Part of: Girly

Essay: Girl Power

by Dr Rebecca Hains on 10 September 2014

An extract from Dr Rebecca Hain's academic article The Problematics of Reclaiming the Girlish: The Powerpuff Girls and Girl Power.

An extract from Dr Rebecca Hain's academic article The Problematics of Reclaiming the Girlish: The Powerpuff Girls and Girl Power.

The Powerpuff Girls, created by animator Craig McCracken and broadcast on Cartoon Network from 1995

Girl power, a playful form of third wave feminism,[1] seeks to reclaim the feminine and mark it as culturally valued. It is most often represented as the idea that girls can do anything they choose - especially on a personal level. In popular culture sites of girl power, 'power' encompasses two key concepts: 1. the ability to influence others and the surrounding world through independence, intelligence, and agency, and 2. the mental and physical strength that males typically claim. Grafting these concepts onto the idea of the 'girl' suggests that 'feminine' and 'empowered' are not antonyms: Girls can make their own decisions, speak their minds, raise their voices, and be aggressive, while engaging in the production of normative femininity.

In the early nineties, girl power emerged as part of the Riot Grrrl movement, a mode of feminist consciousness-raising[2] that encouraged girls and women to eschew mainstream commodities in favour of independently producing their own items. The Riot Grrrls’ girl power circulated through the do-it-yourself production of cultural forms such as punk rock music and zines[3] and through weekly meetings in which grrrls discussed issues they faced. Riot Grrrls were aggressive and confrontational, and freely borrowed aspects of mainstream femininity to subvert them through strategic juxtaposition. Lyn Mikel Brown notes, 'Contradiction is manifest in Riot Grrls’ appearance — baby-doll dresses with lace peter pan collars worn with black boots, shaved heads, and cat’s-eye glasses.' Their activities generally stayed below mainstream society’s radar.

'Girl power' became a household term in the late nineties when the Spice Girls - a wildly popular pop music group from England - claimed girl power as their slogan.[4] The Spice Girls proclaimed the joys of strong-willed independence while engaging in elaborate performances of fun, sexy femininity, which they claimed was not intended for the pleasure of men.[5] The Spice Girls’ girl power referred to 'physical and mental strength' as well as 'freedom of expression and inner peace, […] standing up for one’s opinions and beliefs.' They intended their actions as an 'affirmation of girlness' and a 'nineties way of saying feminism'. Millions of fans embraced the Spice Girls’ combination of girl-positive lyrics and the range of playful, feminine, yet strong personas embodied by the five Spices.[6]

The term 'girl power' as popularised by the Spice Girls denotes an ideological shift in femininity’s conceptualisation and its portrayal in mainstream culture. Rather than being passive, girls can actively speak out in verbal and non-verbal modes, as do girl power role models on television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Powerpuff Girls. Girls can make their voices heard in speech and print, and they can make mainstream femininity work for them, instead of against them. However, the Spice Girls’ form of girl power complexly intertwines with the active consumption of commodities so necessary to achieve a feminine appearance — the slender, curvaceous, yet toned physique adorned with stylish clothing and accessories, perfect hair, and trendy makeup.[7]

Women have always been strong, enduring childbirth and a variety of burdens and hardships. However, girl power discourse does not attempt to reclaim or raise awareness of such strength. Girl power instead claims the mental toughness and physical strength into which males have been socialised.

This complicated, alternately positive and regressive version of girl power has successfully permeated collective consciousness and the activities and artefacts of popular culture. This may be in part because girl power promotes the active consumption of commodities already targeting girls and women — rendering it far less subversive than the Riot Grrrls’ girl power. Advertisers have co-opted mainstream girl power to sell even the most mundane products; one deodorant brand recently changed its slogan from 'Strong enough for a man, PH-balanced for a woman' to 'Strong enough for a woman,' while another deodorant’s commercials feature the tagline, 'Strong and beautiful, just like you.' In each case, the juxtaposition of 'strength' with 'woman' or 'beautiful' reflects an important discourse surrounding girl power: Countering the idea that girls are weak and boys are strong, femininity and strength can coexist.

Girl power’s discourse on femininity and strength is problematic and complicated. Women have always been strong, enduring childbirth and a variety of burdens and hardships. However, girl power discourse does not attempt to reclaim or raise awareness of such strength. Girl power instead claims the mental toughness and physical strength into which males have been socialised, abnegating the learned weakness detailed by Colette Dowling, who points out that the idea of girls’ innate frailty is a falsehood. From infancy, girls 'are taught to project a physical presence that speaks of latent vulnerability', which historically has permitted men 'to disempower and subordinate women, use their labour, influence their thoughts, and secure their cooperation mainly because of the power they have held over women’s bodies'. By denaturalising girls’ weakness, girl power discourse frees girls and women from this pattern of disempowerment and subordination.

However, the girl power icons presented in the media seemingly have their cake and eat it, too, for they enact without embodying the new female strength. Their bodies look thin, not tough.[8] Girls in the viewing audience can never live up to this demanding new super-strong and super-slim standard: Paradoxically, if they match the strength of the televised characters, they won’t look feminine enough, and if they look feminine enough, they won’t be able to conquer strong opponents. It is an impossible goal for real girls. Girls can more feasibly mimic their television role models’ celebration of girls’ identities, interests, and femininity. This is an important gain of cultural ground. Cultural perceptions of boys as stronger, more powerful, and more active than girls have long translated into the perception that being a girl is shameful—hence, insults directed at boys charge, 'You throw like a girl' and 'You’re such a sissy.' Recent studies have shown that despite the women's movement's gains, many boys and girls alike still view boyhood as preferable to girlhood. Girl power offers support for girls by suggesting that they are boys' equals, not their inferiors — or, if the sparkly pink t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan 'Girls Rule, Boys Drool' hold truth, even better than them.[9]

The Spice Girls, a now iconic British pop band formed in 1994

Girl power may reflect a cultural response to the crisis of female adolescence. Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice suggested that developmental psychologists had previously ignored adolescent girls’ experience and moral development, writing only about boys. She found that the male perspective is more focused on justice, or respecting individuals’ rights, while the female perspective emphasises responsibility, or caring for others. Gilligan’s attention to girls’ lives informed Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, published in association with the American Association of University Women, which identified a crisis that occurs when girls reach adolescence at approximately 11 years old: Their self-esteem plummets, academic achievement drops, and concerns with appearance increase. These findings received widespread attention, and the female crisis of adolescence has become part of the contemporary conception of girlhood.

Viewed from this context, the logic of the late-nineties pro-girl rhetoric is that 'if we start to value girls more and celebrate their culture, girls in turn will feel positive about themselves and will achieve higher self-esteem.' However, the relationship between girl power’s pro-girl rhetoric and its emphasis on the construction of a circumscribed feminine appearance must not be underestimated. As one crisis girls face is a preoccupation with their looks, emphasising appearance is problematic, but appearance is central to girl power’s attempts to reclaim the girlish. And this attempt has its logic: Whereas second wave feminists such as Betty Friedan suggested that women who sought to be self-sufficient should dress in business suits and act seriously, so that men might stop belittlingly referring to them as 'girls', girl power — in proclaiming that there is nothing wrong with being called a girl — intentionally reclaims the traditional look of femininity. However, Brabazon and Evans submit that '[t]he affirmation of girlness, rather than womanhood, is contradictory to many of the contemporary goals of feminism' and Taylor considers it 'an act of defiance against both feminism (which rejects [femininity]) and patriarchy (which trivializes it)'. Thus, reclaiming the girlish may create as much harm as good.

Extract taken from Hains' The Problematics of Reclaiming the Girlish: The Powerpuff Girls and Girl Power. The full article was published in Femspec in 2005. Hains is a professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University, where she is affiliated with the centre for Childhood and Youth studies. Her research focuses on girls, women and media.

[1] There are many forms of third wave feminism. In general terms, third wave feminism encompasses the forms of feminism which arose in the context of the societal changes effected by the second wave of feminism. Although the term 'third wave' is not a generational marker, it is most often claimed by members of Generations X and Y, who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, enjoying the fruits of the second wave’s activism, and were immersed in the resultant rhetoric of equality of the sexes. However, they have seen that society does not always fully deliver on this promise of equality—neither in the public sphere nor in the home. Thus, many third wave feminisms emphasize individual empowerment without necessarily calling for political action. For further reading, see Allen; Baumgardner and Richards; Dicker and Piepmeier; and Heywood and Drake.

[2] Ellen Riordan notes, 'Many of the women involved in the early stages of the Riot Grrrl movement were college educated and well versed in feminist theory. This partly accounts for their feminist consciousness' (286).

[3] Zines are individually-controlled and produced non-commercial print or online magazines that typically reflect the perspective of a subculture and/or address social issues.

[4] Catherine Driscoll notes in Girl Culture, Revenge, and Global Capitalism that critics often compare the Spice Girls and the Riot Grrrls to condemn one at the expense of the other. However, I intend to clarify and define the differences between the girl power claimed by the Riot Grrrls subculture and the girl power claimed, commercialized, and made mainstream by the Spice Girls.

[5] In one radio interview, 'Scary Spice' Melanie B. told a caller, 'This is about girl power. This is not about picking up guys. Sending a positive vibe, kicking it for the girls. […] We don’t need men controlling our lives—we control our lives' (qtd. in Brabazon and Evans, pars. 29 & 31).

[6] Lemish details the five personality types and femininities suggested by the five Spices.

[7] According to critics, the Spice Girls’ mixed message suggested that 'the only way for girls to achieve power is by using one’s sexuality and looks' (Riordan 290), for 'while girls are being taught to be more active and take charge, Spice Girl ideology still serves a similar end, using beauty and sexuality as power, rather than encouraging girls to develop other means of power' (Riordan 291). Their message is also exclusionary: Lemish noted, 'One can choose to be any of the 'girls' as long as one is conventionally attractive' (20).

[8] Girl power icons’ strength often has supernatural origins that account for this incongruity. Buffy of BtVS inherited superpowers when she became a slayer; the sisters of Charmed are witches; and the Powerpuff Girls are the result of a laboratory experiment.

[9] Such t-shirts echo the thinness imperative, for they are always tiny and form-fitting. Big, baggy shirts with the 'Girl power' slogan would have different connotations and imply that girl power can be claimed by a wider range of people.

[9] See Durham’s political economic analysis of how girl power texts make use of their girls’ bodies to merchandize and sell products (28).



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