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“We are Born in Flames:” The Spice Girls, Kathy Acker, and the Complexities of Modern Feminism

ID: Title Card from Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983)

Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist cult classic Born in Flames follows a group of feminist activists fighting for liberation within the confines of a social democratic system. In Borden’s vision of America, a revolutionary surge following the counter-culture of the 1960s led to America adopting a social democracy and implementing a number of reforms. There remained, however, an insidious patriarchal core with numerous cultural ills being pervasive post-revolution. Borden’s film is, in many regards, a prescient work in its ability to predict the tendency of social democracies (in nations such as the UK, Sweden, Germany, etc.) to fall back into the old regime and lurch ever more into fascism. The overwhelming need for activist groups and direct action remains overwhelming. In the UK, for example, with a Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition (differentiating between them is senseless and needless) whose parties have for the past two decades shifted in a manner perfectly mirroring Born in Flames, there has been an increasing disdain for principles of inclusion and equity with many instead leaning towards increasingly essentialist and hateful rhetoric regarding trans lives and queer people.

Where is feminism and activism today? Where, literally? Does it dwell solely in Instagram stories? Is it enough to simply call oneself an activist, to call for equal rights? Queer academic and punk author Kathy Acker had some of these questions in the early 90s. She was curious about how the next wave of feminism would look. Her generation was “spoon-fed Marx and Hegel;” the next would be spoon-fed Wannabe and 2 Becomes 1.

ID: Kathy Acker sitting on the floor with (left to right) Posh Spice (Victoria Beckham), Sporty Spice (Melanie C), Baby Spice (Emma Bunton), Scary Spice (Mel B), and Ginger Spice (Geri Halliwell)

In 1997, Acker got the opportunity to sit down with the Spice Girls in an interview for Vogue magazine. These concerns she had didn’t take long to materialise, with at one point in the interview Acker remarking she thought that “a bit of economic realism is missing here, but I can’t get a word in edgewise. Not in all the girl excitement. These females are angry.” This sense made Acker incredibly enthusiastic. She grows to love the girls over the course of the interview, though noted their continually paradoxical nature. They drifted from setting out critical stalls on greed, “the humdrum nine-to-five,” boys, careers officers, and the likes, to discussing their love of mansions, the American Dream and… Margaret Thatcher (though the girls tell Gerri, in unison, to not “go down there!”). A worse writer would look down their nose at the Spice Girls in this interview. They exhibit a kind of contradictory frivolity that most journalists and academics would find grating. Many writers working at the time would have turned the Vogue interview into a hit piece on the girls. But Acker is not one of these writers. She sees the girls for what they are: incredibly complex but endlessly fascinating examples of the next generation of feminists.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s in Britain, feminism, according to Acker, had “gone extinct.” Anti-sex, intellectual, upper-class feminism was a voiceless movement because it purposefully ground itself in circles in which feminism could never truly grow. The academic and governmental strains of feminism find themselves bound to the same limitations of Borden’s fictional social democracy. Feminism doesn’t need governments or universities or hegemonic ideology. Feminism needs Borden’s Womens Liberation Army, it needs the Lesbian Avengers and Camp Trans, it needs the Spice Girls. To shirk itself of binaries, definitions, clarity, and presumptions, feminism must engage with complex human beings, not infographics or government policy. Liberation is a fight, and a fight is done by people, and people are complicated.

ID: Black and white photograph of Kathy Acker

“The spice girls are having their cake and eating it. They have the popularity and the popular ear that an intellectual, certainly a female intellectual, almost never has in this society, and, what’s more, they have found themselves, perhaps by fluke, in the position of social and political articulation.” Acker here outlines something which most journalists discussing the Spice Girls have missed. Acker is not implying that the Spice Girls are going to lead a second storming of the Bastille, or that they’re going to cause the next Stonewall, or that they’re going to blow up a communications antenna at the top of the world trade centre (as Borden’s Women's Liberation Army do at the end of Born in Flames), rather she posits at the end of the interview that the Spice Girls, and girls like them, are forcing “feminism to grow.” Sexually curious, working class, non-university educated girls who are not willing to be quiet are the ones to lead revolutions. Girls who are being subjected to scrutinising body-politics. Girls who feel sick and scared and angry when they hear the rhetoric from the recent Tory/Labour conferences. Girls who hate binaries, definitions, having to ascribe meaning to everything they do and say and wear. These are the girls Acker saw when sitting in front of the Spice Girls.

In her infamous punk text Pussy, King of the Pirates, Kathy Acker writes “We come crawling through these cracks, orphans, lobotomies; if you ask me what I want, I’ll tell you. I want everything. Whole rotten world come down and break. Let me spread my legs.” This thinking is at the core of Acker’s work and is precisely what drew her to the Spice Girls. They wanted everything. Nowadays, Acker has unfortunately passed away and the Spice Girls are a fractured group of multi-millionaires, TV personalities, and people who get caught out saying Margaret Thatcher had ‘girl power.’ The Spice Girls aren’t leading a feminist revolution tomorrow, but Acker’s 1997 interview with them has several things to teach us:

  1. Ginger Spice was simultaneously an anti-capitalist icon and a Thatcher sympathiser

  2. Kathy Acker had a huge crush on Mel B

  3. We should want everything. We should ask for everything. We should take everything. Le monde est à nous. The world is ours. “We're still human. Human because we keep on battling against all these horrors, the horrors caused and not caused by us. We battle not in order to stay alive, that would be too materialistic, for we are body and spirit, but in order to love each other.” (Acker, 1988).

By Jay (they/them)

Works Referenced:

Acker, Kathy (1988) Empire of the Senseless.

Acker, Kathy, (1996) Pussy, King of the Pirates.

Acker, Kathy (1997) “All Girls Together,” Vogue

Borden, Lizzie (1983) Born in Flames.



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