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The Problem With ‘Girlboss’ Feminism

The Netflix show — like its real-life inspiration — equates financial success with ideological authority

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

There’s a scene in Episode 9 of Girlboss — the new Netflix series about how Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso started her flashy retail website — in which the protagonist finds herself face-to-face with a manifestation of the patriarchy. (In this particular case, it is the landlord of a sketchy warehouse named Burt Coyote.) Though she’s looking to rent a space for her growing online retail business, Sophia (played by Britt Robertson) hedges her verbal tenant application at first: she throws tantrums, damages property, and has bad credit because of a Victoria’s Secret purchase gone wrong. But then at the encouragement of her best friend, she shifts her tone and delivers one of her many confidence-boosting soliloquies, clearly the show’s raison d’etre: “I am girl, and that shouldn’t be a bad thing,” she declares decisively. “Girls are collaborative, empathetic, hard workers. Girls are great.”

Even if the sentiment in her speech is hilariously simple, it fits the show’s stated — literally, in the title — mantra: Girls can lead, too. Study after study has shown that, yes, involving women in leadership positions can spur innovation and improve complex decision-making. But lazily plopping vague feminist platitudes into the Girlboss script creates a maddening cognitive dissonance on the show. In the previous eight episodes, Sophia has intentionally riled up her fellow vintage eBay sellers, stuck a half-eaten burrito into the mouth of a homeless and/or mentally ill woman to shut her up, brazenly shoplifted, jeopardized her eBay rating for a night of partying, and obnoxiously referred to underwear as “under trunks.” Aside from maybe working constantly, she embodies none of the vaguely feminist leadership qualities she attributes to women. Above all else, she is a grating presence wherever she goes.

All half-baked attempts to channel girl power aside, there are nuggets of reality in Netflix’s treatment of Amoruso’s coming-of-age tale. Behind most Silicon Valley companies is an unlikable, self-absorbed founder, and Girlboss moments like the one where Sophia, high on the sales of her eBay store, unironically declares “I am the American dream,” make it clear that she is no different. (That perception, for what it’s worth, is not based solely on Aaron Sorkin films: A 2016 study found that one in five American CEOs is a psychopath.) The culture of Silicon Valley has long enabled overly-confident male rulebreakers as startup saviors, and if Sophia stealing a rug in six-inch heels or screaming “Kiss my ass, world!” outside her apartment window is meant to mirror that same capitalistic rebelliousness, then maybe we can tolerate a few more moments of annoying self-proclaimed superiority. Recently, Kay Cannon, the screenwriter who adapted Amoruso’s memoir for television, insisted that depicting the Nasty Gal founder as flawed was an important part of her vision for the show. “It always comes down to this idea of the female lead having to be incredibly likable,” she told The New York Times in a recent interview. “I wanted to tell the story of a flawed woman that is not a fairy tale.”

All that would be fine if, amid Sophia’s role as an imperfect vessel for female entrepreneurship, she were not also positioned as a laudable feminist. While offering very few instances in which Sophia champions a woman aside from herself, Girlboss equates our main character’s individual business success with women’s empowerment. It’s a paean to capitalist feminism that feels just as outdated as the boho peasant dresses she attempts to sling on the show. Girlboss just so happened to premiere a month after the very public downfall of the outspoken Thinx period-underwear CEO Miki Agrawal — a time when we should all know better.

Understanding why the show ham-handedly forces both angles is a lot easier when you read its credits. The real-life Amoruso is an executive producer on Girlboss and just so happens to have launched her next business venture — a media company of the same name — a month before the show came out. Before that, Amoruso published a memoir, #GIRLBOSS, that functioned as a kind of foil to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and positioned her as an inspirational female business leader who, as Business Insider put it in 2014, “can be comfortable with herself — in whatever form that may be.” “Girlboss is a feeling, a philosophy,” Amoruso said at her new company’s launch last month. “It’s a way for women to reframe success for ourselves, on our own terms, for the first time in history.”

But the spunky, DIY feminist brand that is so crucial to Amoruso’s future success hasn’t squared well with some of her employees. The show focuses largely on Sophia’s scrappy one-woman-show days when she was trawling through estate sales and bumming favors from her friends to keep her small business afloat. Fast-forward a couple of years — to a time when the company had hired a considerable staff and moved to L.A. — and a full portrait of Amoruso as an employer comes into view. Before Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy last year, an investigation from Jezebel’s Anna Merlan revealed that the positivity and respect Amoruso preached were not always present in the running of her business. The company underwent layoffs as it restructured, and a handful of employees said they were fired while pregnant or sick, spurring lawsuits. A new, disliked CEO was brought in to lead, and Amoruso’s presence at Nasty Gal faded as she turned her focus to launching the #Girlboss Foundation, which awards grant money to new female-run startups.

“She presents herself as someone [who is] aspirational for women,” one of the former employees told Jezebel in the 2015 report. “Of course her success is noteworthy, but if you read her many articles and interviews, she rarely acknowledges the people who helped her build the company [and] instead credits the success to her ‘hard work, long hours, paying models with burgers, etc.’ I’m not saying those things aren’t true, but the CEOs and managers that inspire are the ones who shine the light on the team around them instead of desperately taking ownership for every win.”

Whether Girlboss will live to see another season and dig into the more scandalous stages of Nasty Gal’s trajectory remains to be seen. For now, the sentiment of that real-life employee is only hinted at on the show, when Sophia refuses to pay her best friend and longtime collaborator, selfishly declaring, “Nasty Gal is my thing.” But that selfishness is over by the end of the episode. They reconcile, and Sophia later gives a speech to her friends and coworkers in which she admits, “I wouldn’t be here without all of you. At every fucking step you were there for me.”

If the messaging behind Amoruso’s new business/celebrity persona (which Girlboss the show borrows wholesale) sounds familiar, that’s probably because it has been rephrased and repackaged over and over again in a series of self-help books written by an emerging class of femmepreneurs — women CEOs turned paid inspo-speaker personalities that include the likes of Lilly Singh (How to Be a Bawse), Nicole Lapin (Boss Bitch), and Ivanka Trump (Women Who Work). Even if their aim is to inspire, each of these women’s personal journeys — and varied backstories — promote an aesthetically pleasing, watered-down feminism that often ignores the importance of intersectional empowerment and also happens to add major value to their brands. They are Sophia’s bland, meaningless “girls are great” speech, personified.

The flaw in this emerging book genre — and in a television series like Girlboss — is that feminism and capitalism are frequently at odds with one another. There’s no doubt that representation is important in the business and tech sectors. We need the world’s female founders to be visible to generations of young women, especially if their stories aren’t perfect. But tying a female CEO’s personality, signature shift dresses, and business ventures to a one-size-fits-all feminism is more a path to personal enrichment than it is a way to ensure real progress. Especially because — as both the television and real-life versions of Amoruso have taught us — the individual journey to business success is rarely that tidy.