In 2014, then 30-year-old Nasty Gal clothing founder and CEO Sophia Amoruso published a memoir and business guide. She called it #Girlboss and, in doing so, officially christened and generated a new way of being a young woman.
Heavily informed by post-2008 economic precarity and institutional disillusionment, the original girlboss figure is aggressive, individualistic, and prides herself on being ‘self-made.’ She does not fit Sheryl Sandberg’s mom-CEO vision of corporate feminism — girlbosses typically eschew children and traditional gender roles, instead tying themselves to their productive labour and capacity for economic achievement.
Since its inception, the term has entered the cultural vernacular, spawning a specifically millennial ethos and aesthetic. In effect, girlbossery is founded on the ultimate neoliberal sleight of hand: obscuring collectivization with consumptive self-actualization. Brought into existence by processes of self-surveillance, online performance, and observation, girlbosses model behaviour to one another and police one another’s compliance to shifting norms.
As independent women, girlbosses do not rely on men to govern or discipline their behaviour — rather, they surveil themselves. This manifests both physically, through regimes such as extreme dieting, and psychologically, through a dry-eyed pursuit of constant positivity. The common metric is agency — girlbosses can do or have whatever they want, as long as they’re the ones who choose it.
But if every choice is autonomous and internally generated, why are the basic goalposts to which these women orient themselves so uniform, irregardless of class, race, sexual orientation, or any other systemic lever?
Here, instead of a strictly disciplinary regime imposed by men or patriarchal structures, the girlboss exists in what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls a society of control, wherein the “controls are a modulation,” flexible and constantly evolving. As these controls are further internalized, they constitute the girlboss’ very subjectivity, endowing her with a limited agency that ultimately serves existing structures of power. The starkly sexualized aesthetic of Amoruso’s fashion retailer, Nasty Gal, reflects this: the company tells women to dress for themselves, but offers clothing, such as corsets and high heels, that emphasizes fantastic representations of feminine sexuality and plays into common conceptions of heterosexual male desire.
Moreover, the work of a girlboss is never done. She, in Deleuze’s words, is “undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network” of both self-improvement and online performance. She can always be more, look better, feel better, act better: to not be in a constant state of striving is failure. Further, as a co-constitutive phenomenon, the hashtag #girlboss has been used on Instagram alone over 14 million times, beneath images ranging from inspirational quotes like “Shit happens everyday. To everyone. The difference is how you respond to it,” to women posing in lingerie. Girlbossery requires performance, but with that comes discrete behavioural parameters, structures of control that spring up around this newly generated way to be.
Discourse policing surrounding the #MeToo movement demonstrates the power of these behavioural limits. In theory, girlbosses support female empowerment, so to question any iteration of the movement would be a colossal betrayal — and when mutineers do, they’re quickly exiled or #cancelled. But this abject dismissal of any critical reflection perverts the power of what critical feminist theorist Nancy Fraser calls “subaltern counterpublics” of traditionally feminist spaces of discourse. Instead of offering a “parallel discursive [arena] where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs,” the #girlboss movement actively undermines attempts to engage in communicative processes that challenge dominant perspectives. The online nature of being a girlboss cannot be underestimated — if technocracy is a runaway train, girlbosses eagerly tie themselves to the tracks.
But beyond this regulatory cancel culture, the mainstream media’s presentation of women’s #MeToo testimonies invites scrutiny. Set in tones so standardized that they seem to represent a new genre of writing entirely, these stories almost universally offer incredibly detailed and explicit retellings of trauma, often to the point of dilute pornography. While this confessional, salacious style might provoke compassion or self-reflection in some, I question its genuine capacity to help women move forward. In my interpretation, there is an uneasy exegesis of desire in these narratives. The vindictive edge and bloodiness that underwrites them seems to reflect a sublimated want for the very qualities that aggressors act through: dominance, impunity, a siloing self-absorption: privilege. To what emancipatory end does this propel us?
At her core, the girlboss represents the ideal neoliberal subject, who, as political theorist Wendy Brown writes, “strategizes for [her]self among various social, political and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options.” Identified as an “entrepreneurial [actor] in every sphere of life,” the girlboss “bears full responsibility for the consequences of [her] action no matter how severe the constraints on this action.” But she is still gendered.
In media culture, it is overwhelmingly women, not men, who are the target of aesthetic or behavioural improvement campaigns. In doing this work to transform through products, clothes, and services that they ‘autonomously’ choose, girlbosses are further constructed as consumer-citizens. Deeper resentments are then funnelled into pre-set choices — bikini or full Brazilian wax? — instead of toward collective action or organization.
Much as disciples of Sandberg’s mom-CEO doctrine may rely on foreign domestic workers to perform their reproductive labour while they hack at glass ceilings, girlbosses also propagate global inequalities and structures that actively harm women — or, in the case of Nasty Gal’s production practices, literal girls. Recently, Nasty Gal came under scrutiny for using cotton sourced from sites known to engage in labour abuse and child labour. The company was also sued for discrimination after firing four pregnant employees before they could take maternity leave. The case was settled out of court.
Mom-CEOs and girlbosses share one central trait: an assertion that they deserve to have it all — even if that involves standing on the backs of poor and racialized women across the globe. For girlbosses, who are overwhelmingly white, middle to upper class women, this manifests in their consumptive choices and devotion to maintaining the capitalist order. In philosopher Louis Althusser’s framing, these women are key actors in reproducing relations of production, through their ability to manipulate labour power and a concerted devotion to fitting themselves into the ideology of the ruling class.
This was painfully obvious in the 2016 US election. Girlbosses shilled for neoliberal queen Hillary Clinton in record numbers, but attacked other women who supported Bernie Sanders and his social-democratic policies for being ‘anti-feminist.’ The irony here is too richly obvious to restate. Their rhetoric of independence also reaffirms arguments for decreasing public services and increasing privatization, which historian Bethany Moreton rightly notes, “returns the full burden of savage inequality to its reliable point of origin”: poor women of colour.
After Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy in 2016, Amoruso started a Silicon Valley-funded media company called — of course — Girlboss. She now hosts ‘empowerment rallies,’ which cost a minimum of $300 USD per ticket to attend, including integrated advertising with self-proclaimed feminist corporations, such as dating app Bumble. Amoruso’s new website also offers articles such as “25 Gifts That Will Help Make Your Loved Ones More Productive” — highlights include a tiny vacuum to optimize desk cleaning, Alexa, and running shoes — and “When Your Biggest Competition Is Your Best Friend.” Her life story also spawned a short-lived series on Netflix, also called Girlboss. The show received appropriately terrible reviews and was not renewed for a second season.
The term ‘girlboss’ generated a new way to be a woman in the twenty-first century, intimately linked to neoliberal structures of control and subjectivity. But much like the cheap clothes Amoruso used to sell, the girlboss movement is initially a neoliberal success that is ultimately doomed to fail women.