In 2014, Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal, coined the term “girlboss” to refer to women in business taking the world into their hands. The world of pastel pinks and bold affirmations of girl power soon came to the forefront of pop culture and found its way into everyday consumerism. To be a #girlboss was to be strong and relentless in one’s femininity, a sentiment that felt revolutionary in a world of male-led boardrooms and corporate guys’ clubs.
In 2016, Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy and the tide began to turn. Amoruso’s affirmations felt hollow amid her controversial work culture, and her proclamations about womanhood felt unrealistic. As more girlbosses were called out for their exploitative work practices, tough reigns and, in some spaces, even crumbling businesses, the girlboss became a meme that has since taken over pop culture and worked its way into colloquial language.
The inherent humor of girlbosses lies in how their regurgitated and cliched truisms on how to live life and become successful women are steeped in whiteness. In Amoruso’s book “#Girlboss,” she says, “I’d rather be making messes, and making history while I’m at it.” The image of the quintessential “disruptor” — of industries, systems and histories — is not one inclusive of women of color, who are bogged down by an extra layer of prejudice in the workplace.
However, girlboss culture turning into a meme is indicative of Gen Z and the present-day synthesis of media in a 24-hour news cycle. Is it funny to laugh at ignorant white women with savior complexes who thought they were bastions of gender equality but were really looking to become wealthy and powerful? Yes, but we are also missing key parts of the puzzle that signify larger and far more troubling issues with capitalist structures that enable women like these. The memefication of girlbosses has also insidiously added to a larger collective delight or, perhaps less pessimistically, a focus on the failure of women in the workplace.
The only difference between a girlboss and a male CEO probably engaged in the same exploitative business practices is the use of gendered marketing to get ahead. Hate the game, don’t hate the player — girlbosses are playing a game that men and patriarchal structures created.
Hating a fumbling girlboss isn’t quite dissimilar to hating the woman who falsely accuses of rape. Are girlbosses unethical? Of course. Are they emblematic of deeper problems of personal narratives in corporate marketing? Of venture capitalists who are unable to treat or understand women in the same manner as they understand men or even unable to discern good, ethical leaders from bad ones? The public and celebrated fall of each girlboss is an addition to the collective disbelief in female founders in general.
This demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of why women in corporate power act as cruelly as men in power. Women are expected to single-handedly rise within preexisting power structures while also rebuking the fibers on which these structures are built. Of course, white women are the ones permitted to rise within these structures.
There’s a scene in the show “The Dropout” where someone attributes Elizabeth Holmes’ success to the fact that she is “white, blonde and pretty.” It is interesting that the success of her fraud wasn’t attributed to investors who were unable to discern a functional business from a shell or who took her narrative as a woman to be serious enough to qualify for funding. Despite all of Holmes’ fraud and false feminist narrative that comes from a desire to be equal to men in the workplace, she’s still reduced to her appearance. It also demonstrates the inability of men to treat women as their intellectual equals and to understand the basic tenets of gender equality.
The girlboss is what happened when the language of tech — of disruption and making messes, asking for forgiveness instead of permission — was added to the joyful ignorance of white woman privilege. These ideas belonged to male startup founders who attended meetings in their pajamas and made irreverence attractive in the workplace. Women, on the other hand, are categorically held to higher standards.
“I’ve been a dropout, a nomad, a thief, a shitty student, and a lazy employee,” Amoruso says in her book. A woman of color wouldn’t be caught dead admitting to any of these. Both Amoruso and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, another high-profile corporate feminist and author of “Lean In,” use the word “revolution” in their books, failing to realize that the act of revolution involves a total rebuilding. True revolution would come from breaking existing structures and reimagining a new corporate world — one that could truly, genuinely be a step forward in equality in the workplace.
But #girlboss was never about equality for all women. Rather, it was about thinking about yourself, taking what you felt what was yours and feeling equal to the man. After the death of the girlboss, perhaps corporate America can usher in a new, sustainable era of feminism — one that is less reliant on marketing and virtue signaling and one that is concerned with equity and leadership that exists beyond proclamations.