Haven’t We Outgrown ‘Girl Power’?

Last week whilst perusing the Viva channel, I came across rapper, Nicki Minaj. I’ll be honest. Up until that point I’d never heard of her. She was on stage doing a duet with another rapper, and what first struck me was that an immediate comparison to Lady Gaga could be made – not in style of music, but in appearance. She has a somewhat quirky look, and emits such fierceness that I found myself leaning back from the television. She’s kind of frightening. On stage at least. Jezebel posted a short article about her this week, called ‘Nicki Minaj Embraces Being a Feminist Role Model’, and it includes a video of an interview she did with Juju Chang; an interview in which she appears less fierce and more just generally angry. As Jezebel points out quite succinctly, it’s a standard interview with the standard questions asked of any female ‘artist’. What I want to focus on, however, is the invocation of ‘girl power’, which the interviewer makes.

The term ‘girl power’ came to mainstream prominence in the early 90s with the pop group, The Spice Girls. ‘Girl power’ was supposed to symbolise female empowerment in a male world, but also make it ‘fun’ (possibly offering the beginnings of ‘fun feminism’, a subject which deserves a post all of its own). It was thought that if it caught on, women could achieve anything. However, its main problem was that it positioned women’s power as sexual power, and never really defeated the idea that in order to be successful in a male-dominated environment, a woman needed to have sex-appeal. Indeed, it may even have perpetuated the idea. And it wasn’t particularly politically successful anyway, as men still predominantly hold the reins of political power – they still run the country, they are still predominantly in charge of the top corporations, the banks, the football clubs. Indeed, the main result of ‘girl power’ is that women are now supposed to be mollified by their power being sexual in nature, as if it is somehow equal to political power. A lot of women buy into this. Whereas before it was thought that men had sexual power – they selected their mates, they did the pursuing, they did the penetrating – ‘girl power’ suggests that women could have sexual control over men. Women would no longer be sexual objects, but subjects instead, and in so doing take control out of the hands of men. No talk of sexual equality. Rather the tables would be turned, and men would be silly putty in the hands of these newly empowered women.

This all, of course, makes use of the idea of the ‘dumb man’ who predominantly thinks with his penis, and can therefore be easily manipulated if a ‘hot gal’ waves her ass in front of him. And the ‘hot gal’ bit is a very important bit, which I will demonstrate shows that in fact women’s claim to sexual power buys into patriarchal structure rather than fighting it. In a great article in Pendagon, Amanda Marcotte claims, as I’ve said, that the “sexual market” was constructed in a way which places men in the pursuing position, and women as the pursued. This combined with the notion that men intrinsically think with their penises results in the following – “Men only hit on women they find attractive, so they get a skewed perception of how that works”, i.e. the idea that men hit on any female that moves means that “they mentally exclude women they don’t find attractive from the category ‘women’.” As men were the ones that did the pursuing, women knew that in order to be pursued they had to conform to societally accepted notions of attractiveness and womanliness – lack of hairiness, make-up, a nice smell, that kind of thing. And with ‘girl power’ this does not change. Only the perception changes. Even though societal conventions of what is attractive in a woman changes over time, in order for sexual power to work, women must play up to current conventions to look good in the eyes of men. Whereas before, it was deemed that women make themselves look attractive for the sake of men, with ‘girl power’ it was thought that they make themselves look attractive because they choose to, and they can gain power over men by doing so. So, in fact, women would still be aiming to make themselves look attractive in the eyes of men, but under the impression that this gives them an advantage over men.

As such, ‘girl power’ does absolutely nothing for female empowerment. Twisty, at I Blame the Patriarchy, makes this absolutely clear:

Some [women] believe that the practice of femininity is but one facet of an exciting smorgasbord (if a smorgasbord can be said to have facets, or to be exciting) of lifestyle choices available to today’s busy autonomous gal-on-the-go. They feel that “choosing” feminine conduct is an act of feminist rebellion, on the grounds that the choicing is entirely the chooser’s own personal idea. They aver that femininity can be an expression of a woman’s personal personality, and that it is “fun.” It is irrelevant, apparently, that femininity just happens to align precisely with the pornified desires, yucky fetishes, and vulgar business interests of the entire dudely culture of domination. Sadly, the novice blamer omits to consider this greater whole, and that in “choosing” femininity she is merely making conspicuous her compliance with dudely authori-tay”.

So, how does this fit into the invocation of ‘girl power’ in the interview with Nicki Minaj? The first interesting thing is that ‘girl power’ is used instead of the word ‘Feminism’. It could be argued that ‘girl power’ has made the word ‘Feminism’ even less acceptable than it already was. If looking attractive (in a societally accepted way) for men is now a choice that signifies a woman’s power, and ‘Feminism’ is associated with hairy legs and burning bras, then women’s ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’ cannot be put under the label of ‘Feminism’. Rather, it needs to be put under the heading ‘girl power’. And what exactly does ‘girl power’ denote in the interview? Nicki Minaj states that her music shows that girls “can do anything. I always tell my (?), like, always be successful outside of a man”. There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment whatsoever. However, putting it under the heading of ‘girl power’, when that term denotes a compliance with looking good in the eyes of men, seems somewhat contradictory and demonstrates, as mentioned in my previous post, a widespread leaning away from the word ‘Feminism’. It also seems odd that Jezebel heads the article, ‘Nicki Minaj Embraces Being a Feminist Role Model’, considering nowhere in the actual video is the word ‘Feminism’ mentioned. Is Jezebel equating ‘Feminism’ and ‘Girl Power’?

The use of ‘girl power’ over ‘Feminism’ seems to imply that we have moved from the latter to the former, as if ‘girl power’ is the next step for the empowerment of women. But empowerment for women should not be seen in terms of sexual power, and it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a turning of the tables so women have control instead of men. Equality should be the aim, in sexual politics, corporate business, education, in everything. Rather, we need to grow out of ‘girl power’, and define our aims in terms other than those that patriarchal structures write for us.

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  1. #1 by darkwinterthorn on April 12, 2012 - 1:43 pm

    To get a little pedantry out of the way first, it’s “reins of power”, not “reigns of power” – an easy typo to make.

    The problem you seem to be expressing here is more with the terminology than the sentiment, more the wording than the meaning. The quote you chose to share from Minaj’s interview was, as you pointed out, perfectly acceptable as a feminist viewpoint; was there anything that was less so, in terms of content? I entirely agree with your characterisation of “girl-power”, but is this a definition universally acknowledged? Could Minaj simply be using the term as a more socially-acceptable name for her views, ignorant of the unfeminist connotations? Such a use is, in my view (and presumably your own) tragically mistaken, but is it counter-productive?

    To answer your titular question, yes and no. We, as feminists, have outgrown it (if indeed it were ever truly a welcomed part of our vocabulary), but sadly society hangs on to it. However, we must also accept that others may have different perceptions of its meaning and for some it may (however mistaken this may be) be synonymous with “true” feminism.

    Of course, my main objection to the term “girl power” is that it’s a bloody ghastly phrase and a linguistic elitist like myself will never choose to use it without the appropriate scornful tone to my voice.

    • #2 by sittingintheashtree on April 12, 2012 - 2:07 pm

      Thanks for pointing out the typo. I’ve changed it to ‘reins’ now.

      The social acceptability of ‘girl power’ rather than ‘Feminism’ was what I was trying to get across, which is why I mentioned that the negative connotations of ‘Feminism’ need to be questioned, because at the moment it seems like there’s some kind of allergy to the word. There are people, who would normally be in favour of sexual equality, who visibly cringe when they hear it. The problem I have with pop stars still talking about ‘girl power’ is that it relates to ‘fun feminism’, at least from the perspective I have espoused in my article, which gives the impression that feminism isn’t all that serious and all about ‘choosing’ to look sexy. Whilst I’m all for other feminists having different views to my own and having different definitions of ‘girl power’, I would rather also add my own definition to the table so people aren’t under the impression there is just one form of feminism. After all, feminism is often made into a plural (‘feminisms’) to indicate the difference of standpoints amongst feminists.

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