We’re not entirely sure what anonymity means to us. In some ways, the idea of being totally unknown is liberating — but in others, it’s fucking scary. Articles and photos in our magazine address ambivalences like this. In fact, a lot of them grapple with the murkiness of being young today. The shared subtext between our three main sections — online, self, connect — is a vague sense of unease. Our features break them up, in sharp rupture.
We live in a political order that attempts to atomize us. To make us smaller, unknown to ourselves and others. We’re driven into and by technology engineered to exploit us. To make us known and knowable to corporations. A twenty-first century experience is a dialectic of anonymity: we’re entirely transparent and absolutely isolated.
To begin to cope, we have to come together. A real collective isn’t a monolith, but a shifting mass. We need to reject systems and strategies that silo us. To reach for one another, to let ourselves be reached. There is power in this kind of anonymity. A power we can seize.
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.
One afternoon, I went to the Museum on the Seam, which sits between Damascus Gate and Mea Shearim, an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I sat in a basement, watching a video installation run over itself, and cried in the dark.
That’s where SEAM came from. After that afternoon, I spent a lot of time thinking about how things bump up against one another, come apart, stretch, and bind. Really, we’re all bound in a variety of ways. Some bindings publicly edge our lives, while we’re unaware of others. Those fascinate and frighten me the most. With them in mind, I kept asking — how do I understand anything about myself? How do I negotiate my place? Can anything I do be honest?
The magazine contributors also confronted these kinds of questions. This informed some really great pieces, like Stephanie’s work on yellow fever, Adam’s writing on psychedelics, and Hanna’s photos. Reading pieces like theirs and producing this magazine ultimately reminded me of the value of grasping: feeling your own fallibility, but reaching anyway.
“I never knew that I would need to write as the Creative Director, but life is full of surprises, just like this magazine production was. Spearheading the creative director of a magazine is not easy. It requires an immense amount of effort, forethought, and collaboration. However, the struggles we faced made this an even more amazing experience to share this creative feat with my talented team. Our team really enjoyed the spontaneous process of designing the magazine, and we hope the reads feel that enthusiasm.”
– Kate, voicing Pearl while she’s designing away
If you’re reading this I’m surprised! Maybe you’re one of those readers who reads everything on the page so kudos to you! I must say you are holding our most exciting work of the year — The Magazine, much better than our newspapers. We spent exciting hours making collages of course, and we did not sacrifice our health by substituting chips and cookies for our meals *winky face*. Welp, I’ve written enough, and you should start reading our bee-a-u-ti-ful SEAM(less) magazine! Yas! And listen to some Dolce Vita!
Thom, Elliott, and Jesse crowded onto my office balcony. It was early August and we were all incredibly sweaty.
We cracked our beers and complained about the heat. Jesse offered to hold my recording device, checking the angles periodically and moving the phone from corner to corner to capture the clearest audio. Jesse is the quietest part of the Do You Queer What I Queer? (DYQWIQ) trio and works behind the scenes to help keep the self-proclaimed “faggoty messes,” Elliott and Thom, on track.
Thom and Elliott are the public faces and voices of DYQWIQ, a Toronto-based queer podcast. Starting as an outlet for their collective rage and as a springboard for mobilization in the aftermath of the alt-right wave in global politics, DYQWIQ aims to be a hub for the queer community.
Through weekly episodes, Thom and Elliott provide a platform for queer individuals, especially those usually left outside mainstream representations of queerness, to share their lives and reflect on their experiences.
Thom, trained as an educator and a performer, currently works in community arts programs. He’s tall and loud, but somehow not intimidating. Rather, he puts people at ease. Relentlessly busy, Thom often sacrifices his own needs for those of the projects he involves himself in. He’s well matched by Elliott, who started his PhD in anthropology at U of T this fall. Elliott often brings his academic lens into DYQWIQ episodes, especially when the topic of queer history comes up. Listeners can practically hear him shift forward in his seat and lean closer to the microphone when he gets excited about a topic.
Elliott explained that “rage and anger seemed to be very productive” in his studies of queer activism, and he wanted to harness his and Thom’s in something bigger than themselves. “We realized we have the most privilege situated in our community and we turned that into activism,” Elliott continued. “[We] realized that you can’t just acknowledge privilege — you have to activate it, you have to use it.”
Thom agreed. Being an activist doesn’t have to be hard, he said. “Take what you’re good at and turn it into something that matters.” Thom laughed before continuing, “And for me, what I’m good at is, I guess, talking shit?”
When Thom falls down a rage rabbithole, Elliott usually grounds him. Likewise, when Elliott spins off, Thom reassures him. They bump into and off of one another’s energies; so comfortable together that listeners might feel like they’re just listening in on an everyday conversation between best friends. And they can’t be blamed for thinking that; casual, colloquial and of-the-moment, DYQWIQ doesn’t pretend to be CBC. They even have a show mascot, a porcelain cat named Pamela, who they dress up in different costumes and ask guests to describe on air. Hilarity often follows.
Occasionally, listeners and guests criticize the specific language choices inherent in DYQWIQ. The word ‘queer’ carries a heavy legacy, especially for older generations. For Elliott and Thom’s peers, the word ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’ is likely more salient, and can trigger a gut-twist of shame and embarrassment. But Elliott and Thom don’t see it that way. For them, their active and consistent use of these terms is a form of protest, of reclaiming. Elliott explained that this re-appropriation is where his politics lie, that “if you take something back and you find power and a place for activism within it, then it can’t hurt you.” Thom nodded along, adding that “‘faggot’ is our word now. Ours being mine and Elliott’s specifically, and if you want it to be your word too, great, take it.” He continued, “It can’t hurt us, because we own the word and we own its power.” But, Elliott added, “We just need to communicate that that’s how we understand it and use it to our guests. To show the wonder and the love within it and the power within it.”Elliott and Thom wear this on their bodies, in twin ‘faggot’ tattoos.
Some of the first questions they ask guests on the podcast is to define what being queer means to them and how they use their queerness to influence positive change. Since hearing and interacting with different understandings of queerness through these conversations, their own definitions have shifted. Thom explained that to him, queerness now means inclusivity and broadening the umbrella. The gift of queerness is making space for complexity in identity and personhood that an acronym like LGBTQ+ can’t quite hold. Elliott concurred, “I think many people use that word in different ways than I might come to it, but I kind of use it as a praxis [rather] than an identity.” To Elliott, the politic in queer “lies in people’s inability to pinpoint one meaning, and kind of the fluidity in queerness.” But, he cautions that “people who identify as queer need to recognize that within that umbrella there’s still a hierarchy in terms of social order.”
These hierarchical relations within the queer community are a frequent topic of discussion on DYQWIQ. Elliott and Thom regularly acknowledge how their own perspectives as white, cis men heavily influence their experiences. To counterbalance this, they try to focus on providing a platform for diverse experiences of queerness and keep one another very aware of the narrowness of their own understandings.
Elliott explained how he and Thom hope that “people come out of episodes with not us as the authority, but with the guest who can speak to it or the resources we refer them to. It’s awareness, but not the be all end all of the conversation.” They frequently reiterate that being queer “doesn’t just mean being gay and getting drunk at a gay bar. It means going out and advocating for Indigenous rights, standing up for people of colour, [and] fighting the trans fight,” and that listening to other perspectives is central. “Although,” Elliott said drily, “The irony of this is I want to say listening more and speaking less, but we have a podcast, so…”
Their queerness also hugely influences their interactions with the world. Elliott’s academic career at U of T has been formative in the development of his politics around queerness. “In fact,” he told me, “U of T is what helped me learn about queerness and adopt queerness for myself. But I know that’s probably not a lot of people’s experiences, especially in other programs.”
Elliott’s PhD focuses specifically on queer digital activism in rural communities. “I think the main vehicle for my queerness is the education I’m in now,” he concluded. Thom’s queerness manifests in his career as well. He mainly teaches creative classes, including writing and drama, so “in order to facilitate that, the space has to be completely safe.” He continued, “I think I understand that as a queer person, because I celebrate ‘come as you are.’ Speak as you want, think as you want.” Furthermore, he’s always learning from his students.
“It’s very different to be a 15-year-old now,” Thom said, and “they understand that art in this climate should be, maybe has to be, a vehicle for social change.”
Elliott’s training in anthropology rings through his approach to podcasting. “We’re taught that self-reflexivity is the strength in anthropology because as embodied researchers you need to recognize who you are and how your experiences have shaped how you interact with the world.” Reflecting on how he and Thom balance the divisions between their personal lives and the public personas they project on DYQWIQ, he said, “I think it’s getting more difficult to separate the podcast from our lives. I think that in the future it’ll be one and the same.”
Elliott and Thom pride themselves on their painful honesty on air, especially about their mental health. One of their segments is the practice of sharing their ‘colour’ of the day, as a way to express their mental state. “The colours started when I was, you know, having really dark days or days that I didn’t want to leave my bed or days where I was so angry I didn’t know what to do. So I’d text Elliott and be like, ‘This is a red day.’ It was my version of putting it out there and giving it to someone so I didn’t feel so alone,” Thom shared. “Now it’s morphed into this fun, creative but still quite vulnerable way of expressing who we are and how we’re feeling.” Elliott nodded, adding, “We’re also trying to show that even when you’re at your lowest and you’re not feeling well, you can still be active and help. Talking about your truth can be activism.” “And you can still even laugh!” Thom interjected, smiling.
The sharp change in Ontario’s political climate after the election of Doug Ford this summer helped them realize their convictions. “We started really angry at concrete things and at an ethos that, for myself, I couldn’t pinpoint. But to see it reproduce in front of our eyes in Ontario, it’s like we’ve talked our own activism into existence,” Elliott reflected. They want to hold themselves accountable to their convictions by actively protesting the changes imposed by the Ford government, and they encourage their listeners to follow suit. “There’s active things that are easy to do, like emailing the education minister or attending the rallies at Queens Park. These are all actionable things that not only we can all be doing but we can be sharing that we’re doing and supporting each other.” Elliott noted.
Thom agreed. “As like a stupid, queer actor I always thought it was over my head. I always though that ‘Oh, I’m not smart enough to really understand that.’” He paused. “The difference now is that I realized it is accessible. Everyone can be active.”
Elliott looked over, “I will say too, to address the elephant in the room, we’re both white, cis men. Not to reduce everything to that, obviously, but I think that’s why we were able to have our heads in the clouds for so long.” He raised his voice slightly. “If politics isn’t part of your everyday life, that’s because you’re privileged enough to not have them impact you.” Thom and Jesse nodded.
DYQWIQ encourages its listeners to be accomplices to the queer community. “I’m just gonna take one sec to say to people who aren’t queer: we’d like to see you be respectful in queer spaces. That’s not to say don’t be in queer spaces; come, we need accomplices. But know that these spaces function as safety for a lot of people who didn’t feel welcome or who were actively marginalized in non-queer spaces,” Elliott said. “Being an accomplice is talking to people in a community and finding out the best place to help,” he explained. Elliott encouraged U of T students to take classes in gender studies and other queer topics, advising students to take advantage of their electives to learn as much as they can.
Thom agreed. “Showing up and supporting queer businesses is huge,” he added, but also emphasized the importance of “showing up on the front lines. Go to protests at Queens Park, at Nathan Phillips Square. Get out there for our missing and murdered Indigenous women, for our Indigenous allies, for our people of colour who don’t have the same chances as we do… get out there for them.”
DYQWIQ is a refreshingly self-aware take on queer issues and broader social justice causes in Canada. Thom and Elliott offer much of themselves to their listeners, leaning into vulnerability without veering into performance. They play into one another’s quirks and personalities and have steadily honed their dynamic since their first episodes. They’re funny, irreverent, and sometimes heartbreaking. Yes, DYQWIQ is a queer podcast, but it’s for everyone. After all, as Thom says, “If you’re angry, if you’re an activist, if you don’t subscribe to the patriarchy or heteronormativity, that makes you queer.” He looked directly at my recorder: “Straight people, allies, you’re queer too — we welcome you.”