"She's saucy, savvy, and determined to build a fashion empire." So reads the tagline for Girlboss, a new Netflix show loosely based on the story of Sophia Amoruso, founder of clothing company Nasty Gal. The show sticks to the narrative Amoruso created for herself: a quirky, entrepreneurial woman succeeding at a business despite all odds, and succeeding precisely because she's a woman—a Girl Boss!—who understands and believes in other women.
What's not covered? In 2015, former Nasty Gal employees filed a series of lawsuits alleging that the company wasn't the girl power haven Amoroso presented. According to a complaint obtained by Jezebel, the company had fired "four pregnant women, as well as a man about to take paternity leave" in violation of California law. (A Nasty Gal spokesperson called the accusations "defamatory" in a statement to Jezebel, adding that the lawsuits were "frivolous and without merit.") In subsequent anonymous interviews, other employees spoke of an atmosphere of fear, where layoffs were abundant and Amoruso was described as "vengeful."
With the rising popularity and visibility of feminism in pop culture—and the movement's increasing lucrativeness—the narrative featured in Girlboss has become fairly widespread. Increasingly, we're hearing celebratory stories about women rising to corporate power by branding themselves and their companies as feminist, and framing both their products and their workplaces as hubs for empowerment and progressive values. But, as several high profile-scandals in recent months have shown, the figure of the self-proclaimed feminist CEO is much more complex than most breathless media coverage would suggest. What good is designating a business as feminist if it doesn't treat workers fairly?
Take Modcloth, the online clothing company that was recently acquired by Jet, a subsidiary of Walmart. ModCloth started as a small, explicitly feminist company that prided itself on plus-size options. Now, workers there say there have been routine layoffs, low pay, and insensitive comments from the CEO that seem to fly in the face of the company's values—Jezebel reports that Matt Kaness, who took over as CEO in 2015, told employees in a meeting that plus-size models should appear less on Modcloth because they aren't "aspirational" (Kaness denies saying this).
Then, of course, there's Thinx, the period-underwear company that had branded itself as hip, progressive, and outspokenly feminist. Like Amoruso, Miki Agrawal, Thinx's self-styled "She-E-O," has made a name for herself as an alternative feminist icon, an innovator lauded for her refreshing ability to break sexist taboos. But Thinx, too, was allegedly rife with bad labor practices—according to reports, it was plagued by a similar pattern of low pay, shoddy benefits, a woeful maternity leave policy, and a toxic work environment. Numerous current and former employees at the company told Racked that their vacation days had been abruptly cut and that their healthcare was prohibitively expensive; a week later, New York magazine reported that a former Thinx employee had filed a sexual harassment suit against Agrawal. (Agrawal called these allegations "baseless" and said they had "absolutely no merit.")
It's hard to reconcile this image of Agrawal as a feminist with the claims, detailed in the New York magazine article, that she had touched an employee's breasts and commented openly on employees' weights, "either directly or behind their backs." "You'll meet people who just idolize her," a former employee told Racked. "It is kind of hard to hear people be like, 'She's my feminist hero!' when I've seen her call a former employee a 'bitch' before in a meeting."
So how does this happen? How did a supposedly feminist company allegedly cut vacation time, have prohibitively expensive health care, and limit parental leave to two weeks? How did a space about women's empowerment allegedly only allow two male employees to successfully argue for a raise? How did an environment of sex and body positivity lead to a boss allegedly commenting on her employee's breasts? And, perhaps more importantly, why are we surprised?
I've experienced the jarring mismatch between feminist mission and lived reality personally: at Babeland, the woman and queer-owned sex toy store where my coworkers and I unionized last year. Customers experience Babeland as a welcoming and fun place to learn about their bodies and celebrate pleasure. But for workers, the experience was far from a feminist ideal. It wasn't until we bargained our first contract that we secured basic safety protections from workplace harassment, job security, and higher wages for the mostly queer and trans workplace. Massima Lei, one of my former coworkers, recalls people being "shocked" to learn that we didn't have those workplace rights in place all the time.
Lei notes that, when women are higher up in a hierarchy, it may seem like success, but the troubling fact remains that "we're not developing alternatives" to that hierarchy, and instead just replicating power structures that disempower marginalized people. Sure, it's nice for queer women to run a company, but it's even nicer when their mostly queer, trans, and female workforce have a say in the working conditions at that company.
What good is designating a business as feminist if it doesn't treat workers fairly?
Most of the fawning media coverage of the women leading feminist brands focuses on a singular CEO, "She-E-O," or "girl boss" figure, blithely assuming that feminist companies can and should run exactly like male-dominated companies, just with women in more prominent positions. In fact, most coverage completely minimizes the work of employees at these women's companies. (If you followed the logic of a list like this one, you might think all feminist companies were staffed by a single person!)
According to Maga Miranda, a teacher and researcher who helped organize in New York City for the International Women's Strike, mainstream feminist movements rely too much on corporate models of success, to their immense detriment. "More women CEOs doesn't necessarily mean better conditions... for all women," she tells Broadly. Having a woman lead a company doesn't mean that the company will usher in a feminist revolution or even engage in equitable labor practices, she notes, citing her own research on Latina immigrant domestic workers, which found that many domestic workers' "bosses are middle and upper class women who don't treat them with dignity as workers."
Miranda emphasizes the importance of shifting our framework: Instead of focusing on a few women who have achieved success, she encourages feminists to "start by looking at where the government and corporations have failed certain women and focus on elevating their demands."
A feminism that focuses on the needs of workers would uplift stories like domestic worker organizing and unionizing, and hold women (and all people) accountable for their labor practices as they rise up in the corporate world. Girl bosses won't save us, but following the lead of working class feminists in the fight for justice just might.
This article originally appeared on Broadly US in April 2017.