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How Television Changed Feminism


Over a hundred years ago Susan B. Anthony and Mary Wollstonecraft were part of a woman’s movement centered on getting women equal rights under the law; the rights to vote and not be considered property. They would not have imagined that one day, on a form of media called television women would play the role of president. The idea of women campaigning on television for the president of the United States would amaze them beyond belief. This article will compare and contrast television “girl power” with all three “waves” of feminist theory. This article will primarily focus on the phenomenal success of the Spice Girls and the Power Puff Girls.

The feminist movement has been divided into three waves. The next generations of women usually draw the line of demarcation. They often distinguish themselves from the last movement with new innovative theories on what it means to be a woman; this is how the waves have been established. The First-Wave as such was developed in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. At the time, their movement was more commonly referred to as the Suffrage movement. They were mainly concerned with human rights issues.

Girl Power and the First-Wave

Two leaders that emerged out of this movement were Mary Wollstonecraft, from the United Kingdom, and Susan B. Anthony from the United States. At this time, women were like property or animals – not human beings. They were considered to be closer to the intellect of a child than a man. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book on the issue called Vindication of the Rights of Women. In this book she explores her disdain for her situation. She voices her contempt with the spurious “idea that women are created simply to be ministers to the amusement, enjoyment, and gratification of men” (Wollstonecraft 3). These ideas were woven into fabric of her society. The same was true for Susan B. Anthony in the United States. The laws needed changing. The foundation needed changing. They both were calling for re-education within their society.

The movement wished to persuade people from the falsity of female incompetence. They both had a full “appreciation of the sanctity of women’s domestic duties, and never undervalued for a moment the high importance of these duties, either to the individual, the family, or the State” (3). The First-Wave argued that “the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty-comprehending it-for unless they comprehend it… no authority can make them discharge it in a virtuous manner”(Wollstonecraft 4).

Wollstonecraft placed an appellation on the women in her generation. To her they were “barren bloomers.” “One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses” (Wollstonecraft 31).

All the women – the mothers, the wives and the girls becoming women had been so “bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the (past) century, with a few exceptions, (were) only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect”(Wollstonecraft 32).

The respect that Wollstonecraft is demanding here was achieved in the suffrage movement with women receiving the right to vote, but the Spice Girls exacted this respect with their music and television fame. Their girl band replaced boy bands and in some ways garnered more popularity than The Beatles.

Their first debut song “Wannabe” entered the charts at number 3 in the U.K. before moving up to number 1 the following week. It stayed there for seven weeks. The song proved to be a global hit. It hit number one in 31 countries. It simultaneously became the biggest selling single by an all-female group and also the biggest selling debut of all time.

“Wannabe” also proved to be a catalyst in helping the Spice Girls break into the notoriously difficult U. S. market when it debuted on the Hot 100 Chart at number 11. At the time, this was the highest level – ever debut by a British act in the U.S., beating the previous record held by The Beatles for “I Want to Hold your Hand”. “Wannabe” reached number one in the U.S. four weeks later.

In November 1996, the Spice Girls released their debut album Spice in Europe. The success was unprecedented and drew comparisons to Beatlemania – due to sheer volume of interest in the Group. In just seven weeks Spice had sold 1.8 million copies in Britain alone, making the Spice Girls the fastest selling British act since The Beatles.

During the time of Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony and the First-Wave, many male thinkers made the argument that men were physically superior and men went on to make the erroneous conclusion that men were also intellectually superior. “Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions… this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize” (Wollstonecraft 36). This explains the current success of female super heroes like the Power Puff Girls. These girls not only have superior strength but they often fight and defeat men. Psychologically, these fictional television images counter act the illogical conclusions derived from nineteenth century philosophy.

The Power Puff Girls show revolves around the adventures of Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup; three little girls with super powers. The plot of a typical episode consists of a humorous variation of standard superhero fare, with the girls using their powers to defend their town from various villains, such as bank robbers, mad scientist, aliens or giant monsters, and often dealing with normal mundane issues that young children face, such as dependence on teddy bears and such. The show derives from a great deal of the humor from pop culture parody.

During the First-Wave, Wollstonecraft’s book was a tremendous help in the cause. In Britain the Suffragettes campaigned for the women’s right to vote. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed. This granted the right to vote to women over the age of 30. This right was only granted to women who owned houses. This right was eventually extended to all women over eighteen in 1928.

In America, the First-Wave of feminism involved a wide range of woman groups from such conservative camps as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to liberal groups like the National Woman Suffrage Association. In the United States, First-Wave feminism is considered to have ended with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1919), granting women the right to vote.

The Second-Wave of feminism began to be used to describe a newer feminist movement that focused as much on fighting soci-economic inequalities as further political inequalities.

Girl Power and Second-Wave

The Second-Wave has been said to have lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s. They chose to endeavor into the inequality of laws, and the culture at large. The Second-Wave was very interested in ads on television that ridiculed women – treating them as frivolous sex objects for the “male gaze.” The male gaze is a term used by the movement to describe male dominance and objectification found in film and television. Others have said that the Second-Wave Feminism has existed continuously since the sixties, and some remnants continue to coexist with what is termed Third-Wave Feminism. Although both the Second and Third-Wave are heavily involved in Feminist Theory as it applies to television – they clearly have very diametrically opposing views.

Second-Wave Feminism saw cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked. The movement encouraged women to understand aspects of their own personal lives as deeply politicized. According to them, this society was and is a result of a male dominant, sexist, structure of power. First-Wave Feminism focused on absolute rights such as suffrage and Second-Wave Feminism was largely concerned with other issues
of equality, such as discrimination, gender stereotyping and objectification. The Second-Wave at the time was more popularly called The Women’s Liberation Movement.

This idea of sexism and gender stereotypes was applied to television commercials and television shows. They continue to comment on television soaps, cosmetic commercials and voyeuristic “reality” television. Their perspective on the Power Puff Girls and the Spice Girls differ from the perspective of the Third-Wave movement.

One leader in this Second-Wave movement was a woman named Betty Friedan. Friedan compiled her thoughts in a book called The Feminine Mystique. In her book, Friedan outlines a dramatic discontent for superficial solutions to the gender stereotype problem. After the First-Wave movement, things almost reverted to an eighteen hundreds mindset. It was almost as if the movement had never occurred. The Second-Wave blamed television ads and television shows for this manipulation of the female mind. At the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America had dropped to 20 and was still dropping into the teens. Millions of girls were engaged by the age of 17.

“The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. In the First-Wave, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband” (Friedan 16). The stint of time between the First and Second-Wave could be described as a wave going in the other direction. Instead of women seeking education – over half of the women in college were not just going to get their M.R.S. they were even dropping out of school to marry a man. According to the Second-Wave, the Leave It to Beaver images and commercial ads with the women as a happy homemaker had a serious affect on women. Television marketing, by big business, had an affect that the First-Wave could not have imagined.

As American girls began getting married in high school, Friedan and others in the beginning of the movement developed film and television theories as to why so many shows depicted women as dependent on a man for contentment and fulfillment. On this issue, it would seem that the Second and Third-Waves would be on the same side, but they were not. Second-Wave feminism promoted and still promotes the awareness of an impervious socio-political monster called “the media” that constantly stereotypes and objectifies women.

According to the Third-Wave, this mind state keeps the movement in a perpetual victim status. This victim mentality, ironically enough, is a part of the gender stereotype that the Second-Wave claims to be protesting against. Third-Wave feminism promotes using mass media as a tool for female empowerment.

The Spice Girls found contentment in “girl power.” They found solidarity among their female friends – not marriage. The goal in life for Spice Girls and the Third-Wave movement was fame/power – not love. On the contrary, the Second-Wave does not agree with the Spice Girls or the Third-Wave movement. They have attacked these women for parading as sex objects for the male gaze. To the Second-Wave – the Spice Girls would be no different than the manufacturers in the late fifties that put out brassieres with false bosoms of foam rubber for little girls of ten.

In the early fifties many women only left their homes “to shop and chauffeur their children, or attend a social engagement with their husbands” (Friedan 17). They were much like the soccer moms of today. Girls were growing up in America without ever having jobs outside the home. Then “in the late fifties, a sociological phenomenon was suddenly remarked: a third of American women now worked” (17). Most of the women were older and very few were pursuing careers. They were married women who “held part-time jobs, selling or secretarial, to put their husbands through school, their sons through college, or to help pay the mortgage” (17).

Their only goal in life was to be perfect wives and mothers. They sought to be the virtuous woman in proverbs 31. They imagined having five children and a beautiful house. Their only identity was to get and keep their husbands. “They had no thought for the ‘unfeminine’ problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: Occupation: housewife” (Friedan 18).

Nobody debated women’s inferiority or superiority to men; men and women were simply different. “Words like ’emancipation’ and ‘career’ sounded strange and embarrassing; no one had used them for years”(Friedan 19). The Second-Wave continued to criticize images on television shows and the shopping commercials. These shows never mentioned the female issues, like female independence, that women were obviously struggling with in the real world. Third-Wave television personalities like the Spice Girls or the Power Puff Girls attempted to do something about these images. They’ve decided to redefine the female images.

The Power Puff Girls has a highly stylized, minimalistic visual look, reminiscent of 1950s and 1960s pop art. They have taken this image of the fifties housewife with no concerns of the outside “unfeminine” world and they invert those messages. In the show Power Puff Girls, these little homemaker girls watch the news, see problems in the world and go out to fight the problems of the world on their own.

This show is a current American animated television series about three little girls in kindergarten who have super powers. The show was created by animator Craig McCracken. The series is a spoof on American superheroes as well as Japanese Tokusatu heroes like Super Sentai. The show makes heavy use of references to 1960s pop culture, particularly the famous English musical group The Beatles.

The Second-Wave questions these “positive” role models like the Power Puff Girls. They are super heroes with super powers but will girls honestly grow up with super powers? Will this really help women deal with the problems of the world when they turn 23, 33, or 43? The Second-Wave is highly persuaded that these women will not look to these role models in their maturity but will inevitably fall into the role of a desperate house wife.

Friedan says the desperate house wife has a problem and “a hunger that food cannot fill. It persists in women whose husbands are struggling interns and law clerks, or prosperous doctors and lawyers; in wives of workers and executives who make $5,000 a year or $50,000. It is not caused by lack of material advantages; it may not even be felt by women preoccupied with desperate problems of hunger, poverty or illness. And women who think it will be solved by more money, a bigger house, a second car, moving to a better suburb, often discover it gets worse” (Friedan 27).

The Second-Wave wanted to move past just having voting rights. They wanted equal representation in politics and in television culture. “The fact is that NO one (at that time was) muttering angrily about women’s rights, even though more and more women had gone to college” (Friedan 29). The Second-Wave movement began because Friedan and others could not understand why media studies showed that women were going to college and blaming education for “making them want ‘rights’…giving them career dreams and making them feel it was not enough simply to be a housewife and mother” (Friedan 29). Friedan made the case for the need of a second movement or Second-Wave of feminism because she felt that she heard the voice of women yelling “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home” and she saw media trying to silence that voice. The Third-Wave was started for similar reasons.

Girl Power and the Third Wave

David Sinclair wrote a book on the Spice Girls called Wannabe. Sinclair traces the origins of the girl power slogan and how the Spice Girls played a part in this movement. Apart from reclaiming the word “girl” from the clutches of the politically correct who had “stigmatized it as a sexist put down”
when referring to anyone of the female persuasion aged about 13 or over – “girl power proved a remarkably inspirational slogan, a vague but persuasive notion, whose influence eventually extended well beyond the confines of the pop world” (Sinclair, 60).

Much has been said and written about the idea of “girl power.” The slogan first surfaced in public as the title of an album by the female duo Shampoo, and by a curious coincidence, their song “Girl Power” was released as a single one week before ‘Wannabe’ in July 1996. Nothing more has ever been heard of Shampoo, but their girl power slogan has lasted for over a decade.

Geri, the leader of the Spice Girls, was in favor of using this slogan. She was always the most vocal proponent, although once she began using the slogan in interviews the girls all took it up as an article of faith. “A ‘Power Oath’ duly evolved: “I being of sound mind and new Wonderbra do solemnly promise to cheer and dance and zigzag-ah Ariba! Girl Power!”(Sinclair, 60). It may not have been the most profound expression in the history of the movement, but the girl power philosophy was not an empty slogan to be taken lightly.

The idea, in essence, was “that girls should stand up for themselves as individuals. They should stick up for each other collectively and – having identified what they want out of life – go out and grab it with both hands” (Sinclair 60).

Sarah Banet-Weiser, in her article Girls Rule, outlines the girl power tension. Many Third-Wave Feminists consider consumer culture as “a place of empowerment and as a means of differentiating themselves from Second-Wave feminist” (Newcomb, 335). Second-Wave Feminism has tended, on the whole, to be critical of the misogyny of popular consumer culture and they protests having anything to do with it.

Second-Wave Feminism is “at times overly romanticized in terms of its commitment to social protest politics, and there seems to be a kind of reluctance on the part of them to rethink and redefine politics according to the stated needs and desires of the Third-Wave Feminism…” (Newcomb 336). For the movement to believe all women “share a feminist politics and that we all want the same thing is highly problematic” (Newcomb 336). To insist on a universal feminist standpoint in many ways guarantees a universal stand still. It “functions as a kind of refusal to identify what the ‘thing’ is that we all apparently want” (336).

The Third-Wave has its philosophical problems also. Girl – Power says that girls are powerful, strong, and independent but “the commercial merchandising of these claims demonstrates a profound ambivalence about these feminist politics in general” (336). On one hand, the Third-Wave of Feminism is a continuation of the Second-Wave. On the other hand, some who claim to be part of the Second-Wave often engage in intellectual trysts with the new wave. The Second-Wave seems more intent on perpetuating the victim status or victim stereotype. They argued against this stereotype but provided no solutions. The Third-Wave knew they would never completely satisfy the complaints of the Second-Wave because Friedan herself defined the problem as “a problem with no name” (Friedan 16).

In her book Girl Heroes: The New Force in Popular Culture, Susan Hopkins argues that “the old way of blaming media and popular culture for encouraging girls to be submissive is outdated” (Hopkins 4). The new girl hero is on a quest for stardom, a quest for immortality, and a quest for being. In an age of images, my space, face book and television, many girls feel existence is equivalent to fame. They want to be somebody.

The Spice Girls have managed to dole out girl-power messages and galvanize powerful-girl images from pop culture. They still remain feminine and like girls. Second-Wave theorist would argue that women like the Spice Girls aren’t really in control. “Far from denying differences in gender – as the old school feminist had sought out to do – girl power encouraged the use of sexual charm as a weapon” to be deployed along with any other available skills that would help to get a result (Sinclair 60). According to the Spice Girls, “Boys were OK in their place, but they shouldn’t be allowed to distract a girl from her goals in life, or even worse, distance her from her friends. Follow the advice and, so the theory goes, nothing will stop a girl from achieving her ambitions for long” (60).

Their song “Wannabe” in many ways outlined the doctrine of the new wave. “To be a feminist in the nineties,” Melanie C said, “means having something to say for yourself” (Sinclair 60). In the new wave you can wear mascara and high heels and look like a “babe” and make as much of a point as if you shaved your head and a burnt your bra. Melanie C from the Spice Girls made a point to say, “There’s no way I’m ever burning my wonder bra. I couldn’t. I’m nothing without it” (Sinclair, 60).

To make the “formula” work in the context of television pop-culture their required wit, charm and ruthless sense of rational self – interest. These were qualities all five girls had. These girls used their sexuality to get what they wanted out of a male-dominated industry. Soon, “male teen idols (were) secondary – the primary fantasy object in contemporary girl culture is the celebrity female” (Hopkins 4). Large posters of The Beatles, Bay City Rollers, Skyhooks, and Duran Duran were in the bedrooms of girls growing up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Now those posters have been substituted for large posters of pop sensations like Spice Girls, Eve and Pink.

The Spice Girls manager, Simon Fuller, plunged them into merchandising and they became a regular feature of the British press. Suddenly – “Scary, Baby, Ginger, Posh and Sporty were the most widely recognized group of individuals since John, Paul, George and Ringo” and they became “a social phenomenon that changed the course of popular music and popular culture” (Sinclair, 64).

The members went their separate ways at the end of 2000 to focus on their solo careers. On June 28, 2007 they reformed as a quintet and in November 2007 a greatest hits album was released to accompany the group’s current world tour.

In total, their first album sold 3 million copies in Britain and peaked at number one for fifteen non-consecutive weeks. In Europe, the album became the biggest selling album of 1997 and was certified 8x Platinum by the IFPI for sales in excess of 8 million copies. It was also the biggest selling in the U.S. in 1997. It made 7x platinum in the U.S. by the RIAA.

The third chapter of Hopkins’ book discusses how the violence, aggression and moral code of the traditional male action hero genre has been appropriated by female action heroines. These new girl heroines, Hopkins argues, have a serious element of the “bad girl” in them, not always making the accepted moral choices and sometimes acting selfishly for their own power.

There was a convention held for children television in June 2000 at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York called “A Kids Got to Do what a Kid’s Got to Do.” One of the seminars was titled “Girl Power: Creating positive role Models for Girls.” Those in charge of this seminar “lauded Nickelodeon’s efforts over the past 20 years to challenge traditional gender stereotypes on children’s television by featuring girls as primary lead characters” (Newcomb 332). A connection between those two concepts – girl and power – was something that had never been a part of American culture or thought. Now, Girl Power has become “normalized” and part of everyday television. “The empowerment of girls is now something that is more or less taken for granted by both children and parents”(332). Indeed, the rhetoric of girl power has found currency in almost every facet of contemporary children’s popular culture.

The Second-Wave would argue that girls cannot aspire to be super heroines, nor can they learn real-life empowerment skills from such heroines; furthermore, many of these new girl superheroes are sexy and object of the male gaze. The Second-Wave feels that when inte
lligence and business-savvy stand without accompanying sexuality and beauty the doors of power will be open to the masses of girls.

Girl Power or Hoax?

This new breed of girl power is unquestionable in terms of their media saturation and omniscience, but it is also arguable that they are a highly exaggerated and entertaining product of an ingenious marketing exercise. In other words, the Second-Wave believes that the Third-Wave may be nothing more than a timely executed commercial hoax.

The Second-Wave also wonders if a 13-year-old will continue to model her life on the amorphous illusion of the Power Puff Girls. One day when she wakes up will her former self be completely disparate and unrecognizable to her present self. In search for everyday social norms will these fantasies dissipate?

Hopkins makes a strong argument that “Fame is replacing romance as the dominant female fantasy (…) Love and marriage is no longer the final answer to youthful feminine desire” (Hopkins 189-191). “No longer just an actress or a pop star, the female celebrity is fast acquiring the status of secular Goddess, inspiring an almost religious reverence in fans”(Hopkins 182).

Paul Wilson and Andy Watkins were producers at Absolute when the Spice Girls came through for the first time. These men are part of this male dominant entertainment industry. They definitely claim that girl power is not a hoax.

Wilson once said, when referring to the Spice Girls, “I’m not sure other executives understood how brilliant it was… when you talk about girl power that was it… because they’d take anybody on.” (Sinclair, 62)

Written by

Chester Elijah Branch


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Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press 1990.

Fraser, Clara. Revolution, She Wrote. Seattle: Red Letter Press, 1998.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001.

Heinecken, Dawn. Warrior Women of Television: A Feminist Cultural Analysis of the New Female Body in Popular Media. New York: P. Lang, 2003.

Helford, Elyce Rae. Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Heywood, Leslie. Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

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Messer-Davidow, Ellen. Disciplining feminism: from social activism to academic discourse. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002.

Newcomb, Horace. Television: The Critical View. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sinclair, David. Wannabe. London: Omnibus Press, 2004.

Source by Chester Branch

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