Here’s the Story From A to Z: Sporty Spice and Gender Roles

Perhaps the one defining moment of my childhood “cool-factor” was my acquisition of a Spice Girl’s CD in the fourth grade (Year Five, if you’re in the UK). Okay, maybe that’s the second defining moment, the first being a pair of Umbro shorts, you know, the checkered ones, that I wore ALL THE TIME. Granted, they were boy’s shorts, and at the time I didn’t realize they made girl’s athletic apparel. Then Sporty Spice happened. Me, an unathletic child, who was afraid of gym class and clung to her inhaler and giant-framed glasses…I naturally associated with Baby Spice, and secretly wanted to be Posh Spice.

But all the “cool girls” identified with Sporty. The ones who grew up playing soccer and joining basketball camps and who wore Nike and Adidas from the girl’s section. This is what it was like to be a little girl in the early Nineties. And those were the girls the boys liked. Suddenly, athletic girls were the hot new thang. They were still the rich kids who could afford shopping trips outside of Nowhere, USA but they could also afford to join club sports. Sporty Spice redefined femininity. And hotness.

But at the same time, Sporty Spice potentially perpetuated the cycle of girls feeling inadequate in their own bodies. Sporty Spice could’ve been the icon for the dirty girls, for the flannel-wearing, dirt-playing little girls who didn’t adhere to what society says a girl should look and act like. The Spice Girls as a whole promoted “girl power” –  and made it okay for sporty types to be cool. But unfortunately those sporty types were already “cool” – and the girls who didn’t wish to seek the archetype of a pop phenomenon sought identity in Suicide Girls instead. Girl power by way of Sporty Spice meant wearing platformed athletic shoes made famous by the brand Sketchers and buying tennis bracelets. And occasionally singing about her friend Easy V. Arguably the more “masculine” figure of The Spice Girls, Sporty’s brand of feminism and identity was more cookie cutter than wrist-cutter.

Popularity, even by way of pastimes like sports, doesn’t always usher in acceptance. In fact, pop culture has a way of discouraging it. Now girls who really did think of themselves as “tomboys” or bisexual or transgender saw this famous icon, Sporty Spice, and thought, “huh, if this is what ‘sporty’ is supposed to be, I’m even more lost than before.”

Luckily, a counter-culture arose to defy Sporty Spice’s bubblegum empowerment in grunge, ska and underground punk. Girls could get a work-out in their torn jeans, cigarette in hand in smoky basements and garages, without having to pay membership dues or buy a jersey.  And being different was the only try-out requirement. (This is not to say these types of scenes did not come with their own stigmas or stereotypes – oh, did they!)

Meanwhile, back in the popular land of The Spice Girls (and boy-bandemics) young girls and teens were trying to stuff their identities into the pre-fabricated images of each Spice Girl, which is partly why highly produced and managed musical groups work so well – because they draw on the personas that young people aspire to be. Sporty may not have measured up to the truly anti-girlie girl, but she did give a voice to the in-between with the Girl Power mantra, whether it was a marketing ploy or not. The girl who genuinely liked playing sports but was too afraid to try out could now join the world of boys to shoot hoops, run laps or (gasp!) tackle. Or at least wear a snazzy track suit from the boy’s department.

In all honesty, the topic of the effects of pop “girl power” in the Nineties, the growth of girls in underground music scenes or gender roles and stereotypes could be a novel on their own. And in fact, probably are, in droves. In the spirit of Sports Week, I would like to say, Sporty Spice, to my nine-year-old self, was the pseudo-athletic girl I wanted to be (with the looks of Posh). When you’re nine, it’s desirable to imagine the (Spice) world in neatly packaged boxes with a label easily applied to oneself. But inadvertently, one may identify with who they think they should  be, not who they actually want to be. Who knows, perhaps Lisa Leslie was looking at Sporty Spice and dreaming of one day playing in her own basketball league. But what do I know? I’m a Baby…

Photo by Blαckout14*

Jessi Stafford Graduate of Mizzou. Starving freelance writer and hipster-watcher who just moved to the Dirty South. I will work for coffee, booze or tofu scramble. I write the weekly column The Feed Bag for TNGG. Twitter: @jessistafford

View all posts by Jessi Stafford

5 Responses to “Here’s the Story From A to Z: Sporty Spice and Gender Roles”

  1. Mazarine

    Hi Jessi

    OMG I totally wore UMBRO shorts too! Like, Green soccer ones, for boys! Wore them til they wore out!

    Know what you mean about the Spice Girls. But can’t there be a way for us to define ourselves as feminists without the use of early 90s metaphors? And fashion? Like what about our ideas? And political movements? And so on?

    Too many questions?


    • Jessi

      I absolutely agree that feminism is more than clothing or music – here I was just referencing the early 90s because that’s when I was of the age to define “femininity” and really my interests and body image as a young girl and what effects these pop stars have on defining adolescence for us Gen Yers.


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