In 2016, Ann Shen published a picture book entitled Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women who Changed the World. The book claims to immortalize these kick-ass ladies who were “bad in the best sense of the word,” such as Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, and also…uh…Margaret Thatcher.
You know, the Margaret Thatcher who decimated working class communities across the United Kingdom, funded paramilitary death squads in Northern Ireland, and hung out with Augusto Pinochet while he was under house arrest for Chilean human rights abuses.
Bad Girls Throughout History is just one of the many deeply misguided products of a culture that equates workplace authority and capital gain with feminist liberation. Any woman in a position of power is probably going to be hailed as revolutionary by someone, somewhere on the Internet, at some point in her career. The term “girlboss” entered the public lexicon in 2014 as the title of entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso’s business memoir, wherein she details her rise from eBay seller to founder of the fast fashion line Nasty Gal. Yet it seems to have been around since the dawn of time; printed all over mugs, pillows, phone cases, and novelty tees in a glittery cursive font. I am haunted by millennial pink posters on dorm room walls, plastered with quotes such as “One day? Or day one?”, “Dreams don’t work unless you do,” and other aphorisms one might holler onstage at an empowerment conference whilst foaming at the mouth.
Frankly, it’s nauseating.
The mythology surrounding the girlboss feeds into a brand of digestible “pop” or “marketplace” feminism that takes feminism’s basic tenets and reduces them to a neat, monetizable package. In the past decade, companies have finally realized that women’s liberation is kind of cool; thus, marketing their products and practices as empowering can lure in an abundance of female consumers—and employees. Girlboss feminism encourages women to prioritize individual success over solidarity and collective liberation, because there are boundless rewards for succeeding under the dual crushing weights of capitalism and patriarchy. Everyone likes the idea that their boss could be a cheery young woman sporting a fresh blow-out and designer heels, who claims to be fueled solely by cold brew and dry shampoo. What’s even better, though, is the idea that you could be that very boss.
Rather than dismantling patriarchal power structures, girlboss feminism promotes the idea that working women can achieve a feminist utopia simply by making money. Ascending the corporate ladder as a woman signifies embarking on a noble quest for gender equality. Yet when a girlboss leaves the office, she’s not immune to catcalls on the subway ride home, nor abuse at the hands of her partner. Any authority that she possesses therefore lies solely within her workplace, the products of a temporary hierarchy that dissolves as soon as her subordinates clock out. That taste of power is always going to be an ephemeral one, as the girlboss doesn’t think critically about her new role within the capitalist system that’s made her such a workaholic in the first place. She’s convinced that her seat at the boardroom table is a women’s rights milestone in itself.
Unfortunately, it’s true that a brand of feminism that centers the building and spending of capital is more enticing than a feminism that is actually built around politics. Even I can’t help but puff up with pride when my manager tells me I’m doing a great job on merchandising, or when that sweet direct deposit hits my bank account. It feels good to be a girlboss.
With great girlboss power comes great girlboss responsibility. Just because your employer is a woman doesn’t mean she is more virtuous than her male counterparts, or that she’s incapable of misusing her authority. Indeed, Sophia Amoruso herself has been held accountable for unethical business practices and discriminatory management, causing Nasty Gal to go bankrupt. Miki Agrawal, the former self-proclaimed “She-E-O” of Thinx underwear, is on the receiving end of multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Other notorious girlbosses accused of maltreating their workers include Anna Wintour and Ariana Huffington; crucially, neither of these women have stepped up to the plate and issued any sort of public apology for their conduct. It’s too easy to dismiss this behaviour as a necessary evil, a by-product of being a misunderstood female genius in a predominantly man’s world. But being belittled, patronized, and underpaid by a woman is no less humiliating and traumatic than having that same experience with a man.
A particularly egregious example of girlboss feminism in recent history is the declaration by many liberal feminists that the vice-presidency of Kamala Harris would be a “win for women of colour everywhere.” While Harris served as Attorney General of California, her office fought to release fewer prisoners despite major overcrowding and resisted district-wide calls to investigate police shootings. Moreover, her anti-truancy campaigns led to the criminalization and ostracization of poor, immigrant, and non-white families. Harris’s status as the first female vice-president (and second VP of colour) is certainly historic, and it’s not surprising that young women might view her as a role model. But representation isn’t enough to absolve Harris of liability for her actions.
It’s foolish, tone-deaf, and even dangerous to push the narrative that having women and people of colour in positions of power is inherently progressive. Scrutiny of marginalized individuals in the public eye is often dismissed under the rebuttal that this criticism is discriminatory. Of course, some of it is misogynistic and/or racist—but the criticism that is actually justifiable largely gets swept under the rug with the rest. If power goes unchecked, it’s more easily abused.
When feminism is made so accessible that it becomes universally appealing, it loses the radicalism that’s been necessary to its survival as a movement. Simply put, there’s nothing radical about ascending to the top of a corporate hierarchy. Capitalism is inherently exploitative: of women, people of colour, queer people, poor people, disabled people. All of us. Girlbosses are supposedly the privileged few, still an abnormality in 2021, but they’re really just as trapped within the system as the rest of us. Workplace representation—especially in the form of educated cis white women—means little when faced with the cold, hard fact that “diversity” and “inclusion” are now commodities, concepts which can be produced and consumed. And still, labour rights continue to be violated on a global scale. Still, a single man makes two thousand dollars per second while he refuses to let his workers unionize.
It’s high time we stop reducing feminism to “break the glass ceiling” rhetoric, especially when the movement seeks to reverse the social, political, and economic systems that created that invisible barrier in the first place. Maybe, instead of breaking the glass ceiling, we should take a sledgehammer to the whole goddamned building.
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