Girl power or feminism? What’s the difference?

preen_girl power

preen_girl power

The words “girl power” used to make me cringe. I immediately imagine white privilege—the racial divide in some countries, like the United States, where the experiences of white women are upheld and those of colored minorities ignored. But is this reason enough to dismiss how it has inspired many to break away from the myth of an ideal woman embodied by Maria Clara? Does it really exist outside of feminism?

While teenage feminism has long existed before girl power was credited to punk band Bikini Kill (which lead singer Kathleen Hanna revealed to writer Sara Marcus was inspired by the phrase Black power), girl power has been described in Harvard Magazine as a slogan that encourages “emancipated confidence that raises self-esteem, reduces depression and altering gender roles among girls and young women.”

During my pre-teen years, girl power played a big part in building my self-image, a sort of go-to affirmation slash slogan for young girls who wanted to chart their own path to success. It was something you could post as a glitter sticker on your friend’s Friendster page, along with other phrases like “books before boys.” It was a staple in unapologetically “girly” tween magazines before they were phased out. It’s a verbal high five and a cheer after a group huddle. While the “you can do anything” rhetoric might not hold as much significance when you’re all grown up, it’s a push that many kids at that age need.

That’s not to say that girl power culture is just for adolescents. The now-rejected term girl boss inspired a number of working women before it was criticized as infantilizing. Girl power movies (starring the likes of Kristen Wiig, Gina Rodriguez and Constance Wu) gives us characters who are headstrong, fun and unafraid to get real with their partners. Girl power encourages women to feel their oats. Some might ask, isn’t the confident woman an empowered woman? How does that make girl power different from feminism?

For writer Cassandra Gagnon, girl power is about building up other girls, while feminism is about fighting for equality. “While feminism is all about establishing equality for all genders, inclusive of ability, sexuality, gender identity, race, religion, and more, it cannot exist purely without girl power. As feminism started as a way to address female grievances and has evolved to so much more, girl power is about joining together, in strong, supportive harmony towards a common, fantastic goal,” she adds.

While they’re not exactly interchangeable, the reason why some people seem to be uncomfortable with both is the same: the fear of an alpha female (often personified by white upper-class women who were the first ones able to enter the modern work setting.)

Forbes listed in an article four main reasons why people dislike the term: 1. It “has been associated with strong, forceful and angry women” (which society continues to punish) 2. Many fear that it means “men will eventually lose out” in terms of power, influence, and economic opportunities. 3. Many believe that “feminists want to control the world and put men down.” 4. Many fear that feminism would “bring about negative shifts” in relationships, marriage, society, culture, power dynamics and business.

However, historian Joanna Bourke writes, “I think there is a difference between alpha female and alpha male. The women I would nominate have changed the world by their philosophy and writings, and they have made an impact by the way they live, or lived, their lives: Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf and Germaine Greer. In their sexual identity, in the way they constructed their domestic lives, they strove to be true to themselves. If they were confrontational, it was not for its own sake, but to say: ‘This is what I am.’ They acknowledge their own complexities. Alpha males do not go down that route.” Choosing not to be “defined with reference to man,” as de Beauvoir put it, isn’t equivalent to putting men at a disadvantage.

Hija Ako and Black Girl Magic are two of the many movements that emerged in recent years aimed at unifying, uplifting and protecting communities of women. We have seen a young demographic participate in this movement. Say what you will about slogans, but it cannot be denied that they can effectively bring people together.

It may not sound as serious, as loaded or as committed as feminism, but girl power is definitely a step forward to the common goal of finding our voice and claiming our place in a world that silences and disenfranchises women. Girl power means “I believe you and believe in you.”


Art by Dana Calvo

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