Who Gets to Be a #GirlBoss?

Jane Harkness
Sep 29, 2017 · 9 min read

It seems like the label #girlboss is becoming more and more popular , and it’s easy to see why: it’s a self-explanatory, Instagrammable phrase that celebrates women succeeding in the workplace.

But spend a few minutes looking up the images, videos, and articles associated with the hashtag, and it becomes clear that being a girl boss is not just about being a hard-working woman: those who use it tend to emphasize a form of success wrapped up in a traditionally feminine style. With her high heels, manicured nails, and endless motivation to take on the daily grind, the popular image of the girl boss is another version of the woman who has to “have it all,” complete with a catchy slogan. Upholding the #girlboss figure as the pinnacle of female achievement and empowerment positions a certain brand of upper class femininity as the ultimate objective for ambitious women.

Source: Max Pixel

Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal fashion retailer, is the woman behind the term “girl boss.” While the idea has certainly moved beyond Amoruso, it’s important to examine the roots of this phrase and how it took off. In 2014, she published her autobiography #GirlBoss and kicked off a trend with the short and sweet hashtag. Amoruso’s book details her rags to riches journey from shoplifting and scavenging in dumpsters to becoming one of the wealthiest “self-made” women in the world.

But Nasty Gal is no longer under Amoruso’s leadership-before stepping down as CEO in January 2015, Amoruso admitted that she wished she had known more about the role before the business took off. Nasty Gal went on to file for bankruptcy in November 2016 and was eventually purchased by Boohoo Group.

It would not be completely fair to skewer Amoruso as a bad role model for young women simply because she was not suited for the role of CEO: she never set out to start a multi-million dollar company, and being a great CEO doesn’t necessarily make someone a great person to look up to. But Amoruso’s “feminism” comes across as disingenuous when one learns about her treatment of the women who worked for her.

Source: Flickr

In March 2015, Amoruso faced multiple pregnancy discrimination lawsuits for firing four pregnant women and one man who had taken paternity leave. Furthermore, former employees shared common grievances concerning “awful management,” “favoritism,” and high turnover rates. The hype around the company has been dismissed as nothing more than “smoke and mirrors.”

Nasty Gal was also accused plagiarizing designs from other creators, and their response to these accusations was disrespectful and dismissive. When indie designer Saylor Rose raised concerns that Nasty Gal had copied her original work, Amoruso told Rose, “Forgive us for never having heard of you…Congrats, you’ve been ripped off. It’s a rite of passage.”

Amoruso is now staging her comeback by founding Girlboss Media: “a business centered on helping a new generation of women define success, through a company ecosystem that includes a publication, events, a podcast, and a foundation that awards financial grants to women in design, fashion, music, and the arts.”

Funding other creative women is a worthy cause, but keeping her history in mind, does Amoruso really have women’s best interests at heart?

Based on her own self-assessment put forth in her autobiography, Amoruso has established herself as a figure representative of female empowerment. Through this new media company, she can continue to profit off this carefully cultivated image, promoting a narrative that glosses over her treatment of other women in building her “empire.” The idea of becoming a “girl boss” and following in Amoruso’s footsteps is rooted in a flawed version of feminism, and this trend can send young women a toxic message about what it takes to succeed.

So, who is a girl boss?

The definition may vary depending on whom you ask, but there is certainly a popular image linked to the phrase. According to Pinterest and Instagram, she maintains a certain look in public, and she never forgets to apply her “everyday neutral” look before leaving the house. She dresses in professional, modest outfits, gets things done in heels, and her wardrobe is stocked with “investment” pieces.

She probably owns a Macbook-sleek and shiny Apple products perfectly fit her minimalist space. She might have an Erin Condren planner, decorated meticulously with colorful stickers. Or maybe she takes her bullet journal everywhere she goes, with each appointment written down in neat block letters.

And of course, she has an adorable mug for her morning coffee perched on her desk, featuring the declaration “Girl Boss” in shiny gold cursive.

In some ways, the girl boss trend ties into the “femvertising” strategy: advertising that relies on female talent along with “feminist” messages and visuals to appeal to women. The companies selling products with the “girl boss” slogan probably didn’t start promoting feminism until it could turn a profit.

A popular sentiment in content tagged #girlboss.

The girl boss is undeniably feminine, and everything about her lifestyle is polished and organized. The motifs that make up this aesthetic convey the sort of productivity and professionalism that’s associated with a comfortable financial status, and the term has come to promote a specific “branding” of what it means to be a successful woman. It seems that for many who like to use this term, being a “girl boss” is less about uplifting women and more about building this brand, as evidenced by the fact that many photos and resources tagged #girlboss literally revolve around establishing a personal brand.

How does one become a girl boss? This lifestyle and impeccable image may seem unattainable to many women, but luckily, there are plenty of guides on “how to be a girl boss” available online. Reading over a few of these listicles makes it clear that it is not enough for a girl boss to just be a boss in the office: being a girl boss is a whole lifestyle.

Popular graphic tagged #girlboss on Pinterest.

Aspiring girl bosses are informed that the grind never stops, that they must choose their priorities carefully, and that staying fit and healthy is an important part of the package. This advice is sound, but it’s intermingled with links to everything from frivolous products in “The Girl Boss Gift Guide” to lists with titles like “The 20 Best Girl Boss Quotes for Your Instagram Caption.” And, of course, there is not shortage of beauty advice, because being a girl boss means looking like a girl boss.

Makeup and other beauty products are treated as necessities in the path to becoming a girl boss. One guide tagged #girlboss, titled “19 Secrets of the Girl Who Has It All Together,” proclaims that a girl boss “knows nails can serve as a window to the soul,” “has perfected her selfie pose,” “has a signature face mask,” “is savvy enough to own only smudge-proof mascara,” and “smells delicious all the time.”

Not all of this information is detrimental to ambitious women. Encouraging women to achieve their own financial success rather than depending on a wealthier man to boost her lifestyle is valuable advice-even today, some young women feel they need to marry a man who makes more money than they do, and emphasizing the importance of financial independence for women can help fight this mindset.

Furthermore, some public figures who happily take on the girl boss label do offer helpful resources on managing personal finance, mastering the intimidating art of “networking,” sticking with a tight schedule while self-employed, and utilizing blogging and social media to boost your business. Even some of the wardrobe tips are useful: women and men alike often seek some guidelines on dressing properly in the workplace when they land their first full-time positions.

And for the record, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a feminine, career-focused woman. If you want to wear pink nail polish, rock high heels, and smell like daisies while climbing the corporate ladder, go right ahead. The problem occurs when this specific form of expression is combined with a certain set of guidelines outlining how to be a successful woman and repackaged as a recipe for female empowerment in a male-dominated environment.

But please, call me the day a man is encouraged to get regular manicures and apply smudge-proof mascara in order to be taken seriously in the workplace. I suspect I’ll be waiting my entire life.

One major flaw in all of the advice geared towards hopeful young “girl bosses” is the focus on individual success over collective liberation. This reflects a growing issue in Western, third-wave feminism. What is “empowering” to one woman may be harmful towards others, but she can defend these behaviors or beliefs under the guise of empowerment with little questioning from others. For instance, Amoruso is lauded as an example for ambitious women to look up to, but in her climb to the top, she fired her pregnant female employees in violation of the law and plagiarized indie female designers. She may have felt empowered as a female CEO — but that feeling of empowerment came at the expense of other hard-working women.

This is the primary reason that the “girl boss” trend and the advice that accompanies it is often useless: it does not address the issues that hold working women back on a grand scale.

In order to achieve girl boss status, women are encouraged to adjust their actions as an individual in order to achieve success and respect from their colleagues. These blogs, articles, and podcasts focused on being a girl boss rarely address issues such as implementing mandatory maternity leave, fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, raising the minimum wage to help underpaid women in demanding fields, or breaking down the gendered expectation that women must present a certain way to be seen as professional. And in the case of women like Amoruso, some self-proclaimed girl bosses have even benefitted from the lack of regulations in these areas.

Encouraging a strong work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility is valid, but solely focusing on individual action while staying silent on systemic discrimination sends the message that if a woman isn’t succeeding, well, she just isn’t hustling hard enough in those high heels.

It’s also telling that many of the women who are held up as prime examples of a “total girl boss” are self-employed or start-up founders. Again, their work is admirable, and I personally look up to many female entrepreneurs for their creativity and leadership skills. However, the vast majority of people, both male and female, will never be entrepreneurs — and that is fine. Upholding female entrepreneurs as the best examples of successful women also places emphasis on the achievements of specific individuals rather than moving women forward as a whole, and while there is nothing wrong with celebrating women who have seen success in their personal pursuits, we need to get behind a movement that stands for ALL working women.

This means everyone from CEOs in sharp pant suits to women scrubbing toilets at McDonald’s. It means women who want to dedicate their lives to their careers and women who want to have children and balance their time between work and family. It means the teenage girl saving her waitressing tips for college and the self-employed social media consultant navigating the freelance world. It means women who want nothing more than to work for themselves, and women who are happy to work for someone else. It means white-collar women with college degrees and blue-collar women doing physical labor.

Having positive female role models killing it in the workplace can be inspiring. But overall, working women don’t need another girl boss telling them to dress up, hunker down, and #slay. We need a collective movement with concrete action, critical analysis, and bold reforms-not a sassy hashtag that looks cute on Pinterest.

Jane Harkness

Written by

Words on wellness, sustainability, and more. Writer for hire. Let’s work together: harknessje@gmail.com.

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