Throughout March, we’ll be exploring issues that relate to women and feminism, to mark Women's History Month and International Women’s Day on the 8th. Specifically, our posts will look at research that explores bias, in one form or another, in recognition of this year's IWD theme 'Break the Bias'. Here Lorna Stevens examines the concept of a “girlboss”, using real world examples from pop culture to understand what the rise and fall of this phenomenon tells us about feminism more broadly. The newly published Routledge Companion to Marketing and Feminism, of which Lorna is a co-editor, asks these questions, tracking how feminism has changed in the last twenty years.
When the #girlboss phenomenon emerged in 2014 it was seen as a shining beacon of hope for women. First coined by entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso (at one time one of the richest, self-made women in the world) to describe an ambitious, successful women climbing to the top in a capitalist world, it was seen as empowering – a status to strive for. A way for women to win power back from the men who run things.
Things are different now though, as a google search of #girlboss shows. The coverage is almost unrelentingly negative. So why are we increasingly turning our backs on girlboss, and why now? More importantly, why do we expect “girlbosses” to be any different from “boybosses”? (not that such a term exists of course, but that’s another story!).
The problem is that many of our most visibly successful girlbosses have been exposed as unworthy feminist icons – notably, Amoruso herself had a fall from grace for creating a toxic work environment and was accused of firing pregnant employees, among other things. This begs the question: why did we expect them to be feminists in the first place? Why do we expect female bosses to be more ethical and virtuous than their male counterparts? Is that a reasonable expectation? And what does ‘feminism’ even mean these days, given there are so many versions of it?
The problem is that the girlboss phenomenon is for a select, exclusive few and it doesn’t seem to speak to, or care about, the rest of us. Catherine Rottenberg (who contributed a chapter to the Routledge Companion to Marketing and Feminism called 'Women Who Work: the limits of the neoliberal feminist paradigm') writes that neoliberal feminism - which I will argue gave birth to the girlboss - is for white, privileged, aspiring women who embrace the capitalist ideal of the self-as-enterprise, as she terms it.
Why capitalism is essential to the girlboss
A shining, if perhaps somewhat questionable and extreme example of this is the ‘Soho grifter’ Anna Delvey (Né Sorokin), a swindler that inspired the new Netflix series, Inventing Anna, about a young woman who creates a fictional heiress persona to scam wealthy New Yorkers. Anna Delvey is the epitome of a ‘self-made’ success story, tricking others into parting with their cash, even raising money to set up her for own exclusive club – the Anna Delvey Foundation! Quite the entrepreneur one might say. Even more bizarre is the fact that the website is still live. Her Instagram account is too, and during her trial she was able to secure designer clothes which she shared on her Instagram account. She has made $320,000 from selling her story to Netflix, topping the streaming platform’s ratings.
A brilliant opportunist? A self-made woman par excellence? An unethical swindler? No one can deny she showed shrewd business sense and guts to wreak as much havoc as she did. But we wouldn’t call her a feminist just because she was a successful one-woman-show for a while. The numerous female ‘friends’ who were ripped off by her certainly wouldn’t see her as a sister-in-arms!
While we see an extreme version of this in Anna Delvey, the unrelenting pursuit of self-interest is a key aspect of the girlboss – and this is the thing that bothers so many feminists. Whatever happened to sisterhood, surely one of feminism’s most precious foundation stones? Why aren’t successful businesswomen helping other women? Never mind that, why are they seemingly downright and shamelessly exploitative of other women, an issue that numerous young feminist bloggers and feminist forums have discussed in relation to the likes of Sophia Amoruso, Sheryl Sandberg and Rachel Holls? Blogger Laquisha Bailey pithily observes that the girlboss breaks the glass ceiling then rebuilds it under her.
The fact is the girlboss succeeds within capitalism – she is never going to dismantle the structure that enabled her to build her success. This is an individualistic project that is about influencing, networking and utilising one’s assets to achieve maximum market value - for oneself. Or, as Rottenberg terms it, the ‘self-as-firm’ model. It is about investing wisely to maximise a return on investment. Everything is about market value and cost-benefits.
Do we all have the same 24 hours in a day?
If a woman doesn’t succeed in that system it’s because she just didn’t try hard enough to climb that ladder. Or, as influencer Molly Mae recently put it, we all have the same 24 hours in the day. Until the ensuing uproar, she seemed to be unaware of her advantages in relation to many women – specifically the women on minimum wage working for clothing retailer PrettyLittleThing, the company that made her Creative Director at the tender age of 22. This is a winners and losers game, and she is a winner. In a nutshell, the girlboss works within the patriarchy, not outside of it!
The problem that has turned the tide (and the backs) of young feminists is that the girlboss and her ideological mate, the neoliberal feminist, belong to an exclusive club that does not admit ordinary women, i.e. the vast majority of the rest of us.
What it really means to “have it all”
Worse than this, the girlboss seems to view the less fortunate ‘sisters’ she employs as exploitable drudges. Outsourcing of childcare and housework to other women, for example is necessary for the successful businesswoman who wants to have it all, the holy grail of neoliberalist feminism. But the women who enable her to live a perfect private and public life often endure a bullying and toxic work environment, and suffer poor wages, long hours, no job security, and bad working conditions. Their toil enables the neoliberal subject to achieve her life-work balance and her full market potential.
And this is not acceptable to many women. We expected more - or did, before we realised how naïve that was. We expected this new breed to care about women’s equality, sisterhood and change. They don’t appear to. In fact, Rottenberg argues that the neoliberal feminist project ‘de-fangs’ feminism completely.
What comes after the fall of “girlboss”?
It seems many feminists on social media have had enough, reaffirming grass roots feminism’s aim to liberate and properly empower all women. Principles such as collective action, support and community unite all the myriad forms of feminism out there. Intersectional issues ensure that feminisms are now the norm, not just the single neoliberal feminist version of it. Class, race, sexuality, etc all impact on women’s experiences, opportunities, and what matters to them.
Communities of women are working together for a goal that benefits women collectively. Not all women can be celebrity influencers and then create successful spin-off businesses after all. Eve Livingstone, in a recent piece for i-D. argues that what feminism needs now is more care, solidarity and activism: ‘the girlboss era is over, 2022 is the year of the girlunion’ she writes.
Time will tell if the backlash against girlboss and neo-liberalist feminism will result in a renewed collective spirit in the feminist movement and a greater awareness of the inequalities that still exist – between men and women – and between women and women – and more importantly, how we can seriously address those inequities (and the values that underpin them) at a structural, systemic, institutional and political level.