As a very soon to be female college graduate I have found myself surrounded by bizarrely gendered images of what my future employment should be. Suddenly, everything around me, from the covers of books in my university bookstore to the latest Netflix streaming series seems to be insisting that I become a Girl Boss. A Girl Boss, so I’ve been told, is a driven, diplomatic, go-getter willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead in a male dominated office environment. What the Girl Boss actually does at her job is secondary to the way that she does it- ambitious but never in like, a scary way. Above all, she must achieve professional success without failing to be feminine, fashionable and attractive. For a message that is presumably supposed to be empowering, I find it horrifying.
It is impossible not to notice that, for something supposedly meant to encourage us to walk into the professional world with our head held high, the Girl Boss movement spends an awful lot of time focusing on the negative. The office is a fluorescent lit hellhole where we will be besieged by sexism at every turn, that we should still absolutely relish spending 40 hours a week in. A Girl Boss article is just as likely to tell me how to avoid crying at the office as it is to tell me the hottest powerpoint layouts for this season. Those achingly trendy fashion choices have so many things they must not be- too sexy, too twee, too dowdy- lest they reveal some deep seated character flaw that makes us an unsuitable wage slave.
That is because, at best, the Girl Boss movement suggests a completely individualistic way of dealing with deep systemic problems. It is the ugly culmination of decades of culture and propaganda all getting across the idea: work isn’t something you do, it’s something that you are. The Girl Boss must deal with the painful mechanizations of the white collar world by fulfilling a set of exacting personal standards. “Professionalism,” the quality the Girl Boss is meant to embody above all others constitutes the vestigial remnants of old school moral codes filtered through late stage capitalist pragmatism. Despite the feminist overtones of Girl Boss propaganda, the shackles of professionalism demand a regressive demureness. No matter how it is packaged, professionalism for women means never doing anything that could be construed as rude, having a devotion to etiquette that would behoove a 1950s housewife and certainly never betraying a hint of real sexuality. The punishment just happens to be unemployment and destitution rather than a scarlet A. That said, the Girl Boss is still beholden to more modern demands- the ubiquitous call for “hustle” in and out of work hours. That stress, discomfort and alienation that you’re feeling is just empowerment entering your body.
Naturally, a thriving little industry has popped up to teach frazzled ladies how to embody the hustle. By my estimation, roughly 100,000 books have been published in the past year promising to teach young women how to be bosses (and in one disturbing case, how to be a “bawse”). Slapping #girlboss on a t-shirt that cost 32 cents to make seems like a reliable way to sell it for at least $15, if Forever 21’s current selection is anything to go by. It seems like virtually anything can be marketed this way, from binder clips to designer bags if it is included in some magazine’s list of things all Girl Bosses need. The Girl Boss trend seems to have seized the magazine industry more than any other. It is used to sell the magazine itself as much as any products that it advertises. Cosmopolitan is an excellent example of a magazine that has dove headfirst into feminist marketing trends. A simple search for “Cosmopolitan Girl Boss” yields pages of results like “10 Beauty Commandments Every Girl Boss Lives By.” Interestingly enough, all ten are the same generic beauty advice that all women have been given since literal childhood like “always wash your face” and “make sure to exfoliate.” The branding simply serves as a convenient reminder that how you look is not only important but vital to your professional status, no matter how important you think your career is.
It’s impossible to not to think that the editors behind these decisions might have some ulterior motives. Working at a magazine is perhaps the epitome of the paper shuffling office job where your interpersonal connects matter as much as your output that all Girl Boss articles seem to be describing. These jobs are also, by and large, shit. In the age of the unpaid internship, you’re lucky to be compensated for your work and if you are, it certainly won’t be fairly. Low level employees are besieged by work out of their purview or off the clock, resulting in the nerve grinding stress that apparently is called “hustle” these days. In an economy where full time jobs, particularly if they offer even rudimentary benefits, are frantically in demand, recourse is minimal. What are you going to do, go work for Conde Nast? The Girl Boss trend is a win- win for magazine editors, who get ad revenue, sales, and an army of unfairly compensated workers who are now more willing to ignore their mistreatment. An important component of the Girl Boss lifestyle is that you are constantly filled with overwhelming joy in all areas of your life, even when you are being subjected to horrible exploitation of your labor.
The fact is, if you’re the average girl beginning to make her way in the professional world, this trend is not good for you. The Girl Boss is not truly powerful- if she were, she would just be the boss. The people selling this trend do not want more bosses, they want more laborers, from whom they can extract surplus value. Good hearted as they might be, there is an inherent tension between the young worker and her Girl Boss mentor. This kind of rhetoric that insists everyone can be the boss just divides workers as they attempt to scramble over one another on the way to the top. If certain women can claw their way to the top of a corrupt hierarchy, that does not signal women’s liberation. When liberation is achieved, it will be through true solidarity, not competition disguised as sisterhood.