Girl power outage

Like you were expecting Scorsese?

Maybe I read too many of those academic cultural-theory articles in the late '80s ("Lucky Star: Astrology and apathy in the early work of Madonna"), but I couldn't help wondering: Are the Spice Girls important? What do they mean? Are they good for feminism, or bad? After all, they do raise their fists in that cute Girl Power salute. Or maybe they're the logical end to Riot Grrrl-ism—the DIY, girls-first message co-opted as it passes from Bikini Kill to Ani DiFranco to Sheryl Crow to... this.

I thought Spice World would be a good opportunity to decode the semiotics of Spice. I brought a notebook, a pen, and a fat vocabulary of words like "hegemony" and "paradigm" with me to the screening. What I found there was a screaming horde of 8-year-old girls.

Spice World

directed by Bob Spiers

starring (in order of preference): Ginger, Sporty, Scary, Baby, Posh

As I watched the movie, I found that the Spice Girls delivered both more and less than a pro-sex feminist message. (For one thing, for scantily clad ladies, they're awfully sexless.) The Girls are definitely aware of the cultural pressure on them to deliver a pro-girl message: In one sequence, each Girl swaps identities with another. Posh, who's dressed up as Ginger, sticks her booty out and mouths satirically: "Feminism... blah blah blah... Girl Power... blah blah blah."

But a fantasy segment gets closer to the service that the Girls provide for lowercase-g girls everywhere. The Girls appear as "Spice Force Five," a team of spies. Each one has her specialty: Sporty does counterespionage, Baby is a martial-arts expert. And that's essentially the Spice Girls' function: They're superheroes for girls. They have easy-to-identify characteristics, like Aquaman and the Silver Surfer. Even their bus is outfitted with their characters in mind: Ginger has a couch shaped like a pair of lips; Posh has a catwalk; Scary has leopard-print everything; Sporty has an exercise bike; and Baby has a swing (which, combined with her short dresses and ever-present lollipop, has a fairly creepy effect). And these supergirls function in an almost all-girl universe. (The only major male character is Richard E. Grant as their manager, though Elvis Costello, Stephen Fry, Elton John, and Hugh Laurie all appear in cameos.)

I happened to be in London this past fall on the exact day the tide turned. The Spice Girls had been powering along, dogged by controversy no more vital than whether Posh was prettier than Ginger. Then, at a gig (if such a rock 'n' roll term can be attributed to a Spice performance) in Spain, the Girls refused to come out and sing with all those offensive photographers perched on the edge of the stage. When Sporty, Scary, Posh, Dopey, and Sneezy finally assembled onstage, the audience heckled them wildly. The girls had made the fatal mistake of taking themselves seriously. England mourned. And mocked: All of a sudden, previously sympathetic TV shows rushed to bury Spice, not to praise it.

Spice World was shot last summer, before this foray into diva-dom, and the film's main characteristic (besides its deep, unyielding badness) is freewheeling good humor. For the most part anyway, the girls give off a strong whiff of self-awareness. This is no Showgirls-style bombast—it's more like the Monkees in Head. And their Britishness makes the whole production feel a bit off, pleasantly home-made. Pop culture that doesn't hail from the US often has a slightly less corporate feel. The Girls aren't quite as polished as their predecessors, all-black American bands like En Vogue and SWV. They are, in British terms, slightly naff "Page 3" girls come to life. Which, combined with their ability to poke fun at themselves, makes for something like charm.

Which is not to say this is a good movie. It's a terrible movie. There's no plot to speak of—we simply follow the Girls around as they prepare for their, uh, gig at the Albert Hall. Meanwhile the Girls have impetuous adventures, even ditching their Union Jack tour bus for a zany motorboat ride. Probably the lowest point in the film comes when the Girls get in a fight, and each sits alone in her home, remembering the good old days before they were famous. We flash back to the group (I refuse to call them a band) hanging out at their local caff in pre-fame days, giving an impromptu performance of their first hit, "Wannabe," for the owner. When the tune is over, we cut back to Sporty, who gazes pensively out the window at the pouring rain, lost in memories... and clutching a volleyball.

Related Links:

The official Spice World site

Spice Girls fan page

Max's Spice Girls Website

Baltis Spiceypage

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