Why Is “Girl Boss” So Polarizing?
Rachael Kay Albers,* business comedian, creator of the show Awkward Marketing, and founder of the branding agency RKA Ink, has a process:
- Notice what makes her livid in the online business space.
- Plumb the depths of that feeling until she gets to the root of why it sets her off.
- Channel that anger into incandescently silly videos that parody the ridiculous and occasionally insidious aspects of online marketing.
Last week, Albers — or RKA, as she’s known by her fans — took to Instagram to address something that had been bugging her for a while: the candy-coated, girl power flavor of branding that so many female-led businesses, particularly those in the coaching industry, favor today.
In her video, Albers dresses up as a series of upbeat, hat-wearing life coaches — named Reagan, Teagan, Keagan and Meagan, respectively — and cuts together their imagined sales pitches, which draw on the language many actual coaches use to describe their work. Except for superficial differences, the women and their spiels are nearly identical — and that’s the point. The video struck a chord with Albers’ audience, racking up 1,165 likes and 58,500 views as of the time this article was published.
How did this un-threateningly aspirational aesthetic become so popular? In short, because it works.
The world of digital marketing is a space dominated in large part by internet celebs (and self-made millionaires) like Marie Forleo, Rachel Hollis, Amy Porterfield, Jasmine Star and Jenna Kutcher. If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a coach, social media influencer, or online service provider, you’ve probably run across these women and their teachings. Their optimistic, feminine brands have convinced tens of thousands of hopefuls to launch businesses of their own — businesses which they learn how to run by purchasing the books, courses, coaching services and conferences offered by these very same experts.
I count myself among their fans. I took Marie Forleo’s B-School in 2019 when I was in the process of starting my own copywriting business. That same year, I also read Girl, Stop Apologizing and frequently listened to Kutcher’s and Hollis’s podcasts. And while I haven’t yet joined the ranks of the three-comma — or even two-comma — club, I find their advice to be fundamentally solid. I have no quibble there. What’s more interesting is how their ethos has contributed to a kind of echo chamber in certain corners of the internet.
Today, their aesthetic has so many ardent and well-meaning imitators that seeing it in the wild now feels like a spoof of itself. And that’s Albers’s point: that style of branding is now overdone, unoriginal, and for many online business owners, a way to play it safe.
Copying the “hey girl, get unstuck, build a life you love” style of more established players in the online coaching space gives new business owners an easy way to make their services both legible and palatable to prospective clients. But in doing so, they render themselves and their brands indistinguishable from all the other brands in their category.
It’s something that makes Albers — who has spent the last twelve years helping coaches and other small business owners stand out online — more than a little frustrated: “I’m sick of doing agency work where folks pay us lots of money for our best ideas… and then they force us to do something stupid instead because they heard it on a f*cking podcast last week.”
The force of the reaction to her video — and to her subsequent IG stories elaborating on her position — convinced Albers that she was onto something. She then set her sights on the spiritual forebear of the giggly, hat-wearing coach: the girl boss.
#Girlboss, a hashtag famously popularized by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso — one which later became the name of her 2014 autobiography and the 2017 Netflix spinoff — began as a rallying call for a certain type of young, ambitious female entrepreneur. (It’s worth noting that Albers and Amoruso are friendly and that Amoruso herself got in on the fun, sharing Albers’s Reagan-Teagan-Meagan Reel in her stories.)
But sometime after “girl boss” became entrenched in the public imagination, its meaning evolved — and some would say, soured — now provoking as much eye-rolling as it does admiration. It was this feeling that RKA spoke to on Instagram.
In an extended riff that featured a clip from an early episode of Awkward Marketing, Albers explained why she feels girl boss trope is so toxic — and confessed that, in the early days of her business, she too was guilty of mimicking some of its clichés.
Far from empowering and uplifting women, Albers feels that “girl boss” is used just as often to keep women down by pink-washing misogynistic ideology and manipulative sales tactics. In her own words:
[The girl boss is] all platitudes but no follow through. Behind the scenes, she creates a sexist, old school world environment for her team of mostly women who all make her look good while she treats them like shit. She doesn’t even drink wine but she uses it like a cheap trick to approximate intimacy and friendship with an audience she secretly disdains. She wants you to feel like you’re her BFF but she tells her team to keep your feedback the hell away from her energy. She dgaf what you think. She takes advantage of your desire to both belong and succeed and might even appeal to the fact that you’re ‘not like the other girls.’ When difficult things happen in the world, she disappears. She is not interested in walking with her audience. She wants to walk in front of them. She wants the ease and simplicity of girl power without growing up and acting like a woman who is affecting real lives. She has taken this combo of privilege and internalized misogyny and sold it to thousands, maybe millions, of people… who then turn around and sell a shitty version of it to their audience.
To that, I would add that the girl boss phenomenon also reflects the lingering effects of postfeminism. As author and journalist Anne Helen Petersen puts it:
…Postfeminism: the idea that began to take hold in the late ’80s, enduring through the mid ’00s, that we, as a society, were ‘beyond’ the need for feminism. Feminism had done its work, in other words — Women could have credit cards! There was Cosmopolitan! Women were in the workplace! — and was no longer necessary. In place of feminism, there was ‘girl power’ (think Spice Girls) and ‘commodity feminism,’ e.g. the idea that one’s ability to buy things was tantamount to liberation (see: Pretty Woman).
While Albers’s commentary was largely met by cheers and laughter by her audience (and DMs — thousands of them) some people felt attacked. According to one commenter:
Why isn’t there space in this ‘online business’ industry for both types of people? Why do ‘we’ need to make fun of others to feel validated? So that ‘I’ can feel better than people who I deem to be ‘vanilla?’ It was one thing to make fun of bro marketers but not [sic] we are tearing down other women too?
Which raises an interesting point: a lot of women genuinely resonate with the kind of branding that Albers is parodying. If Instagram is any indication, “girl boss” is still quite popular among business owners and female professionals. Today, there are more than 50 accounts that feature “girl boss” in either their handle or bio. There are also 22.7 million posts on Instagram tagged with #girlboss, 1.2 million posts tagged with #girlbosslife, 289,000 posts tagged with #girlbosstribe, 246,000 posts tagged with #girlbossquotes, and 197,000 posts tagged #girlbosshustle.
Why does the idea of being a girl boss appeal so strongly to some women while others find it totally repellant?
To find out, I posted on my timeline and in two business networking groups on Facebook — Boss-Moms®, which has more than 55,000 members, and LegacyBs, which was formerly affiliated with B-School and which has nearly 29,000 members — asking how people felt about the term “girl boss.”
While this is by no means a comprehensive or necessarily representative survey, the answers I received did reveal a number of interesting trends. Out of the hundreds of people who responded (almost all of whom were women), the majority disliked the label. Their reasons generally fell into one of several categories:
- It infantilizes women. Critics of the term “girl boss” say that it — and related terms like mompreneur, fempreneur, SHE-E-O, boss babe, lady boss, boss mom, [insert profession] maven and the like — diminishes the efforts and intellect of women in business. “I find it demanding, along with ‘boss babe.’ The fact that I’m a babe has nothing to do with being the boss. It’s just another way women minimize the work they do by trying to make it cute and sexy,” says writer and speaker Shari Kubinec Smith. “To me, it shows the discomfort we have with women’s power. Why does ‘boss’ have to be made cute or diminutive to be ok on a woman?” says Janali Davis, branding expert and business consultant.
- It’s unnecessary. Why use a modifier at all? You don’t hear people refer to boy bosses (which, not coincidentally, is the topic of another episode of Awkward Marketing). For many women, qualifying any title with a feminine marker seems regressive. “Any time we add ‘woman’ or ‘girl’ to things, it’s insinuating that we don’t belong there,” says Shannon Whaley, a business and visibility coach.
- It’s a great label…for young women and actual girls. “Honestly, it seems targeted for younger women as an aspiration well before they’re a ‘boss’ and don’t see the power they have as leaders (even without authority),” says authenticity speaker and coach Erika Gerdes. Added novelist Annie Cardi,* “Unless it refers to a child who managed to start and run her own Fortune 500 company, I’ll pass.”
- It’s time for something new. Says Sydney Genco,* a Chicago-based actor and makeup artist, “I feel like the term served its purpose, and now it’s ready for retirement. It was a building block… it helped women who hadn’t yet recognized that they could be both feminine and The Boss. That wasn’t always an option, and wasn’t shown to young women in the media or the real world. Same for ‘Mom Boss’ — it gave mothers room to think about what was possible for them. Both served in their time, but now we’ve moved forward, and they’re a bit dated.” Author and money mentor Denise Duffield-Thomas agrees: “I loved it at the time. It felt empowering when women weren’t seen as CEO material. It doesn’t resonate with me anymore at 41 with three kids.”
- It’s all about the “girl” — or maybe it’s the order of the wording? Some women reported that while “girl boss” rankled, other variations sat just fine with them. “Somehow ‘boss lady’ doesn’t hit me the same way as ‘girl boss’ and ‘lady boss.’ Can’t explain why,” says Devon Slovensky,* founder of Slovensky Law, a Virginia-based law firm. Kristin Wiggins,* an independent advocacy and public policy consultant, noted that “‘boss lady’… is a term of endearment many of my POC girlfriends and I used with each other for years before ‘lady boss’ was popularized.”
And what about the women who self-identify as girl bosses? Those who liked the term said they found it fun and inspirational.
- “Love it and have zero problem with it. I have ‘girl’ in my company name and I am 51. I hope it shows every little girl what they can be.” — Capucine, founder of PRoj&ct GiRL consulting.
- A commenter named Rebecca said the term made her think of “a badass woman making her way in the world.”
- “…it’s empowering to me. It’s a term I feel invites anyone female, regardless of age, to feel powerfully in charge.” — Sheba Lwanga
- “I like it! Reminds me of just how powerful I can be,” — Sabrina Annette Wages, photographer and designer.
There were some who said that “girl boss” brought to mind the sales tactics sometimes employed by people who work for MLMs. Liz Badley* — director of Common Ground Childcare in Reston, Virginia, a senior director with Beautycounter, and self-described reformed girl boss — put it this way: “I’m over the whole ‘hun bot’ movement, where direct sellers say, ‘Hey, hun! I’m so excited to catch up with you. I know you’ve been watching my stories and I’m super #girlboss and want you on my team!’”
Whether or not you identify with the term is also, at some level, an aesthetic choice. Rejecting “girl boss” and girl-boss culture can serve as a way to distance yourself from a specific brand of femininity — to prove that you’re not, well, basic. It’s the same sort of contempt that’s leveled at women who un-ironically love pumpkin spice lattes and fall. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a case of the narcissism of small differences — or two words that make a huge difference.
For Megan McNally, founder of the FBomb Breakfast Club, a collaborative community for female business owners, the conversation itself is problematic. “I am 100% down with anything a woman wants to call herself that makes her feel like the badass that she is. I find the picking apart of women’s words, clothes, titles, smiles, etc. to be fuel for the patriarchy and the patriarchy needs no fuel.” Janali Davis shared a similar perspective: “If calling yourself a [girl boss] helps you navigate the fragile male ego in your life, go for it — but it’s not for me.”
In other words, live and let live. Or as Amy Poehler likes to say, “Good for her! Not for me.”
While the tide appears to be turning on the girl boss era, it’s unlikely to go away completely anytime soon. What will the next internet-fueled, pro-female rallying cry be? Only time — and Twitter — will tell.
As Dr. Cindy Childress, book editor and bestselling ghostwriter, puts it: “People love a trending hashtag, even if it’s smoke and mirrors.”
My two cents: if you want to talk about a woman in a position of authority, why not call her a leader?
Full disclosure: many of the people I consulted for this article are friends of mine. In case you’re curious, those relationships are disclosed here:
*Rachael Kay Albers and I are friendly, and while we haven’t yet worked together, we’ve discussed it on several occasions.
*Annie Cardi McGough and Devon Rood Slovensky are my sorority sisters. First and finest!
*Kristin Wiggins is my neighbor and a seriously smart woman.
*Sydney Genco is my cousin. She’s also a crazy good makeup artist and a hilarious human being.
*Liz Badley is my lobster. We’ve been friends since that time in 9th grade when she told a kid who’d been harassing me for months (it was a pre-Me Too world) that I’d rather dig my intestines out with a rusty spoon and eat them than talk to him. She’s amazing and I love her.