20 Years of Wannabe

Spice Girls

August 1996. Wellington, New Zealand. Bill and Hillary Clinton are in the White House, and no-one’s heard of Monica Lewinsky. I’m 13, my baby sister 9. She’s mainly been an annoyance to this point – something she’s not shaken in the subsequent 20 years – but is starting to develop a personality of her own a little. She’s the creative one; I’m still passable at Maths and enjoying English and Social Studies. She asks my mother for a CD. It’s called “Spice”. She likes one song on it in particular. It plays in the CD player of our Nissan Maxima all that Summer. My grandfather passes away in September. My sister and I have adjoining bedrooms for the next year or so. In the evenings, after homework, she comes to my room with her ghetto blaster with the latest CDs and the top 40 hits that I don’t know. (I’m devoted to my bagpipes and Cricket at the time, finding I’m not much good at either.) The group talks about girl power and getting with their friends and “Easy B” who “doesn’t come for free; she’s a real lady”. I’m not always the best brother afterwards, but I hope my sister always knows that I want her to be powerful.

1997, they release a movie – Spiceworld. It’s not very good, but the cast has some people who become a big part of my life afterwards. Those guys my mother likes from the Jeeves and Wooster TV show, a bunch of others who might one day be famous. I am an adolescent boy. The ginger one always piques my interest. One of them marries a football player. She doesn’t seem all that posh.

1999. A boy in my house at school is a Spice Girls obsessive. One week he’s ginger, the next week sporty. He knows all the words to the songs, including the less good ones, like “Live 4Ever”, “Say You’ll Be There”, and “2 Become 1”. He seems troubled, often cries in the shower, wants to wear skirts. When he’s not being bullied he’s a bit of a loner, and I don’t talk to him much. When I do, I’m sure I’m not as kind as I should be. He leaves a year early, for another, more liberal school. On his last day he runs around the main quad yelling “I’m gay”. Many of us think he’s strange and speak of him derisively the next year, because that’s not “normal”. Not many years later, with education and a little thought, we realise how wrong and unfair we were – and that it’s ok to be interested in stuff that’s “normally” been the province of girls. Also, the Ginger one leaves.

2000. They go on an “indefinite hiatus”. I am sad. There are reunions later in the decade, which are not as good.

2001. A fellow named Ali G is on TV often. He’s funny and rude and sends everything up. The Posh one does an interview. “Every boy wants to be in his boots. Every man wants to be in his missus.” He asks Beckham if he ain’t never been “caught offside”, referring to their bedroom antics. He’s hilarious, with jabs about Scunthorpe United. Watch the interview here. He fills my screens with Borat, Bruno, The Dictator, and wonderfully in Talladega Nights.

2002. A movie called “Bend It Like Beckham” comes out. A Punjabi girl wants to play sports in it, and is allowed to. Her friend, Tony, “really likes” Beckham. Along with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mel C (“Sporty Spice”) sings a song on the soundtrack. My worlds seem to collide, not for the first time.

2007-10. I leave home to live in Dubai. Soon after I do, Benazir Bhutto is killed, posing a threat to Talibani insurgency by being an articulate, Muslim, female leader. Many of the women I meet in Dubai have accents like the Spice Girls. They don’t seem all that posh, either, but I sing along when the song comes on – especially at karaoke bars in Emirates Towers. I am not very good at karaoke.

2008. The financial world goes to hell in a handbasket. All the major banks’ CEOs are men. The German economy, one of the few to come out of things without too many problems, has had a woman at its helm since 2005. Michael Lewis notes how few women were making decisions in Iceland.

2009. Obama’s Inauguration, Washington, D.C., the coldest I’ve ever been. I’m happy that there’s a black President, but sad at the fact that it’s had to come at the expense of a woman who might have been as good – and that his opponent party callously put up someone who defined tokenism. Beyonce – who, in 2008, released Single Ladies and changed the world, confusingly – sings at the inauguration. I like her a little less when she sings If I Were A Boy and implies that all men are assholes. But maybe we are. Later that year, Kanye West kind of proves as much, when he’s not the first man to interrupt a woman trying to say something when Taylor Swift goes up to get an award. (Ironically he claims Beyonce should have won the award.) Taylor Swift is so stung that we never hear from her again.

2010. I move to New York. The women sound American, and are cleverer, in general, than any people I’ve ever met before. Some like my accent. Many scare me. I learn that pay is far from equal between the genders, 14 years after girl power was meant to have begun, that many of the women I call friends and who seem to have everything together have been assaulted, and that there is a yawning chasm between men and women when it comes to expectations of childcare and appearance. This feeling carries on when I join the workforce there a year later – not least because the women around me feel the pressure to look immaculate, and I’m, well, me.

2009-2013. Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State. She sends some emails and some people get killed in Libya. She also reassures China that their treasury bills are safe, becomes the first US Secretary of State to visit Burma in many years, and just happens to be in the Situation Room when Osama Bin Laden is finally captured. Her close aide, Huma Abedin, is married to Anthony Weiner, an unfaithful jackass. It doesn’t affect Hillary’s or Huma’s performance of their duties.

2012. I discover the journalism of both Caity Weaver and Julieanne Smolinski, both younger, funnier, and infinitely more talented than I am. Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 troll should now be done and dusted for good, surely – Schumer! Louis Dreyfus! Fey! I wonder if it is.

2013. Sheryl Sandberg releases Lean In – a confusing, flawed, but necessary book, which starts people talking about the differences in the way gender is treated and perceived in the American workforce. I find Anne-Marie Slaughter more convincing. It’s an ongoing discussion, and there’s no reason why you should agree. A recently redundant magazine editor accuses me of mansplaining in a restaurant in the West Village. I balk at the charge, explaining that I’m just really condescending. Beyonce releases maybe her best album yet at the end of the year.

2014. At an Australia Day Ball, I find myself five martinis down still able to rap the lyrics of Wannabe; a skill I didn’t know I had. I fail to get with anyone’s friends, but I do slam my body and wind it all around. A close friend has a son – the first child of anyone close – and I send a note with a few thoughts. Item 4 to the baby reads:

Learn to rap the lyrics to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. I hope you fall in love one day. When you do, that special someone will probably have a mother or two. However stern her face is, shiny the hubcaps on her European Sports Utility Vehicle are, or peroxide-rinsed her hair is, that mother was probably a giddy schoolgirl or university student around 1995 or at some point in the ten years thereafter. Unleashing those words at a family dinner before you’ve known her a year should melt any reservations she might have towards you. If they don’t, call me. We may have a problem.

I do not resile from this two years later, but cringe a little at my gender normativism. There ought to be no reason why fathers can’t like the song, either.

Malala Yousafzai wins the Nobel Peace Prize, after Taliban militants tried unsuccessfully to kill her with a volley of bullets, but failed to silence her.

2015. Rosanna Arquette calls out unequal pay in Hollywood at the Oscars, as she should. Later that year, I finally make it to Cambridge, where the Jeeves and Wooster chaps and Ali G went to university. The undergraduate women I meet are wonderful and brilliant and clever, as were the women in New York (whom I wept at leaving). This time, at university, I find myself writing about issues that a younger version of me might have avoided for fear of being “effete” or “too female”-  like Sex and the City, or high heels, or even movies some might call chick flicks. The young women here leave me in the dust, though, writing bravely and candidly about the effects of porn, the trials of growing up sexually, and suicide attempts and mental health. More women tell me about assaults they’ve suffered, leaving me shocked and feeling helpless. In brighter news, all three presidential elections at the Cambridge Union when I’m here are won by women. The last was born after Wannabe was released.

2016. God help us if Hillary Clinton doesn’t win the Presidency. The next British prime minister seems likely to be Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom. I like neither very much, but they both might just be able to clean things up, sensibly, with Angela Merkel (still in charge in Germany) a bit better than Boris or Dave or Jeremy might have. Posh Spice releases a video to mark the 20th anniversary of Wannabe highlighting the many injustices still in the world affecting women.

I send the Guardian an op-ed submission, offering to write a piece like this one (but possibly shorter, and maybe more coherent). I never hear back; a veteran female journalist writes it instead. She does a much better job than I could.

I realise that it’s been nineteen months since I last saw my family, and what a shit I’ve often been to them. I know both the world and I have a long way to go before we start being vaguely good, or understand the implications and consequences of girl power.

Although the world seems like w slightly better place for women now, I miss a time 20 years ago that I remember fondly for the pre-teen sense of wonder that my sister had – when she sang along, uninhibited, to lyrics that she didn’t understand but loved anyway.

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