The Epic Highs and Lows of Being, or Wanting to Be, a #GIRLBOSS



The new year is a time of change, self-reflection, and improvement. In that spirit, a resolution of mine is to be more honest, and so, I have a confession to make, I want to be a #girlboss. In this Juncture Review, I want to explore where the term, created by millennial women and ironically co-opted by gen-Z youth, came from, its attributes, flaws, and the criticisms of the phrase as the ultimate commodification of the self, the product of neoliberal feminism and a tool of capitalism. All in the effort to understand why I, ironically and yet completely sincerely, want so desperately to be a #girlboss.


First, I want to begin with the history of the #girlboss. A term popularised by Sophie Amoruso, the founder and once chief-executive of Nasty Gal, the ‘simple eBay store selling vintage items’ (Gittleson, 2014) turned fast-fashion BooHoo subsidiary (Mull, 2020), the #girlboss can be defined as ‘the lady entrepreneur whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream’ (Spencer, 2021). For an alternative definition, see the completely sincere pink image above. Furthermore, the hashtag is not necessary but a good reminder of the word’s online origins. The term neologism turned from a ‘rallying cry for a generation of young women…into just another linguistic tool of oppression’ (Anderson, 2020). In its less-than-a-decade long lifespan, the word has not been without controversy, notably, when it was deemed ‘patronising rather than promoting’ (Ibid.) by the Advertising Standards Agency. The term was used in a London Underground advert, leading women to question why their status as a ‘boss’ required the infantilising prefix of ‘girl’ (Ibid). More recently, the word has, most recently, returned to the popular lexicon through the ironic co-option of the term by the gen-Z, TikTok loving youth (Abad-Santos, 2021).


A lot can be learned about the idea of the girlboss by looking at the women who embody it. Beginning with Amoruso, her girlboss story arc is emblematic of all that is good and awful about the girlboss. Her’s was a capitalist success story, the 21st century manifestation of the American Dream, wherein she, a community college dropout and ‘not your typical entrepreneur’ (Gittleson, 2014), leveraged the direct communication and interaction that social media allowed in the 2000s to create a successful retail website. In 2014, Nasty Gal was valued at $100 million in an industry that Amoruso accurately surmised was run by ‘mostly old white men’ (Amoruso in Gittleson, 2014). In 2014, Amoruso wrote the successful memoir, #GIRLBOSS, in which she ‘counsels future "girlbosses"’ (Gittleson, 2014). Her memoir and life story were then turned into a short-lived, quickly cancelled, 2017 Netflix show of the same name that led to the question ‘Was Girlboss Netflix’s First Truly Terrible Show?’ (Bradley, 2017). The show was not the only critically panned but came after scandal and misfortune for Amoruso wherein her company was accused of (not very girlbossingly) ‘systematically and illegally [terminating] pregnant employees’ (Merlan, 2015), leading in part to the company’s eventually bankruptcy. Amoruso subsequently sold her company at a comparatively poor $20 million for a company once valued at $200 million (Bradley, 2017), and faded out of the limelight.


One of my personal favourite girlbosses is Elizabeth Holmes, the now infamous Silicon Valley darling who had a similar journey to Amoruso. Touting revolutionary blood-testing technology, Holmes rose quickly in an industry populated by men, hailed a genius and a media star, her company valued at its peak at $9 billion (Streitfeld, 2021). Holmes’ brand of girlbossery was particularly audacious, essentially scamming Silicon Valley into investing into a product that never actually existed, all while marketing her life through advocacy for self-optimisation, ‘hater’ dismissal and the literal cosplaying of Steve Jobs (Griffith, 2021). After years of fooling ‘savvy investors, hundreds of smart employees, an all-star board and a media eager to anoint a new star’ (Streitfeld, 2021), Holmes was convicted on four counts of fraud this month (Griffith, 2021).


Not all girlbosses ‘fly too close to the sun’ only to experience Icarus-level public humiliation and judicial punishment, some keep the jobs that made them famous. A girlboss before the term girlboss even existed, Sheryl Sandberg, the Meta (formerly Facebook) Chief Operating Officer, was the original pioneer of feminist incrementalism wherein the key to success for women was not the radical toppling of the patriarchy but strategic conformity to the corporate dogma. For Sandberg, each individual women’s ‘pursuit of power could be rebranded as a righteous quest for equality’ (Mull, 2020). Sandberg sold this vision in her 2013 memoir, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, a ‘hybrid business book and feminist manifesto’ (Spencer, 2021) that instructed women to ‘negotiate as strongly as men do for raises, [and] pose like Superwoman in the bathroom [to] help women stand more authoritatively for a presentation’ (Bowles, 2018). Sandberg put the phrase ‘lean in’ into the popular lexicon and ‘largely won over the feminist mainstream’ (Bowles, 2018).


Though these women may be famous girlbosses but that is not to say that all girlbosses are of Silicon Valley. I am not a software engineer or a scammer, I do not see a future for myself in San Francisco, and yet, I am a girlboss. Everyone is a girlboss, from me, to you the reader, to Taylor Swift, Priti Patel, and the Queen. That is to say, girlbossery is a state of mind. I believe it is in this ubiquity that the appeal of the girlboss lies. It is universal and empowering and largely vapid. The girlboss embodies mainstream neoliberal feminism. Neoliberal feminism, ‘perfectly in sync with the evolving neoliberal order’ (Rottenberg, 2014, p.419), combines itself, and sees nothing wrong, with ‘political-economic governance premised on the extension of market relationships’ (Larner, 2006, p.199). If anything, neoliberal feminism, ‘the legacy of second-wave feminism’s myopic refusal to sustain a materialist critique’ (Rottenberg, 2014, p.421), lauds the embrace of the market into all forms of life, and so does the girlboss. Holmes’ life is optimised by 4am starts and rules, ‘I show no excitement. ALL ABOUT BUSINESS…I know the outcome of every encounter’ (Holmes in Streitfeld, 2021) that seem to eradicate her humanity, let alone her femininity. Neoliberalism encourages people to see themselves as ‘individualized and active subjects responsible for enhancing their own well-being’ (Larner, 2006, p.206), and neoliberal feminism takes this sentiment and runs, painting the achievements of each woman to be ‘feminist and progressive’ (Rottenberg, 2014, p.422). Sheryl Sandberg’s success as the COO of the world’s biggest social media platform, her $1.7 billion net worth, is my success, even if her company is widely seen as ‘a harmful force in society’ (Bowles, 2018).


The girlboss disregards systemic feminist struggles as a problem of the past, treating the current reality as nothing more than a system that must be welded to suit each individual woman. The feminist ideal of universal liberation for women is abandoned, ‘transmuted…into self-care’ (Rottenberg, 2014, p.433) and #girlboss merchandise (Mull, 2020). The ultimate goal of neoliberal feminism is the desire for uncritical representation of women at the top of the fields they have historically been denied access to. As long as half the people on the board of a company are women, the work of the girlboss is done.


Ultimately, the girlboss is a selfish, capitalist ideology, a ‘feminism so individuated that it has been completely unmoored from any notion of social inequality’ (Rottenberg, 2014, p.424). It is relentless in its pursuit of sole domination, carrying with it all of the sins of neoliberal society. The girlboss is coded in whiteness. Sandberg’s advice to women to be more forceful in work meetings only works when the oppression the woman is facing is her presumed submissiveness, not the oppression of a Black woman, seen as nothing but forceful, angry, and wrong. Only a white woman like Amoruso could market her business’ origin story as about being caught shoplifting with so little consequence that the incident amounts to nothing more than, once you are rich, a headline about how ‘shoplifting saved my life’ (Gittleson, 2014). Holmes’ ‘damsel in distress’ defence in the courtroom is the natural progression of her role as tech’s honorary daughter in need of nurturing, a position only a white woman could fill in the overwhelmingly white Silicon Valley (Chen, 2021). In embracing the girlboss, a rejection of intersectional feminism, ‘the understanding that women embody diverse relations to society and its structural inequalities, as experienced through their multiple identities, such as intersections of race with gender’ (Ulus, 2018, p.163), takes place. The girlboss is the antithesis of the complexities that intersectionality aims to capture, because for neoliberal feminism to be true, liberation can only be an individual process (Rottenberg, 2014, p.419) that comes from within. Liberation cannot be a critique of a woman’s surroundings for fear that it becomes a critique of capitalism.


And so, with all this said, the question remains that if the girlboss’s idea of female empowerment has been rendered a myth (Mull, 2020), why did I start the Juncture Review claiming I wanted to be a girlboss? Other than the fact that I have a TikTok account where the word is having a caustic resurgence on the app, combined into the slogan ‘Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss’, there is something to be said about the intuitive appeal of the girlboss’s ‘power fantasy and utopian promise’ (Abad-Santos, 2021). Instinctively, I want to be productive and successful; I want to be sucked into the promise of a world where all I need to do to avoid the patriarchy is act as a ‘savvy consumer’ (Mull, 2020). Therein lies the seductive temptation of the girlboss archetype.


Perhaps in acknowledging the word’s use as a tool of neoliberal propaganda, I will be able to continue my #girlboss aspirations, aspirations that ultimately amount to getting up and going to sleep early, ethically. Or perhaps, the girlboss will fade into obscurity, forgotten by a fickle cultural attention span, an artefact of the mid-2010s that has already been declared dead (Abad-Santos, 2021). Perhaps all that will be left of the girlboss is me, ironically (but if I am being as honest as I said I wanted to be this year, sincerely) calling myself a #girlboss every time I successfully complete a task.


References

Abad-Santos, A. (2021). ‘The death of the girlboss’, Vox, 7 June, p.1. Available at: https://www.vox.com/22466574/gaslight-gatekeep-girlboss-meaning (Accessed 04/01/2021).

Anderson, H. (2020). ‘'Girl boss': When empowerment slogans backfire’, BBC Worklife, 28 January, p.1. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200127-the-advert-that-triggered-a-debate-about-girl-boss (Accessed 04/01/2022).

Bowles, N. (2018) ‘Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg Problem’, The New York Times, 8 December, p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/07/technology/lean-in-sheryl-sandberg-problem.html (Accessed 05/01/2022).

Bradley, L. (2017). ‘Was Girlboss Netflix’s First Truly Terrible Show?’, Vanity Fair, 26 June, p.1. Available at: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/06/girlboss-netflix-canceled-one-season (Accessed 05/01/2022).

Gittleson, K. (2014). ‘Nasty Gal's Sophia Amoruso: 'Shoplifting saved my life'’, BBC News, 19 May, p.1. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27414760 (Accessed 04/01/2022).

Griffith, E. (2022). ‘Silicon Valley Can’t Escape Elizabeth Holmes’, The New York Times, 4 January, p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/04/technology/elizabeth-holmes-verdict.html?searchResultPosition=10 (Accessed 05/01/2022).

Larner, W. (2006). ‘Neoliberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality’, in de Goede, M. (ed.) International Political Economy and Poststructural Politics. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Merlan, A. (2015). ‘Lawsuit: Nasty Gal's #GIRLBOSS Fired Employees For Getting Pregnant’, Jezebel, 6 September, p.1. Available at: https://jezebel.com/lawsuit-nastygals-girlboss-fired-all-her-pregnant-emp-1710042755 (Accessed 05/01/2022)

Mull, A. (2020). ‘The Girlboss Has Left the Building’, The Atlantic, 25 June, p.1. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/girlbosses-what-comes-next/613519/ (Accessed 04/01/2022).

Rottenberg, C. (2014). ‘The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism’, Cultural Studies, 28(3), pp. 418-437.

Spencer, K. A. (2021). ‘“I Care A Lot” is a stinging indictment of neoliberal “girlboss” feminism’, Salon, 26 February, p.1. Available at: https://www.salon.com/2021/02/26/i-care-a-lot-neoliberal-girlboss-feminism-critique/ (Accessed 05/01/2022).

Streitfeld, D. (2022). ‘The Epic Rise and Fall of Elizabeth Holmes’, The New York Times, 3 January, p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/03/technology/elizabeth-holmes-theranos.html?searchResultPosition=8 (Accessed 05/01/2022).

Ulus, E. (2018). ‘White fantasy, white betrayals: On neoliberal ‘feminism’ in the US presidential election process’, Ephemera, 18 (1), pp. 163-181.


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