This is just bizarre:
The Oxford English Dictionary Online has been updated and amongst the new entries is Girl Power. Defined as “power exercised by girls; spec. a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness, and individualism“, the term is one of several hundred that have just been added to the OED Online, the most up-to-date version of the world famous authority on the English language. The Spice Girls are credited with using the term in the late 1990s; however, riot girls (also a new entrant to the dictionary) adopted Girl Power in the early 90s, in the United States. A riot girl, also known as a grrrl, (another new entry) a young woman perceived as strong or aggressive, esp. in her attitude to men or in her expression of feminine independence and sexuality, is defined in general terms as a member of a movement expressing feminist resistance to male domination in society and esp. to the abuse and harassment of women.
Its bizarre and, moreover, it bothers me. It seems honestly a bit sexist, a bit ridiculous that we need to add new words to the dictionary in order to describe strong or powerful women. Why won’t woman do? Or female? Or girl? Or feminine? Decisions like this more clearly reveal the antiquated notions we have as a society: in this case the idea that women, by default, are not already strong or powerful. The need for a separate term entirely for a powerful woman implies that woman in general are not always powerful – an independent, powerful woman is a riot girl, has girl power… she is an exception. Or, at least, that’s what the Oxford Dictionary would have us think.
Girl Power! (Or, you know, just women in power - these are some female heads of state, the link leads you to information on more current and former female leaders, in case anyone has an interest!)
The specific wording of this is also really troublesome. In defining “Girl Power” the writers of Oxford Dictionary choose to use the phrase, “self reliant” to describe someone who possess this specific breed of power. I find it revealing in the sense that this definition mirrors back the (very outdated) idea that men are expected to be self-reliant, to be providers because its a trait that comes with their masculinity – while women, however, are passive caretakers and when they are self-reliant that are considered exceptional, to the point where we have a whole new term just to describe the phenomena.
In addition, and I know this is less the dictionary’s fault and more the fault of the social climate in which these terms have been created, there is no evidence of women here. Girl Power, Riot Girl; both of these phrases use the word girl where woman would have sufficed as well. The word girl (defined by oxford as: 1. Chiefly in pl. A child of either sex; a young person) implies a certain powerlessness that comes with childhood, whereas woman does not. I would argue that part of the reason why Girl Power has made such a splash as a cultural phenomena (and part of the reason why these words wiggled their way into our dictionary) is that, in using the word girl over woman, the concept manages to present itself as a more juvenile power, a power that does not threaten the traditional power of masculinity.
I snagged Travis to comment on this as well since, through music, he is more familiar with the culture of those who self-define as riot-girls (or grrls) than I am.
He had this to say:
Riot Grrrl was a movement that began in the late ’80s/early ’90s with the emergence of bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy Bear. Women like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill used their music as a way to express the injustices and sexism of our society, spreading their messages across the burgeoning underground punk scene, a network across the world united by independent record labels like K Records in Olympia.
The movement helped encourage women to fight back for equality and it most certainly inspired women to start bands by showing them that anyone could be a musical artist, regardless of talent or sex. However, once the underground scene burst open with the success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and the mainstream acceptance of “alternative rock,” the media began exploiting the terminology as a means to generate audiences and money.
The term Riot Grrrl eventually became a sort of cliche, a blanket term used to cover all female punk/rock bands because, you know, women can only play rock music if they’re pissed off at society. Bands like L7 who weren’t really related at all to the Riot Grrrl scene were labeled as such just because they were an all-women band who played their guitars loudly and spoke out against issues such as sexism, rape, and abortion.
The OED’s definition of Riot Grrrl seems to me to be for the most part how most women, regardless of musical affiliations, react to certain situations: “expressing feminist resistance to male domination in society and esp. to the abuse and harassment of women,” should not have to be limited to this definition; male domination of society should not exist (though female domination should not either, of course), and I don’t think any woman is in support of female abuse and harassment, riot girl or not.
Also, the idea that these women are “strong or aggressive, esp. in [their] attitude to men,” is ridiculous, because presenting oneself as an equal doesn’t make a woman “aggressive.” It really just shows how suppressed women are in our society when women simply seeking to be considered equal are so quickly labeled as “aggressive,” especially since men acting the same way would most likely not be labeled as such.
At the end of the day, all I know is that no one needs to be a riot grrrl (even though the ORIGINAL riot grrrl movement seems like it was really badass) or a Spice Girl (girl power!) to be strong – woman or man, strength is about character not your biological sex.
* The women pictured above are Margaret Thatcher (UK), Golda Meir (Israel), Yulia Tymoshenko (Ukraine), and Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan). Collage credit goes to ComingAnarchy.com – click the image to be directly linked to it’s location.