There’s something patronizing in such this made-up word. Girlboss. A trademark living up to its conception through hashtags. It’s graced the covers of fashion magazines as if subverting them, when in reality it’s right at home with a brand of indulgence, aesthetics, and pinkness. Lots and lots of pinkness.
This isn’t an essay about that now cancelled Netflix show, but that did provide me with the opportunity to harp on about a branding technique that I’ve hated for some time now. The Girlboss empire is the kind of monster that devours critique and births Ivanka Trumps in its place.
The term Girlboss was coined by Sophia Amoruso, CEO of the now-bankrupt online boutique Nasty Gal. It came into prominence when her 2014 memoir became a big hit among the coastal feminine elite crowd, à la Sandberg’s Lean In. It seemed to resonate with women entrepreneurs; the advent of when the Internet created a whole new generation of young people attempting to brand themselves, and Amoruso became one of its forerunners alongside the Kardashians. Girlboss inspired Jessica Alba to launch Honest Beauty, inspired Ashley Tisdale to produce Young and Hungry, and that’s good for them.
Caveat: I, for lack of better phrasing, really hate the concept of branding oneself. There’s something about sacrificing one’s personhood, rather than just their product or skill, to capitalism that worries me, especially regarding young folks. This may or may not be a new convention but it’s a dangerous one nonetheless.
There’s this pretense that #girlboss feminism is far-reaching or breaking conventions. It presupposes that the patriarchy has been preventing women from venturing into careers in fashion or cosmetics so that, when Forbes declares Amoruso the world’s youngest self-made woman, its impact appears momentous or, to some, even radical. A woman amassing $280 million all on her lonesome is a considerable feat, but considering how feminism is rooted in far-left philosophy, it isn’t particularly progressive. I do not fault Amoruso for this because she may not even consider herself a feminist—her television counterpart does carry a fuzzy misunderstanding of anarchism for the aesthetic, though—but I do fault her followers, those who’ve deemed this story “feminist” rather than “capitalist”.
Girlboss resides in the same faux feminist vein as two other shows that I begrudgingly enjoy: Sex in the City and, even worse, Gossip Girl. This is where it gets tricky, because neither program ever proclaimed itself overtly feminist yet both attempted to lionize their female characters in one way, shape, or form. Sex in the City was more blatant in these efforts; the show is still credited with pushing the proverbial envelope by depicting four women who have a lot of sex and enjoy it. It was feminist by nature, if that’s possible, and the showrunners knew it. Unfortunately, they neither understood nor identified as third-wave feminists, so the more blatant displays of “feminist praxis” were tone-deaf at best. Take, for example, Samantha, the most sexual and morally repugnant of them all. In one episode, she’s confronted with her cavalier habits when she’s blacklisted from the A-list by the wives of men she’s either groped or slept with, and while the episode attempts to paint Samantha as righteously indignant when faced with their “slut-shaming”, it neglects to confront Samantha with the real issue at hand, that which often goes unspoken in these situations: It’s not about the sex, it’s about the betrayal. We tend to confuse sexuality as inherently bad when it isn’t; what matters here is what we do with it. But I digress, Sex in the City’s second feature film halted the plot completely for a karaoke segment in which the central foursome sing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”, an odd departure from the original show’s sardonicism.
Gossip Girl, on the other hand, is a more fascinating case: While the show half-heartedly attempts to promote its core characters despite their gradual decline in integrity, its subtext is much more honest, as if the showrunners had grown to resent the program almost as much as the cast did. Take Blair Waldorf, for example: She begins the show as an antihero/frenemy to center-of-the-universe Serena van der Woodsen, and this juxtaposition gives us privy to her skills. We’re introduced to Blair as a brilliant, driven young student with dreams of Yale and, somewhere down the line, world domination. By the time she sashays onto Columbia’s campus in the fourth season, you assume she’ll enter into politics or business, not unlike her Byronic boyfriend. She certainly had the brains and moral repugnance for either field. But alas, by the end of the show, Blair’s talent and ambition have been denigrated so much that she tries to relive her high school queendom through a fashion line for teens. The show may have chalked this up as her nirvana, I couldn’t help but feel jibbed. Blair Waldorf—salutatorian, Upper East Side monarch, European politics connoisseur—could not progress past high school for some reason. The same could be said for her academic rival, Nelly Yuki, who’s depicted as a science whiz in the first half of the show but settles for fashion journalism just so Blair is given an adversary by the end.
The point here is that, as Jia Tolentino wrote about for the New Yorker, mainstream (corporate) feminism has a way of undercutting women’s work in some way. #Girlboss ideology is infantilizing, restricting women’s ambition to cosmetic occupations and calling it pioneering. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing a career in fashion and/or beauty, but there aren’t enough television shows geared towards women trying to excel in male-dominated fields. Where are the women geniuses? But hey, while we’re at it, where trans geniuses? Nonbinary geniuses? Black geniuses? At this point calls for media representation have become ubiquitous, so it may be redundant to harp on about this, but it would be nice to watch a show starring a great non-male intellectual
Kaila Philo is a writer based in Baltimore, where she studies English literature and works in marketing. She has been published in Mask Magazine, ARTS.BLACK, and The Millions, among others. Philo hopes to avoid being a starving artist and to flourish as a novelist and intellectual.