Published by Catalogue Magazine, 05/05/2017
The idea of the #Girlboss, a term coined by Sophia Amoruso with her book of the same name in 2014, seems harmless enough. It encapsulates a woman who is financially independent but also a funny, chill, ambitious, charismatic badass. She makes a lot of money and doesn’t feel bad about it. These women, like Sheryl Sandberg, Miki Agrawal and Arianna Huffington, were poster girls for the idea that any woman could be successful, in both her professional and personal lives, if she just worked hard enough. The #girlboss movement was 90s girl power redux, complete with pink branding, quasi-feminist slogans and a traditionally attractive young woman at the helm. And then it all came crashing down.
Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy at the end of last year, and Amoruso exited her position as CEO of the company. Sheryl Sandberg admitted ‘leaning in’ was not always enough after facing criticism for her white feminist focus. Ironically, Miki Agrawal and Arianna Huffington were both accused of discrimination by female employees. There is something to be said for the fact that these women are held to entirely higher standards that their male counterparts, and that their success is a testament to the advances women have made in the workplace. However, the hypocrisy of using feminism-lite to sell products while failing to support actual women behind the scenes is blatantly obvious and has attracted well-deserved criticism.
It makes intuitive sense that financial independence is a hugely significant step on the path to women’s liberation. Ever since Virginia Woolf declared in 1928 that any artist needed at least 500 pounds and a room of their own in order to produce good work, women have understood that they needed to have financial resources in order to be truly free. However, as Jessica Crispin wrote in her 2017 manifesto, Why I Am Not a Feminist, “If feminism is nothing more than personal gain disguised as political progress, then it is not for me.” The pursuit of financial success can become an end goal in itself in today’s consumerist society, rather than a tool to achieve a more fulfilled life. And women, just like men, are willing to exploit other women to reach this goal.
Of course, the concept of the #Girlboss buys into the worst parts of free market capitalism. The globalisation of the artistic, manufacturing and resource extraction industries have played a huge role in the marginalisation of poor people, women especially, and the commodification of their labour to benefit lucrative multinational corporations. The #Girlboss movement gives little thought to those at the bottom of the production chain but spotlights the woman at the top. In response, environmental activists, the slow fashion industry and the #getartistspaid movement have called for a fairer distribution of resources and have successfully drawn attention to all the girls and women who may not be bosses but are equally deserving of respect and fair compensation for their labour.
Even Amoruso has become wary of the ‘me-first’ feminism she once advocated, moving instead towards a nebulous idea of collective solidarity. At the Girlboss rally in March, she explained “Girlboss is a feeling; it’s a philosophy. It’s a way for women to reframe success for ourselves on our own terms for the first time in history.” The new Netflix show Girlboss, very loosely based on real events in Amoruso’s life, attempts to portray the protagonist as a flawed but likeable young woman trying to find her way in a business world that plays by men’s rules. In the first season, she learns that she needs the support of her best friend Annie, after she initially dismisses it, and that systematic discrimination is a real force against women in the workplace. In reality, it took Amoruso a little longer to acknowledge these lessons.
The end of the #Girlboss does not mean the end of successful female role models in the workplace. On the contrary, it signifies a change in tactic that challenges the foundations of the capitalist structures that these women were forced to operate within. The women we admire are no longer the self-made corporate operatives. They are the rebel fashion designers like Rei Kawakubo, the body positive artists like Frances Cannon, the tellers of untold stories like Ava DuVernay, and the socially responsible entrepreneurs like Ronni Kahn.
I would argue that this shift reflects the slow decline of what Andi Zeisler has referred to as “marketplace feminism”, epitomised by the fast fashion t-shirt that reads ‘feminist’ but was made by exploited female sweat shop workers in Bangladesh. In a post-Trump political climate, where the rights of women, people of colour and the LGBT community are increasingly attacked, we do not have the luxury of focussing only on our own success. If we are to succeed, it will be because we are able to form an intersectional movement that lifts us all towards equality. Now that’s what I call feminism.