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Once upon a time, in 1994, a group of five singing, dancing girls were selected via a long audition process to become members of a new girl band called Touch. In 1996, they changed the group's name, picked five overly cutesy nicknames out of a magazine, and put out a huge hit album on Virgin Records that became the mark of the "girl power" music craze of the 1990s.
Yes, unfortunately we're talking about Sporty, Scary, Baby, Posh and Ginger: the Spice Girls. Love them or hate them, the Spice Girls' catchy 1996 debut album Spice made a noise that is still reverberating—and made "girl power" a household phrase.
"Ack!" you say. "Why are you talking about the Spice Girls in a piece about Beyoncé?" Don't worry; no confusion here. We know Beyoncé is nothing like a Spice Girl. For one, she's significantly more talented. On top of that, she's a genuine example of a powerful woman, at least on a professional and financial level. It's not the mid-1990s anymore, and Queen Bey's most important fanbase is definitely not pre-teens.
But differences aside, Beyoncé's career began on the tail end of late-1990s Spicemania. And arguably, her unshakeable reputation as an emblem of girl power owes something to the legacy of 1990s girl groups ranging the Spice Girls to Bikini Kill. "If I Were a Boy" is a perfect example of the new kind of "girl power" that Beyoncé has based her career on, at least in part.
The Spice Girls definitely didn't invent girl power. In fact, plenty of people have argued that they merely co-opted and commercialized it.
In reality, the whole idea of girl power—and the catch phrase itself—emerged from what's known as the third wave of feminism. Feminism's third wave, a movement that began in the 1980s and gained traction in the early 1990s, was the response of some young people to the widespread backlash against feminism that thrived in the 1980s. It was also a response to the perception that their mothers' brand of 1970s feminism (the so-called "second wave") was outdated.
Some say that feminism's third wave began with the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy in 1991. That scandal unfolded when Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall resigned after serving 24 years as the Supreme Court's first African-American appointee. Marshall had been an important influence in decisions that upheld civil rights legislation. The senior George Bush's new nominee, Clarence Thomas, was a more conservative African American, which raised the eyebrows of plenty of liberals.
But the much bigger twist was that during his confirmation hearings, a woman named Anita Hill publicly accused Thomas of sexually harassing her in the workplace when he was her boss. Although Thomas was ultimately still confirmed, the controversy raised awareness about the continuing problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Some also think that it galvanized the increase in women's participation in politics which was apparent as early as the 1992 national elections.
But clearly, this single public event wasn't the only force behind a whole new school of thought about gender. Girls and women who came of age in the 1980s became fed up with a combination of bad economic conditions, the explosion of AIDS, and a slow backlash against the progress made in the 1970s (which, according to this article, included a 50% increase in reports of violence against young women). One scholar writes that these changes, along with other highly publicized sexual assault cases in the early 1990s, led to a "remarkable resurgence of grassroots student activism, young feminist conferences, and a host of new or newly revitalized social action organizations and networks led largely by young women" (source).
Taken as a whole, the ideas of third-wave feminists were more a revival and resurgence of feminism than a rejection of all that came before. They were young women—and some men—who wanted to revive the public debate of power dynamics, gendered violence, social and political inequality, and double standards.
But beyond the world of theory-talk (and more relevant to Beyoncé-talk), the third wave had another new weapon up its sleeve: an entirely different approach to pop culture.
The cultural spawn of third-wave feminism was a huge surge in girl-driven bands and music in almost all popular genres. In the punk world, angry girl groups like Bikini Kill came onto the scene. Bikini Kill was a punk outfit famous for songs with names like "Rebel Girl" and "Suck My Left One," and song themes that included rape and molestation, lesbianism, and female solidarity. They were deeply influential in a countercultural music scene that came to be known as "riot grrrl."
Riot grrrl was an informal movement of young women who wanted to talk about sexism, racism, and body image in new ways. They made 'zines (self-published mini-magazines), started all-girl bands, and had conferences criticizing male chauvinism wherever it showed up—especially in the indie music scene. At some point, someone affiliated with the grassroots riot grrrl movement coined the term "grrrl power."
Big names in women's empowerment also emerged in the folk world, including Ani DiFranco, Alanis Morrisette, and the Lilith Fair crew. And on television, fearsome girl heroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer ruled the day, leading a whole new area of feminist pop culture scholarship known as "Buffy studies."
The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw the emergence of hip-hop and R&B girl bands like Salt-n-Pepa, the first all-female rap group to get mainstream attention. Salt-n-Pepa won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1995 for "None of Your Business," a serious piece of girl-rap about sexual liberation. All-girl get-up TLC put out numerous hits including "No Scrubs." (Worth noting, too, that TLC star Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes was arrested in 1994 on charges of arson for an attack on her abusive ex-boyfriend's mansion. Girl power gone wrong, or righteous anger?)
Seriously though, arson wasn't the standard for this varied crew of talented women. Women artists in all genres were up against some real barriers—men still ruled the day in the music scene, all-girl bands were a rarity, and young women, especially young Black women, were targets for over-sexualization as soon as they ended up in the spotlight. These new girl groups insisted on an independent musical identity, and their approach was more one of infiltration than utter rejection of "the system" or of pop culture.
But could this new brand of fired-up feminism keep its fire as it became a part of mainstream pop culture? Probably nothing did worse things for the flying-in-the-face-of-patriarchy image of riot grrrl and the edgy identities of the new girl bands than the Spice Girls' sudden takeover of "girl power."
Unlike Beyoncé's own girl group Destiny's Child, the Spice Girls weren't a group of musicians and performers who came together as friends to sing about the things that girls care about. The Spice Girls were five young performers who auditioned for parts in a commercially manufactured band whose "Girl Power!" slogan (also the title of their 2007 book) was partially selected for its marketability.
The Spice Girls, not known for choosing their words, summed up girl power like this: "Feminism has become a dirty word. Girl Power is just a Nineties way of saying it. We can give feminism a kick up the arse. Women can be so powerful when they show solidarity." (Source)
Worthy of a bad grade in ninth-grade English? Yes. Pre-packaged? Also yes. Totally different message from the more commercially independent wing of third-wave feminist music? Maybe not. And this is where Beyoncé comes in.
Did girl power lose its punch by going mainstream?
In 1997, the year that Beyoncé's girl-band Destiny's Child signed its first record, one commentator called the Spice Girls' "Girl Power!" "a kind of ad agency version of what nineties feminism has become: a safe form of self-expression that has more to do with changing your hairstyle than changing the world" (source). Another complained that the album Spice had "put the sexual clock back by decades" (source).
Were the late 1990s, when Beyoncé appeared on the scene, also the time when "girl power" became nothing but what some have called "beauty shop feminism"?
According to the critics, beauty shop feminism focuses on the kind of empowerment that girls get by going to the hair salon together—look good, feel good, and bond a little. Girls are like, totally, so cool. Boys are total dweebs, total losers, and total suckers. And so on.
Beyoncé's own girlhood band, Destiny's Child, changed its name from Girl's Tyme in the mid-1990s and signed their first album to Columbia Records in 1997. From their first big hit, "No, No, No," to the 2001 "Survivor," the all-girl group was all about telling it to the boys—and usually the message was something along the lines of, "I will be fine without you, and also, you weren't that great in the first place."
Translation: Girls rule, boys drool.
The Destiny's Child message was also about being bootylicious, a supposedly body-positive term coined by Beyoncé that talks about beauty mainly in terms of, well, booty. The two themes—I am fine without you ("Survivor," "Irreplaceable"), and I feel good and look good no matter what you think ("Bootylicious," "Single Ladies," "Why Don't You Love Me")—permeate Beyoncé's work.
Maybe "beauty shop feminism" actually isn't a bad way to put it. It's no Bikini Kill ("Mirror, mirror on the wall / Who's the fairest of them all? / I don't, I don't really care y'know"). And Destiny's Child themselves put out a music video based on the image of a group of women sitting around a beauty shop complaining about their boyfriends ("Bills Bills Bills," 1999). But whatever we call it, the themes of independence and self-confidence that have gone over so well in Beyoncé's career seem to owe something to the fierce, female-centered public images of bands that emerged in the 1990s—certainly TLC, and maybe even the Spice Girls, too.
Beyoncé also hired an all-girl band in 2006 and still tours with mostly female musicians, a move that would have been a form of radicalism in the days before "girl power."
"If I Were a Boy," one of the singles on Beyoncé's third and most successful solo album, is another in a line of hits made of Beyoncé-style girl power. A few decades later, is Beyoncé talking a deeply different game than Bikini Kill when she files a righteous complaint with guys who still mistreat girls in the same old ways?
Here's what Bey has to say about the song:
The boys definitely are like, 'OK, why is she doing it again?' […] But, it's important that we women know how strong we are, and know our power and that's all that I talk about, and my music is always for the ladies. I love the guys, but you know I have sung so many love songs on the album that are about men, and when you find a good man, you keep a good man. But when you have a little boy, then sometimes they need to be called out. So that's basically what I'm doing in this record. (Source)
Okay, so Beyoncé isn't exactly telling people to "suck my left one," Bikini Kill-style. She's not insisting that the media stop sexualizing her, or spending her days speaking out against sexual harassment or pointing out that the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified. But by walking a middle line—and talking about issues that are still relevant to many girls, for better or worse—she is a part of keeping girl power alive in the mainstream.
Like much of the rest of commercial girl-power, "If I Were a Boy" is frustrated without being angry, critical without being insistent. It's also beautiful, sad, and probably true to many girls' and women's real experiences in relationships. Whatever the feminist, post-feminist, or anti-feminist critique may be, getting angry at men and calling them out is an established practice in popular music put out by women. And girls clearly still feel like they have real reasons to get pissed.
Just ask Christina Aguilera. Instead of going the Beyoncé route and emoting about the pains of not being a boy, Aguilera went back to the source. Her 2010 release, Bionic, teams her up with Le Tigre, an electro-pop band fronted by Kathleen Hanna, the singer for Bikini Kill. In "I Hate Boys," a surprising single from the mainstream diva, the refrain goes, "I hate boys, but boys love me / I think they suck and my friends agree." Backed by patriarchy-bashing icon Hanna, Aguilera tosses in lines like, "Oh, boys, we should pack 'em up and ship 'em out" and "all men are dogs."
Perhaps Aguilera's being a little bit ironic. And some have called all this new millennium celebrity girl power "a little too ironic." The idea is that ever since Spice, "girl power" has just made a mockery of the real needs, desires, and inequalities still faced by young women. And it's not hard to see how the absurd tone of songs like Aguilera's can make it seem like the issues at hand are not all that serious.
The same absolutely cannot be said for Beyoncé and BC Jean's ballad. "If I Were a Boy" is as sincere a song as you'll hear about the sufferings of a girl at the hands of a boy. Rather than showing us that "girl power" is just a bunch of watered down celebrity silliness, Beyoncé's song might be showing us that "girl power" is still seriously needed. What her listeners make of the song's message is out of the reigning queen's hands.