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The #Girlboss Trope, Explained

“Girlboss” is often used as a term of empowerment. It’s meant to refer to a new generation of confident, take-charge women who pursue their own ambitions—and who aren’t beholden to anyone else. But on screen, the Girlboss is often portrayed as somewhere between satire and villainy. How did we come to love to hate this 21st-century spin on the working woman? Here’s our Take on the onscreen evolution of this archetype, how she grew out of the female boss characters who came before, and why the Girlboss is fundamentally at odds with true feminism.

TRANSCRIPT

The Girlboss is everywhere. Popularized in 2014 by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, the term “Girlboss” is often used as a term of empowerment. It refers to confident, take-charge women who pursue their own ambitions—and who aren’t beholden to anyone else. But on screen, the Girlboss is often portrayed as somewhere between satire and villainy. So how did we come to love to hate her?

While the girlboss may be a relatively new phenomenon, she has her roots in the many “female boss” characters we’ve seen over the years. She’s a woman who is:

  • Tenacious and determined.
  • Her ambition sometimes makes her difficult.
  • But this is because she’s constantly aware that she has to play a man’s game.
  • And she’s often forced to choose between her career and her personal happiness.

The Girlboss, on the other hand, offers a moneyed, more millennial spin on the female boss:

  • She’s a product of the social media era, and technology rules her business and her personal life.
  • She’s obsessed with her brand, and she’s savvy about marketing it to her audience.
  • She’s driven almost entirely by money—even if it clashes with her feminist ideals.
  • That’s because she’s often unscrupulous, and doesn’t mind stepping on other people to get what she wants.

Does the Girlboss represent a modern, more empowered version of the female boss? Or is she actually a step backward? Here’s our Take on the onscreen evolution of this archetype, and why the girlboss is fundamentally at odds with true feminism.

Boss Bitches & The Feminine Boss

Strong, empowered women have been seen on screen since the advent of film. They ruled the era known as Pre-Code Hollywood, before the institution of the Hays Code in 1934 laid out strict rules for the way women should conduct themselves on screen. As Mick LaSalle wrote in his 2001 book, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, “Before the Code, women on screen took lovers, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women acted only after 1968.” This kind of unapologetic, take-charge woman can be found in the 1933 film Female, where Ruth Chatterton plays Alison Drake, a tough-talking CEO who has casual flings with her male employees and refuses to let love get in the way of business.

Alison Drake: “I’m a busy woman. I can’t be annoyed with jealous and moody men about me.”

Mr. Briggs: “But I love you!”

Alison Drake: “That’s enough of that.” - Female

Although the film eventually ends up bringing Alison to heel with marriage and sees her surrendering her company to her new husband, it also mocks those societal demands, showing the performative lengths Alison has to go to just to be properly humbled.

But by the very next year, a new era had dawned on Hollywood. The Hays Code forbade characters like Alison Drake, maintaining that films should reinforce that a woman’s place is in the home. The few professional women in film were always aware they were in a man’s world temporarily until they found their rightful place as a wife and mother.

Walter: “You’re a newspaper man!”

Hildy: “That’s why I’m quitting. I wanna go someplace where I can be a woman.” - His Girl Friday

Work usually left them unhappy and turned them ‘unladylike’ in the process.

This attitude prevailed on-screen until the 1980s when the increasing numbers of women in the workplace led to a parallel rise of movies and TV shows celebrating them. The era of the Female Boss was reborn. Still, she wasn’t entirely free of the sexual politics that kept her reined in.

We can see this struggle illustrated in Mike Nichols’ 1988 film Working Girl, which gives us two subtypes of female boss. Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine is the classic Boss Bitch. She’s determined to the point of being ruthless, a woman with such a carefully curated idea of herself that she often comes across as unfeeling. She is constantly aware that she’s operating in a man’s world, and she does it adversarially.

Katharine: “You know, you don’t get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you. You make it happen.” - Working Girl

Katharine is contrasted against Melanie Griffith’s Tess, a sweeter, more accessible, more Feminine Boss. In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi’s pioneering book on the de-radicalization of women in the 1980s, she writes that Tess, “Buries her intelligence under a baby-doll exterior” and “succeeds in business only by… relying on far more powerful businessmen to make the key moves in her ‘career’.” Tess is a softer, less threatening vision of the working woman that was made more palatable for an era when feminism was under assault, diminished, and derided by President Ronald Reagan and conservative commentators like Phyllis Schlafly.

Phyllis Schlafly: “I think some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough.” - Mrs. America, 1x1

As Faludi notes, many of the working girl films of this time period saw “‘women (...) set against women; women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the “good mother” wins and the independent woman gets punished.’” We see this manifest in how Working Girl pits Tess against Katherine. At first, Tess is excited to have a female mentor.

Tess: “I mean, she takes me seriously. And I think it’s because, and I know you hate it when I say this, but I think it’s because she is a woman.” - Working Girl

But they quickly become adversaries. Katherine steals Tess’s business idea. Tess steals Katherine’s job, boyfriend, and life. Yet the film takes pains to portray Katherine—the less feminine Boss Bitch—as the true villain.

Working Girl looks at the way women are held to a much higher standard than their male colleagues, just to be taken seriously. It shows the many instances of sexual harassment from sleazy men they’re forced to endure, just to climb the corporate ladder. But it also misplaces the anger these women should feel about their circumstances by turning them on each other, reinforcing the idea that there’s only room for one woman at the top.

Other working woman films of the era perpetuated the equally sexist idea that women could be careerists or personally fulfilled—but not both. In 1987’s Baby Boom, Diane Keaton’s J.C. Wiatt is a quintessential Boss Bitch whose diligently maintained world is upended after she’s forced to take care of a baby that’s been left to her by a distant relative. She’s all but quashed every trace of her femininity in order to become successful. And the film shows us how this has left her incapable of being maternal.

J.C.: “I’m not natural with kids, I’m a… hah… I’m a management consultant.” - Baby Boom

Meanwhile, becoming a mother tanks her career. In the end, she’s able to bounce back only by relegating herself to a more palatable, stereotypically feminine boss career: making artisanal baby food.

Baby Boom is another movie that, as Faludi says, shows “the incompatibility of career and personal happiness” for women. This notion was taken to an extreme in movies like Fatal Attraction, where Alex Forrest, the high-powered editor played by Glenn Close, is so desperate for love that she seduces a married man—even insisting that she have his baby.

Although Fatal Attraction is obviously an exaggeration, portrayals of the Boss Bitch have long shown her as cold and lonely—as an icy perfectionist who can be downright cruel, and whose success comes with the price of a miserable personal life.

Miranda: “The dragon lady, career-obsessed snow queen drives away another Mr. Priestly.” - The Devil Wears Prada

Meanwhile, the Feminine Boss may be happier, but she’s often patronized, relegated to running stereotypically ‘female’ businesses as boutique owners, or fashion designers.

Although we’ve obviously come a long way since 1933, women bosses are often still portrayed as forced to choose: between career and happiness, between respect and likability, between being a Feminine Boss or a Boss Bitch. Meanwhile, they’re still forced to contend with a work environment that belittles them. And they’re still only shown to be truly fulfilled by marriage. It’s little wonder that there’s been a hunger for a new kind of female boss—one who rejects this false dichotomy between the Boss Bitch with the Feminine Boss and gives it a 21st-century spin.

The #Girlboss

Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso didn’t just popularize the term Girl Boss—she embodies it. In just five years, Amoruso went from selling vintage clothes on eBay to running her very own online boutique with a 100 million dollars-a-year turnover, founding the Girlboss Media company, and even becoming the subject of a Netflix series based on her rise—also titled Girlboss.

But with Amoruso’s success came swift backlash: Nasty Gal was hit with lawsuits alleging that it had stolen from female designers and that it had fired employees who were about to enter maternity leave. The Girl Boss—the show, and Amoruso’s concept—was decried almost instantly, in the words of the New York Post, as a “feminist fraud.”

One of the main issues with the Girlboss version of feminism is that only a certain kind of woman can become one. She’s aided by her privilege—whether she realizes it or not. Like Justine, the Girlboss character on Hulu’s Shrill, the average Girlboss is a white, upper-middle-class woman who’s also conventionally attractive. She’s often had the financial support of her family. As author Teresa L. Ebert has noted, although feminism has opened up more positions for women in the workplace, the women that take these positions are generally well-off already, and they continue to serve the interests of the “late-capitalist, postmodern patriarchy.”

This makes the philosophy the Girlboss preaches feel decidedly hypocritical. Although she’s happy to perpetuate this patriarchy for her own success, the Girlboss hides behind a facade of pseudofeminism. When Shrill’s Annie attends a Girlboss rally, she realizes that—at hundreds of dollars per ticket—this ostensibly inclusive, feminist gathering is only open to some women.

Annie: “I know that WAHAM’s mission statement is lifting every woman, but can you really do that if the price point is so inaccessible?” - Shrill, 2x6

She also discovers how other Girlbosses have hijacked feminist principles—purporting to sell women self-confidence, while simultaneously preying on their insecurities.

This is the ugly truth of the #Girlboss’s success: She gets ahead precisely because she doesn’t care about other people, gladly stepping on other women just to get ahead. To the Girlboss, this includes the women who helped her along the way—even her closest friends.

Annie: “I thought you, as my friend, would want me, your friend, to be part of Nasty Gal.”

Sophia: “Everything you do could be done by an intern.” - Girlboss, 1x10

The Girlboss largely reduces feminism to branding. The Girlboss phenomenon is built on empty jargon and self-congratulation.

This is because being a Girlboss is largely performative: She’s a product of an era driven by social media, where snappy hashtags, constant self-promotion, and image consciousness are all keys to her success.

The Girlboss is essentially selling feminism. And she takes the Boss Bitch stereotype of being forced to choose work over happiness to its opposite extreme: The Girlboss appears to effortlessly juggle both her personal life and a career because her life is posed and scrubbed for social media perfection.

The brand of Girlboss feminism, is, as Pajiba’s Kayleigh Donaldson says, “toxic and exploitative and shallow as all hell, but it’s also essentially the only mainstream image of feminism that is sold to us.” “Anything left of the center is deemed ‘too much,’” Donaldson continues, “and the women who loudly fight for more—who are, not coincidentally, often women of color—are dismissed as going ‘too far’.”

This lack of intersectionality is but one of the many reasons the Girlboss has been derided as not just post-feminist, but anti-feminist. “Girlboss rhetoric often works to propagate sexism, racism, and class elitism, among other forms of oppression,” Emma Maguire writes for The Conversation. “It’s important to remember that girlbossing isn’t feminism…. it’s capitalism.” And the hollowness of its messaging only exposes what still needs to be done to create true equality in the workplace.

Rethinking the Workplace

All women face unique struggles at work, regardless of their place in the hierarchy. When they don’t fit the patriarchy-approved mold, they’re often framed not as a Boss Bitch—but just a regular bitch. They’re forced into a structure that’s been designed by and for men and as such, their roles are restricted to these very narrowly defined caricatures. Is it possible to be a feminist in the business world without being slandered—or without resorting to empty, Girlboss sloganeering?

Leslie: “What’s the hashtag gonna be: Boss Bitch or Bitch Boss?” - Parks and Rec, 6x5

It’s a difficult question, because, as Dr. Nicole Aschoff has argued, the capitalist structure of the workplace is essentially incompatible with true feminism. True feminism demands equality for all, and a dismantling of the hierarchy that’s kept women and other marginalized groups in their place—the very sort of exploitation that capitalism demands.

Though we may not be able to dismantle capitalism, we can draw inspiration from onscreen boss women who try to reshape their workplaces from within. Leslie Knope actively works toward flattening the structure of the Parks and Recreation office and genuinely cares about her teammates. This enables her to empower them, giving them opportunities that help them to make successes of themselves both at work and in their personal lives.

Leslie: “I am so proud of you. Now stand next to the screen and think about all the strong female role models in your life.” - Parks and Rec, 5x7

Another female boss that breaks the mold is Lisa in Support the Girls. Lisa is the manager of a Hooters-style restaurant who puts the women who work for her first, always. From bailing her waitresses out of jail to babysitting their children, she blurs the boundary between boss and friend, making her employees feel supported and cared for.

Lisa: “Do you like working here?”

Danyelle: “I like working with you.” - Support the Girls

Although she’s a beloved boss, the owner of her restaurant ends up firing her, perhaps because the traditionally ‘female’ traits, of gentleness, kindness, and attention to detail, are often overlooked. However, she shows us how they can create a more collaborative working atmosphere that doesn’t prioritize one person but works with everyone to create a better environment for everyone. It’s not for nothing that when Lisa goes, the other women follow her lead—right out the door.

The Girlboss marked an evolution from those female bosses of the 1980s and ‘90s. She’s seemingly a more positive, independent update on a character that was largely pitted against men in the workplace, and against other women. But the women’s movement isn’t just about getting better jobs, higher pay, or a seat at the table. It’s much more inclusive, more focused on changing the structures that have kept women—and all marginalized groups— beholden to them.

The Girlboss, with her empty rhetoric, self-centered focus, and purely capitalist drive simply doesn’t reflect those principles. You can still be a powerful woman who strives to get ahead in business and celebrate being a boss, but you must be prepared to challenge the systems you’re working within. As Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We need female bosses who don’t just rule, but who want to change the rules.

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