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Girl powerless: Why the 90s and 00s weren’t as empowering as they seemed

By October 1, 2021No Comments

While now we have Instagram telling us how to life, how to feel and how to look, the warmth we might feel for the 90s and noughties culture may not be an entirely reliable memory, says Jenn Gannon


We are living in a world of strange nostalgia, where the Hadid sisters wear tiny Matrix-style sunglasses, Paris Hilton is having a resurgence as the ‘grand dame’ of reality telly and publishing houses give away bucket hats as a gift to promote the latest Sally Rooney novel. Would an almost humourless Sally Rooney character ever wear a bucket hat? Has Sally Rooney ever even owned a bucket hat or tried one on for a dare? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the 90s and early noughties are back in a bid to soothe us of our millennial tension.

It’s understandable that there is a rush of affection for the recent past. Looking back at this time that had yet to be completely infected by the anxiety of the internet and its limitless possibilities, there is a certain kind of safety. There is almost a wistful feeling towards the monoculture that meant less choice in telly, in clothes, in make up, in music, when magazines still meant something and MTV played your favourite pop videos on rotation.

The Channel 4 documentary Spice Girls: How Girl Power Changed Britain was full of this potent playful imagery –  the chaos of The Big Breakfast, Jayne Middlemiss wearing a tan leather boob tube on Top of the Pops, Chupa Chups stuffed in the lip glossed mouths of clubbers, hair mascara, jelly sandals, glitter eye make up, Just Seventeen magazine, the birth of Big Brother – everything seemed carefree, silly and fun. The Spice Girls were a phenomenon who were also at the fulcrum of where burgeoning feminism met new laddism in a stew of consumer culture.

It was an era where the turbulent emotional sincerity and empathy of grunge died out. The kinship and connection between the Subpop kids and the Riot Grrrls was eventually usurped by the irony-laced Carry-On reductiveness of Britpop. Girls and boys who liked a bit of parklife – rough moved through a world where ‘Girl Power’ may have been the slogan on everyone’s lips but there was a hollow emptiness to it especially when pop culture was in thrall to the wink and nudge symbolism of the New Lad.

Not even the unstoppable force of the Spice Girls could help revolutionise the male dominated media that was still solely focused on the titillation of men. The real media transformation came in the mid 90s with the arrival of lads mags. FHM, Loaded and the relaunched GQ legitimised the pornification of pop culture. It was breezy and knockabout, not the sticky Fred and Rose weirdness of Reader’s Wives or the embarrassing naturist old faithful H&E, these new magazines were youthful and hip. A mix of the glamorous and suave- a throwback to the ‘classic’ chauvinism of the 60s and ‘men’s interests’(sport and film apparently) pub chats and a feast of famous faces who pushed the magazines’ manifesto further into the mainstream.

The influence of the lads mags were soon seen everywhere – Blur employed Page Three girls to be chased by a cartoonish ‘dirty old man’ in the Country House video, Johnny Vaughan treated Denise Van Outen to a litany of double entendres over a sausage on breakfast telly and Soccer AM had ‘Soccerettes’ parading around in skimpy kits right in front of female presenter Helen Chamberlain. Her apparent amenability was a by-product of the FHM creation the ‘ladette’, a cartoonish approximation of a normal young girl. The lads mags fetishised feisty girls who maybe chose a pint over a white wine, describing them as always ‘up for it’ because it was all a bit of a laugh.

Women were either willing participants either in on the joke or bitter, joyless, sexless scolds. Sexism was sold back to women in the 90s and noughties with a soft-core, comedy glaze. Almost every prominent female DJ or TV presenter of that time threw on lashings of baby oil and tiny bikinis to grace the covers of lads mags to show they were okay with being objectified – through the lens of irony of course.

The king of 90s lad culture was not Noel or Liam or Damon or moon-faced Gazza but the geek reborn. With TFI Friday, unlikeable radio DJ, Chris Evans managed to turn mainstream tea time telly into an outré circus of bawdy blokishness convincing himself he was a Cool Britannia comedy version of Michael Caine. TFI Friday was the televisual extension of the lad’s mag. It was so self indulgent it was almost like witnessing Evan’s revenge, the Cinderella story of the nerd that turned. An incel fable. Due to his celebrity he could now make his wank fantasies a reality. He could use and discard famous women as if they were blow up dolls and invite all his mates down to ogle them too.

In Evans’ sycophantic fiefdom, he defied sad sweaty boy’s sexual peccadilloes, constantly trilling over Countdown presenter Carol Vordermann and Blue Peter host Phillipa Forrester to an uncomfortable degree. Most weeks the mobbish TFI Friday lounge made the backroom of the bar in The Accused look more inviting.

He had Geri Halliwell and Kylie Minogue play at arm wrestling each other before leaning in for a deep kiss whilst faux-yobs and coked up media types hollered and wolf whistled. Model Catalina Guirado strolled on to the set every week to be turned down by a so-called ‘Ugly Bloke’. Sadly as TFI Friday was the most popular chat show of that time, its roster was full of eager young stars ready to be humiliated by Evans’s line of questioning which now sounds like the inner monologue of a sex pest. He continuously asked about their private lives, asked them on dates live on air, asked about their favourite sexual acts and more often than not discussed their weight. Evans seemed extremely preoccupied by the size of women.

In the Spice Girls documentary there is footage of Posh Spice, Victoria being subjected to a ‘weigh in’ as Evan’s chirply asks if she’d lost her ‘baby weight’ after giving birth to son Brooklyn a mere 12 week earlier. He brandishes a scale and with a rictus grin plastered on her face she endures this painful ritual, ‘8 stone, not bad at all’ he eventually smirks. This was not a once-off experience. In the clip, Victoria mentions that he had subjected his rumoured girlfriend Geri to the same treatment a few weeks prior. In another memorable show he demands that girl band All Saints arrange themselves in the order of who weighed the lightest to the heaviest. Chris Evans made poking at the insecurities of young women a full time occupation. As if working in tandem with the tabloids, no part of a famous woman’s body was left unscrutinised between them.

The documentary illustrated just how much the Spice Girls suffered at the hands of the press with their perpetual concentration on their bodies. Headlines became solely about their appearances. Emma was admonished for ‘ballooning’ to a size 14, Victoria was dubbed ‘Skeletal Spice’ Geri was subjected to the worst of this , her punishment for being outspoken. From being called ‘Saggy Spice’ to being ridiculed for being ‘too fat’ and then ‘too thin’- the most disturbing of which was a two page spread in the Sun where they broke down every inch of Geri’s body to an inhumane level. Illustrated with photos from her face to her ankles they inferred just how she could improve herself.

The domination of the tabloids and the lads mag and their language and content leaked into other magazines which were aimed at women. From their conception women’s magazines were always a place where female insecurities were capitalised on but the influx of new celebrity based weeklies in the late 90s made this contempt their sole focus. Whilst Loaded and Nuts were busy convincing female Big Brother contestants to take their tops off and kiss each other competing to host the opening of a nightclub in Dagenham, Heat magazine began to dismantle the female psyche from the inside.

What started out like an irreverent and cheeky older brother of Smash Hits with its witty and sharp stable of writers unafraid to slag off the sacred cows of the entertainment industry, quickly became the model for the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame. Half of the magazine was taken up with huge photos of famous women’s bodies in bikinis on the beach, women falling out of clubs and their obsession with female celebrities ‘flaws’. In the mid 2000s they tread a fine line between being disgusted and fascinated by the Size Zero trend. This was the era of Nicole Richie, the Olsen Twins, Mischa Barton and Lindsay Lohan looking elegantly emaciated in flowing boho chic and oversized sunglasses.

During this phase, Channel 4 also made two exploitative, dangerous documentaries one starring Eternal’s Louise Nurding, which masqueraded as investigative health shows but basically gave instructions on how to drop down to a UK size four within weeks. In the documentary The Truth About Size Zero, Nurding worries that her size eight body is ‘not skinny enough’ and in SuperSkinny Me journalist Kate Spicer undergoes several colonics whilst existing on an all-juice diet. Flipping through Heat at the beginning of the show she looks enviously at a picture of Nicole Richie in a swimsuit and says “There is something about it. That horrible spindly body is fabulously styled.” It was the age of Gillian McKeith examining your excrement in a lunchbox, Kellogg’s advertising a bowl of cereal as a nutritious alternative to a dinner and Gwyneth publicising life changing cleanses that amounted to a fancy way to starve yourself. Everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Jennifer Lopez were on some kind of insanely harsh diet that was splashed around the tabloids and women’s magazines as the holy grail of weight loss that we all should have been adhering to so as not to disappoint the lads and their all consuming erections.

Soon Heat began to give over pages and pages of the magazine to luridly guessing what BMI certain female celebrities were. This particular feature will always be ingrained in my brain as it convinced me that because I was almost the same height as Cheryl Cole I should also have been the same weight. I should have been trying harder to shed that half stone to be the perfect size six fantasy. The magazine became a manual for shame and self loathing presented as harmless gossip and escapism.

This week the Wall Street Journal detailed how teenage girls’ self image has been decimated by the perfectionist imagery of Instagram. To listen to certain cultural commentators you would think that teenage self hatred is a phenomenon that arrived in conjunction with broadband installation. We can look back on the 90s and early 2000s with the warmth of nostalgia especially in the cold, blank era of face tuning, fillers and filters but those girls who grew up under the weight of lad culture and the spectre of size zero are painfully aware that it wasn’t all pop fun and girl power.