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'The Girlboss Is Dead': Problems With Dissing an Idea That Refuses To Die

What is it about Sheryl Sandberg's brand of feminism that persists, despite the 'girlboss' being pronounced dead?

Updated
Gender
5 min read
'The Girlboss Is Dead': Problems With Dissing an Idea That Refuses To Die
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"Dissing the girlboss is so 2020!" said a colleague. I, a millennial, and they, a Gen-Z, were discussing my fraught relationship with 'girlboss' as an idea that one aspired to embody a few years ago, but now can't seem to shake off.

Roughly over six years after the term was coined, the girlboss has been pronounced dead several times. In 2020, The Atlantic declared, 'The Girlboss Has Left the Building'. And, yet again, in May this year, The New York Times wrote 'The Sunsetting of the Girlboss Is Nearly Complete', and Axios announced this month, 'Sheryl Sandberg's Facebook departure marks end of "Girl boss" era'.

What is it about the girlboss that persists – with a zombie-like fervour that refuses to succumb? And what does it mean for feminism today?
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A Failed Experiment in Feminism?

The girlboss movement spread after American retailer Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso's 2014 memoir #Girlboss became a roaring bestseller, furthering the narrative of Facebook ex-COO Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 self-help sensation Lean In. Though Amoruso claimed to be an 'outsider' in the business world, both works came to define the girlboss – a confident go-getter in the face of naysayers.

Both also promote a 'trickle-down feminism' – the idea that the rights and privileges enjoyed by a group of upper-class, white women will trickle down and benefit the majority of women. They put the onus on individuals, rather than systems, for countering inequalities.

In Lean Out, Dawn Foster writes that this 'corporate feminism' argued that "the main reason women aren't rising to the top… (is) an unwillingness to put themselves forward" – an 'ambition gap'. Foster counters this; ambition, she writes, is "fractured by gender, class, race, sexuality and levels of disability."

Amoruso and Sandberg's ideas have since been criticised for excluding the experiences of women from historically marginalised groups, for being a convenient parlay with capitalism, and for creating a harmful hustle culture.

But before we denounce this as a case of 'failed feminism', let's unpack the term 'girlboss'.

The 'Girl' in Girlboss: Die if You Do, Die if You Don't

In 2016, the bestselling author of Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel, questioned why there were so many chart-topping books with 'girl' in the title. Drawing on data, Mandel deduced that the 'girl' in these titles "is much more likely to be a woman… and the author of the book is more likely to be a woman. But if a book with 'girl' in the title was written by a man, the girl is significantly more likely to end up dead."

Could it then be that 'corporate feminists' 'authored' the girlboss, who are definitely women, but there is something larger –*cough*patriarchy*cough* – at play here? Is the girlboss in the hands of patriarchal-capitalist systems, a (metaphorical) death wish?

Consider how the term 'girlboss' assumes that men are the default. A Medium writer, Katie Jgln, puts this into perspective: "If I ever referred to Jeff Bezos or the likes of him as 'BoyBosses', I'm pretty sure a swarm of enraged men would instantly attack me. Because men are serious… Men are bosses."

"Using terms like 'girl', 'lady', or 'babe' to coin our representation in the working world perpetuates sexism. And it normalises the objectification and trivialisation of women," Katie explains.

Within patriarchal-capitalist systems, the girlboss faces a multi-bind:

Perpetuated, it accords a naivete and outside-the-norm quality to women's work – you climbed the ladder despite your gender; if you are languishing at the bottom, blame your lack of ambition, not power structures. Become 'that girl', now.

Adapted and accepted, it leaves little room, as Foster writes, "for a civil life, a political life, an emotional life… or even downtime." How easily working women friends quip, "I am married to my work" or "My work is who I am."

Encoded on the internet, it fuels a creator economy that harnesses the identity politics of women at work for profit – via bodies, (out)fits, music, organised time, motivational quotes, and more. The song 'Woman' by BoA, for example, in its Instagram Reels avatar, often brings up videos of women in perfectly ironed fits, crossing the street with their perfect coffees, promoting a brand and a 'you-can-have-it-all' sensibility.

As a one-size-fits-all, it has no space for intersectionality and no awareness of how these ideas may translate outside the privileged West. "The girlboss is not the average woman and she is surely not the average Pakistani woman," writes Maheen Humayun in Images by Dawn, asserting that in a country with rigid patriarchal systems, women can't simply 'smash those stereotypes', 'break the glass ceiling', or 'girlbossify it up'.

Pakistan ranked 153 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2021. India slipped 28 places to rank at 140, becoming the third-worst performer in South Asia.

Intersectionality takes another bullet in the coinage of 'girlboss' – if bosses are either men or 'girls' (women), you systemically exclude those outside the gender binary.

Cancelled and pronounced dead, it raises questions about whether feminism can change anything.

So, there has been a trickling down of the idea of the 'girlboss', just not in the way it was once envisioned – the master's tools have yet again not dismantled the master's house.

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Girlboss and the 'I' on the Internet

The girlboss has birthed a prolific number of counter-movements.

Robin Wasserman reclaims the 'girl' in book titles when she writes, "To be called 'just a girl' may be diminishment, but to call yourself 'still a girl', can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth… The persistence of girlhood can be a battle cry."

On the other side of the girlboss hustle culture is the 'I don't dream of labour' movement that gained popularity during the COVID pandemic – it refuses to see work as a basis of one's identity, in favour of a privileged indulgence in slow-living and leisure. Girl-resting, girl-sleeping, and girl-laying-down are also gaining momentum – reclaiming the 'girl' who chooses rest over hustle, a choice that's not available to all.

'Goblin mode' has been embraced by some, but criticised by people from disabled communities for romanticising a state of being that many persons with disabilities are subject to.

There is no doubt that for both millennials and Gen-Z, the idea of girlboss and its offshoots have, in myriad ways, been inspiring; the counter-movements, too, hold sway. So, where do we go from here?

Jia Tolentino offers a way ahead in Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. The internet, Tolentino writes, positions personal identity – the 'I' – as the centre of the universe, "making solidarity a matter of identity rather than politics or morality." This is exactly what we see in #girlboss – the digital architecture of the hashtag designed to "remove a statement from context and to position it as part of an enormous single (profitable) thought."

The solution – nuance, contextualising, intersectionality, decentering the 'I'.

To achieve this, Tolentino writes, we would "have to care less about our identities… to be properly ashamed that we can't express solidarity without putting ourselves first."

Foster, too, recommends 'leaning out' of the capitalist model, toward collective action that taps into the democratising potential of social media and doesn't allow something deemed 'individually empowering' to replace radical, collective emancipatory politics.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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