For those who grew up in the late nineties, the term “girl power” conjures up images of butt kicking ladies, girl groups in platform shoes and sparkly outfits and a proclamation of no scrubs.
During the height of their popularity in the late nineties, the Spice Girls were the spokeswomen for girl power, telling girls it was okay to be comfortable with who they are, advocating for the importance of female friendship and warning potential mates that “if you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye.
So what is girl power?
Apparently in 2001, the term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary and defined as “power exercised by girls; specifically a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness, and individualism.” The Washington Post has a different perspective, explaining that girl power was “predicated on giggles, best friends, sex appeal and, most important, cool clothes.”
As someone who was once a proud owner of a ‘girls kick butt’ sweater, I can identify with the desire of a young girl to assert her place in the world. However the type of girl power that was aggressively promoted to young girls somehow missed the mark. For one, a point many critics have argued, the term was co-opted by the media in an attempt to make a profit, this time period also saw a rise in female heroines on television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: the Warrior Princess, and Dark Angel to name a few), movies (Mulan and Charlie’s Angels), and music (Spice Girls and TLC) . These very narrow representations of girl power portrayed a specific image of power, the butt kicking girl. Girl power seemed to be about exerting strength – physical strength. Arguably the term could also be around emotional and mental strength as well. These types of strength are not in and of themselves negative things but they are awfully limiting. Power should be about more than just strength, especially since the strength in question so often overlooks certain key powers. Ambition, assertiveness and individualism? What about the power of compassion, cooperation and unity? Powers which for long have shown their ability to affect large scale change. Emphasizing the power of the collective doesn’t mean acquiescing personal power but it means recognizing that there is more to life than pushing yourself to the forefront at all costs.
So maybe girl power filled a need (for those looking to make a profit as well as young girls seeking people to look up to) but I’d like to think we can do better. As the document explains, “As we move beyond the material struggle to exercise power over or against others, and we develop the capacity to draw on these other sources of power accessible to every human being, we activate greater forms of individual and collective agency and create new possibilities for the well-being of women and men.”