‘Girlboss’ feminism and buzzword activism
The term ‘girlboss’ (first coined by Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso in her 2014 book) describes a woman “whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream”. Though some initially criticised the term for being infantilising and creating an unnecessary distinction between female and male bosses (boybosses?), the term was largely celebrated for empowering women in business. It soon grew in popularity, with the concepts of girlboss culture and girlboss feminism becoming mainstream in the media. In more recent times however, as its use became more and more widespread and people began analysing it more critically, girlboss’s standing as a progressive, feminist concept quickly began to fall away.
The initial rise in popularity of the term girlboss made sense. The idea behind it seemed rooted in the empowerment and celebration of working women, and the concept itself tied in well with the ongoing hustle culture that had already been rife for quite some time. In the years after the term was first coined, it was being used to describe nearly every successful businesswoman who popped into the news, featured constantly in the tags of female entrepreneurs’ posts, and, as with any buzzword that falls into popularity, was quickly capitalised on – sold as a slogan on notepads, t-shirts, water bottles etc.
At its core, the term ‘girlboss’ revolved around a way of thinking that suggested women could pursue and attain workplace power and equality by relying on how driven and hard-working they could be. Indeed, for some people, the term itself, coupled with the stream of stories about successful ‘girlboss’ CEOs, did serve as a beneficial form of inspiration. After all, since the vast majority of women have experienced some form of direct sexual discrimination in the workplace (as well as having to face systemic sexism), the idea that such hurdles could be overcome through personal actions was a very alluring one.
Of course, the very thing that made the concept so inviting would also be the thing that, with a more critical eye, would reveal how demonstrably false the philosophy around girlboss culture was.
The path to success for women in the workplace is not as simple as girlboss culture makes it out to be. Girlboss feminism teaches women that their career goals can be achieved through the personal determination and hard work they put in, entirely disregarding the outside factors and structures that continually hinder women’s careers. In doing so, girlboss feminism does a great disservice to the same women it tries to inspire.
By failing to acknowledge issues such as how patriarchy plays a part in establishing a woman’s role in the workplace, and by completely sidestepping the different challenges faced by women who aren’t cis, able-bodied, and/or woman of colour, it quickly becomes apparent how shallow the entire concept is. Girlboss feminism roots itself in this ‘girl power’/’women can do everything’ idea and hangs onto it for dear life, refusing to acknowledge the realities of how sexism affects different people in a real sense, leaving it entirely unequipped to deal with the issue at all.
The girlboss approach to feminism doesn’t work, due to how it fails to acknowledge inter-sectionality and how much of an onus it puts on women to override the challenges of existing sexism, as opposed to encouraging all people to work to dismantle sexism in the first place.
In the last year or two, the public perception of girlboss’s validity as a feminist term/concept took a turn. Now the term is more often used in an ironic sense, poking fun at a buzzword that managed to gain so much unwarranted popularity.
The rise and fall of the term girlboss is another in a long list of buzzwords that occupied the public consciousness for far too long before being dismissed as hollow. There seems to be a consistent eagerness within the media to hop onto the newest ‘woke’ buzzword and use it to bottle down complex issues into easily digestible jargon. However, devoid of the nuance these issues require, there is no space for them to actually be solved. These buzzword terms like ‘girlboss’ – even when well intentioned – don’t have enough substance or thinking behind them to represent the issues they claim to, and because of this, they are destined to fade away into irrelevancy (or in this case, become a meme!).