Tag Archives: feminism

Don’t be a woman, be a #girlboss

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.

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

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.

Count me out

I grew up on Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin, and Cyndi Lauper. My mum had short hair, baggy jeans, and a ‘fuck you’ attitude for anyone who dared to question her brilliance. From Robert Munsch’s children’s book, The Paper Bag Princess, to Gloria Gaynor’s iconic anthem, “I Will Survive,” she built me a whole universe — one that engendered my interest in the human condition.

By five, I knew that girls were just as special as boys.

By 10, I knew that I had to speak twice as loudly if I wanted to be heard.

By 15, I knew that women had to work harder to break any sort of glass ceiling. 

I wrote about ‘equal pay for equal work,’ sexual assault, and justice for minority groups. I went on marches. I joined societies. I talked a lot about things I didn’t really understand, consumed in a rhetoric that I am only beginning to unlearn.

Now at 21, I’m stuck. There seems to be gaps in my mum’s universe. I am finding it difficult to associate myself with a movement that seems intent on merging the personal with the political. 

With its disregard for feeling and emotion, when did society stop being kind?

Feminism

Feminism is a social and political movement that aims to encourage and create equality between all genders. Recently, a subset of feminism has emerged: intersectional feminism. The New York Times wrote that “this brand of feminism — frequently referred to as ‘intersectionality’ — asks white women to acknowledge that they have had it easier.” This subculture tries to move away from the ‘white middle class’ era of feminism, and instead aims to draw attention to the inequalities faced by people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

It is distinct from white feminism, also referred to as liberal feminism, which brands itself as the ‘women’s movement.’ Before them, third-wave feminists declared that a fixed female identity does not exist. Second-wave feminists believe that all individuals are of equal moral worth, and therefore should all have the same opportunities to fulfil their potential. However, this promotion of ‘human rights’ often only extends to white, educated, middle-class women.

Intersectional feminism acknowledges that liberal feminism champions legal and political equality for both men and women. Yet it criticizes the reductionist white feminist belief that many women are not only marginalized because of their gender, but also because of their race and sexuality.

The white feminism of the 1970s, propounded by the baby boomer generation, is embodied in the works of women like Gloria Steinem, Susie Orbach, Annie Lennox, and Margaret Atwood. When Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale, the second-wave feminism of the late twentieth century had reached its height. She questioned in an interview, “If a woman’s place is in the home, then what? If you actually decide to enforce that, what follows?” Her commentary drew attention to the gendered division of public and private spheres — with the public sphere dominated by men, and the private sphere of domestic life left to women. The feminists of the ’70s and ’80s rejected the private-public divide. They argued that traditional political and power relationships did not just occur within the public sphere; they also existed within the private sphere.

Annie Lennox described Beyoncé as “feminist lite” after her 2014 Video Music Awards performance. Lennox said that her music and branding did not “necessarily represent wholeheartedly the depths of feminism.” By reducing Beyoncé to her on-stage persona and dismissing her many other notable attributes — artist, business woman, activist — Lennox drew attention to outdated dialogues surrounding empowerment and feminism.

In a later interview with National Public Radio,  she clarified that “twerking is not feminism… it’s not liberating, it’s not empowering. It’s a sexual thing you’re doing on a stage; it doesn’t empower you.” By dismissing Beyoncé’s version of feminism, Lennox, like Atwood, not only reduces the movement to one of white women against white men, but also suggests that the only societal issues surrounding female empowerment are how women present themselves to men.

Once again, they ignore the nuances that arise when talking — or in this case, not talking — about race and sexuality.  American author and feminist activist bell hooks argues that if white women become the authoritarian voice of the feminist movement, the patriarchal system would just be replaced by one of white women, who would in turn repress the voices of other marginalized groups.

It is this version of feminism that has dominated the #MeToo movement and, perhaps, made it so difficult for survivors to speak out about their trauma.

#MeToo

In a world of #MeToo, where sexual assault has become something of a dinner party topic, there is an increasing tendency to overpoliticize and oversimplify the complexities of consent.

The discourse surrounding feminism about a supposed ‘right way’ to follow the movement has allowed media outlets to reduce sexual misconduct to ‘no means no’ and ‘yes means yes,’ when in reality, it is rarely that clear cut.

When looking at the intersections of popular culture and assault, there is usually an imbalance of power between the accuser and the accused. The #MeToo movement also privileges the voices of survivors who already have huge followings, leaving working-class women — who arguably bear the heaviest load — behind them. This means that their voices are often not heard, overpowered as they are by the rhetoric of their abusers as well as that of rich, often white, actresses. 

Last November, I wrote an article for The Varsity that reflected on the legacies of some of Hollywood’s newest notorious men — Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and the like — and their abuse scandals. A year on, the conversations surrounding #MeToo have not really changed. Most recently, on October 6, the US Senate voted 50–48 in favour of appointing Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice to the Supreme Court.  In doing so, the US Supreme Court decided that Kavanaugh is eligible to sit on America’s highest bench, despite sexual assault allegations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Kavanaugh is yet another example of a man who was never truly on trial for his sexual misdemeanours. Rather, his only risk was not getting a job. Just like the countless perpetrators of the many assaults that happen on college campuses, workplaces, and transport systems every day, Kavanaugh could not lose in his narrative — because it is a narrative that he, and other powerful figures, wrote and still dominate.

The slogan of the #MeToo movement is “we believe survivors” — but do we? I worry that sexual assault has become just a conversation, a political movement in which everyone is trying to shout the loudest. It is not enough that media platforms, governmental bodies, and the general public choose to entertain the voices of survivors if they refuse to propel any actual shift in societal values. Furthermore, let’s not forget that these very platforms — news outlets and social media sites alike, including Facebook and Twitter — actively profit from victims sharing their stories through monetizing views and clicks.

It takes social and legal change for patterns of social behaviour to shift and, on a surface level, sexual assault is being taken more seriously. However, despite finally talking about it, the statistics do not reflect the current political climate of ‘caring’: 43 per cent of victims do not report because they think that nothing can be done, 27 per cent think it is a private matter, 12 per cent are afraid of the police response, and 12 per cent feel that it is not important enough to report.

Over the course of a lifetime, one in six women and one in 33 men will experience sexual assault or rape, and eight of 10 of these assaults will be perpetrated by an individual that the survivor knows. Rape is not about sex. Rather, it is about power and control. And, in between discussions of how this power is distributed, who is accountable when power is abused, and why powerful media outlets, institutions, and Hollywood allow morality to be undermined — we demand unrealistic responses from survivors. The slogan “the personal is political” is a rallying cry for feminists, but it can be damaging discourse for survivors. We’ve maintained a system by which survivors are required to relive their trauma in constricted narratives in order to be believed. Who does that really serve? 

Too often, we forget that the personal is also the personal, and that our main priority should be facilitating healing for survivors. It’s time to leave the debates for the lecture theatre and to start genuinely focusing on the people who are hurting.

We can do better.