, then says emphatically, "A girl."

When I ask why, she says because girls get to do fun things, such as: "Pretending you're in a wedding, pretending you're having a birthday party, playing dress-up, playing Barbie and putting on makeup and lipstick."

As if to throw a bone to her blanching mother, she adds, "mountain climbing, pretending you're the doctor and being an artist" on her list of cool girl things to do.

But when I ask 12-year-old Garen Wolff what's the best thing about being a girl, she's stumped.

"You can bring life into the world," eventually answers the sixth-grader.

"No," I answer, "I said girl, not woman."

"Oh," she says solemnly. "I don't know. If you look at being a girl, you're always lower-class than the boys. That isn't fair."

It's telling that a 7-year-old can immediately rattle off what she loves about being a girl, but by the time girls are adolescents, they can see only what's wrong with being one.

Susan Douglas says there's a good reason for that loss of confidence.

"Imagine you're an adolescent filled with emotional and physical energy. There are all kinds of possible selves awaiting you," says Douglas. "But then, as a girl you are bombarded with images which say, ‘The possible self you should be is thin, pretty, compliant and quiet.'"

Suddenly, says Douglas, there's a break between how girls have been able to be and what they're being forced to be. That pressure mounts in school, where boys are called on in class more often, and in social circles, where girls who are too smart are vilified, but also emotionally, when girls are discouraged from saying what's on their minds, says Douglas.

"That's why it's dangerous to hold up the Spice Girls as symbols of girl power," she says. "It may not be a tall order for a 22-year-old, statuesque singer to flaunt her sexuality and demand respect, but that's a tall order for a 12-year-old."

When asked what they think about the Spice Girls, Garen and four of her schoolmates moan collectively.

"At first I liked them, but now I don't," says Amanda. "None of them can accept the fact that they're short. They all wear boots to make them taller."

"They wear clothes that are this small and go like this," says Garen, making slashing gestures across her chest and waist. "They're nasty."

When asked what "girl power" means to them, they reply: "Well, the Spice Girls are supposed to stand for girl power, but they are really confusing," says Garen, whose hair is twisted into a fall of braids and whose fingers are adorned with thumb rings and powder-blue nail polish. "They want girls to be strong and stand up for themselves, but the one thing they have in common is that they all wear clothes that are too small."

"Who are they trying to attract with those clothes?" pipes in Amanda. "Girls? I don't think so."

Garen and her friends see the contradiction between claiming freedom from oppression while wrapping yourself in the symbols of it. But many adults worry such contradictions will be lost as adolescent girls struggle with sexual identity.

Kirsten Harrison, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, has researched the connection between media images of women and eating disorders. "That's the problem with images like Madonna wearing a ‘Boy Toy' belt buckle and claiming it makes her powerful," says Harrison. "The implication is that being someone else's toy or object gives a girl some kind of power."

When asked how she would dress to represent girl power, Amanda says: "I heard somewhere that if the world was just girls, there'd be a lot of fat, happy women sitting on the couch eating ice cream with hairy legs."

Pia, another one of Garen's friends, agrees: "If men weren't on the planet, you'd be more open and for yourself. People would like you more."

None of us would be interested in a man that wanted to dominate, wanted to pull you down and wanted you to do what he wanted you to do.
-- Mel B. "Scary Spice"

When I tell Douglas that I talked to a group of 12-year-olds who think the Spice Girls are not about power, but just plain nasty, she's not surprised.

"They're rejecting their own sexual objectification, and that's great," she says. "But on the other hand, to what extent are they buying into age-old prohibitions: If you display your sexuality as a teen-aged girl, you're a slut."

It's a paradox I may never figure out in time to impact my daughter's self-esteem. Perhaps the most I can do is allow her to indulge in perfume and jewelry while buoying her confidence that she can achieve anything.

"It's the '90s version of ‘You can have it all,'" says Stoller. "Except now we're saying that you can be as militant sitting around self-consciously indulging in makeup and hair as women were in the '70s burning bras."

The Bella/Barbarella Dichotomy

By Liz Langley

By Liz Langley

In the Monty Python movie "The Meaning of Life," there is a sketch in which a woman is in the hospital moments after having a baby. She asks the doctor if it's a boy or a girl. He tells her, "I think it's a little early to start imposing roles on it, don't you?"

I think about this every time I watch Hunter, or watch myself when I am with her. My 2-and-a-half-year-old niece is not only the brightest person in our whole family, she is lovely and friendly, daring and athletic, a creative crayon artist, an eclectic lover of Dr. Seuss and National Geographic, and has the good taste always to be thrilled to see me. And the minute she does, after admiring my nails, she opens my big pink vinyl purse, pulls out the brush so she can do our hair, pulls out the lipstick so she can put it on our faces, arms, shirts and any furniture nearby, and opens up the compact so that she can see herself and powder the dog (that nose, after all, does have an unsightly shine). She loves going through the jewelry box, and when my mother puts on the one nice dress she has, the baby ooohs like Merv Griffin.

She enjoys being a girl.

And while I want her to enjoy herself, I'm sometimes worried she's going to enjoy it too much. In encouraging her to "Put makeup on grandma, she needs it," am I sending her the wrong message? That this stuff is important? How did it get to the point where the phrase, "You look pretty," directed at a 2-year-old, becomes a source of agonizing guilt over whether you are bolstering her self-confidence or potentially hurting it by emphasizing her appearance?

I don't know a single girl -- and by that I mean women like me in our 30s -- who isn't still made dizzy at the dichotomy. Born in the '60s and looking at women either as Bella Abzug or Barbarella, most of us thought you had to choose, smart or sexy, strong but lonely or supported but weak. No one ever mentioned that you could be both, that everyone is interdependent, that brains and wit are sexy and sexiness can be a damned smart thing to be.

Instead we always seem to find ourselves being a little bit of both, but forever feeling bad about whichever one we are being at the time. If we go somewhere looking less than our best, we compare ourselves to other women and curse ourselves for not paying more attention to our appearance. But we never pick up a Cosmopolitan to look at the clothes without belittling ourselves for reading "this stupid, frivolous crap." If we dote on our beloved jobs, we feel bad for neglecting our people. If we dote on our people, we feel bad because we should be more interested in work. If we go to the gym, we feel guilty for giving in to the sexist, unrealistic, degrading preconceptions of how we should look. If we don't go to the gym we feel fat. Which is worse? Both are worse.

The Spice Girls are not going to wipe out two decades worth of circular self-doubt with the phrase "Girl power." But if they have one trait on their side that more women need, it's the word "unapologetic." Women seem to be forever apologizing to themselves, each other and the world at large for being "too" something -- too serious, too silly, too young, too old, too soft, too harsh, to hell with it. If these young ladies can make $22 million apiece being unapologetic about being whatever kind of girls they want to be, more Girl Power to them.

I only hope that in 20 years, if anyone tries to tell my niece that she is "too" anything other than exactly what she wants to be, that she will smile -- whether with Revlon coated lips, or through Linda Ellerbee glasses, or both -- and tell them in no uncertain terms to bugger off, that she will do what she knows is right for her. No regrets. No apologizes.

Actually, it isn't all that hard to imagine. In addition to being a good dancer, killing bugs with a Joe Pescian glee and eating butter with her hands, this is a kid who tells adults "Go to your room." She has developed the reputation of being a little bossy. I tell my friend Elizabeth, "I can't imagine where she gets it." She stares at me in disbelief and starts laughing.

So who needs the Spice Girls? Maybe within the family she doesn't have such terrible influences after all.


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