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feminism

The Girlboss Has Evolved into an Even More Powerful Form

Why, under an ironic scoff, women like me are still in love with this update of the 80s 'have-it-all' lie.

by Hannah Ewens; illustrated by James Burgess
15 July 2019, 8:00am

Image by James Burgess

There was once a girl who'd grow up to have it all. The only thing Sophia Amoruso would need to do was work hard for herself. As fashion brand Nasty Gal’s founder, Amoruso was like a lead in the original girlboss saga: the just-about millennial swiftly built her empire in her twenties, even mass-marketing and trademarking the term “Girlboss” with a 2014 #memoir and subsequent Netflix show. At the height of her powers she was outed by former staff as being an allegedly heinous boss, and filed for bankruptcy in November 2016. But six months before that collapse, Amoruso had posed for a June Forbes cover. In 2019 she’d tell the LA Times: “It was such an incredible moment of validation and such a proud moment, but I was literally so alone – and also on the cover because I was Photoshopped into that group of women”.

Girlbossery feels recent, but is an 80s idea re-marketed for the 2010s. The Working Woman of the Thatcher and Reagen era, strutting in wearing her power suit, had both the boss and the baby on a leash. She came about when the long tail of baby boomer women picking up the labour slack from men at war meant that women were entering the workforce in greater numbers, balancing careerism with co-parenting. They wanted to make more money than their parents, to own their homes and not have to sacrifice in any sphere.

In reality, ‘having it all’ would amount to bearing the burden of both paid jobs and the fun bonus of still doing the most unpaid work at home. Now, that aspirational light shines in another generation’s eyes, with a tastefully high-necked print dress or blazer-and-wide-legged-trousers co-ord in place of the 80s suit. A girlboss can juggle maintaining their looks and fashion, social media presence, portfolio career and, if they care to when the time comes, having a family. It’s the overriding model for female success, to the point that even its biggest critics will emulate its model while being outwardly critical of it. But there’s a catch: the ‘girlboss’ deceptively dissolves class without understanding or interacting with it.

What once looked like girlbossery in earnest is increasingly becoming an ironic joke, of the sort you’d imagine Amy Schumer or Mindy Kaling delivering. Media women, influencers and ‘relatable’ millennials on TV roll their eyes at the idea of ‘yaaas slay’ She-E-Os, but often only once they already embody those ideals.

Arguably, it’s harder to reach ‘boss bitch’ status now, during the concept’s reboot. Around 2010, powerful, rich women released books about individualistic careerism feminism – your Lean Ins, your Thrives. In the UK we ate up the new rules gladly, partly due to the ways it aligned with the rise in blogging and influencer culture and the line that women-dominance meant these industries were benevolent. Then came the feminist #EntreprenHER and #BossBabe merchandise, then the Girl Boss backlash, not helped by the disappointing Netflix show, and then the irony. Alongside came businesses like The Wing, a co-working members club for women, which is due to open its central London outpost at the end of 2019’s third quarter. Women in their twenties and thirties based in the capital either joyously raved or sarcastically laughed on social media at the idea of wanting to join. But many may have both scoffed and budgeted, wanted.

The women who manage to “have it all” are not those women – they’re bred-for-Oxbridge multitasking power-houses (superhuman), or rich, and likely both. The Girlbosses with most prominence in the US, from Paris Hilton, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba to Sarah Michelle Gellar, launched their respective DJ, lifestyle, baby food and baking company careers with the rocket fuel of previous fame and fortune. And in the UK, women like Jameela Jamil, Lucy Watson and, of no relation, Emma Watson, are able to diversify into inspiring pseudo-activism because of their initial visibility. Experts have suggested, though, that being a slashie and working multiple jobs is actually a sign of the rise of the new working poor. Increasingly I question whether everyone can and should be paid for their side ventures, many of which, particularly in the creative industries, amount to hobbies. Yet the hum of girlbossery in our lives insists that any woman can make it if she works hard enough and holds herself accountable.

Rose, a freelance journalist in London, has found the huge wave of publishing that focuses on these specific types of work structures for women inescapable. "It's about side-hustles, and multi-hyphen careers and being the best version of your 'career self', therefore 'personal self' that you can possibly be. That's something we're all more than aware of, it's deep now in our cultural awareness." Tiana, a designer in her late twenties works in the evenings and weekends to advance her career, and diversify her portfolio. "Even though I am against the idea of 'girlboss' I don't feel like there are many other models for trying to be successful, especially in creative fields. I also think that if I'm not going to push back against the idea of girlbossing then I might as well do it while I'm young enough to put in the extra hours."

I’ve been as primed for this approach as anyone. A budget homeware store stands in a south London shopping centre seemingly built to cater to no one in particular. And there I saw, it, a pink bullet-shaped water bottle with #girlboss written on the side in black and silver comic sans. I snorted and put it in my basket; an ironic purchase serving a literal and necessary purpose. It was the exact sort of girlboss merch – see: ‘boss bitch’ stickers, ‘Strong Female Lead’ crop tops ­– never intended for real girlbosses. Rather, this bottle existed for anxious interns and those with precarious multi-hyphen careers; women for whom ‘girlboss’ signifies something like control over the precarious millennial and Gen Z lifestyle they’re still grappling with.

When, after a few months of supping from it in the office, I misplaced my ridiculous productivity water bottle. I was annoyed. I’d become attached to it like a baby to a pacifier, or an in-joke that’s well outworn being funny but gives you a sense of belonging when you drop it into conversation anyway. In the same way holding a Pret 99p filter coffee and cigarette in either hand was once my 2000s symbol of industrious city-dwelling living, a way to complain about being just so busy, this bottle said I would get things done coolly and laugh at how hard I wasn’t trying. I thought I’d played the beaker but in fact it played my own (unfunny) joke on me.

While the disdain for girlbossery is sure to grow, so many women still believe in its vision. Understandably, it slots in near wellness, elaborate skincare routines and mindfulness as routes to fulfilment that rely on your just getting your shit together as an individual. Naturally, Amoruso’s grand failure turned out to be monetisable for a majority of women, with their three jobs and adrenal fatigue. “I thought I was going to be a pariah,” she also told the LA Times, in the wake of Nasty Gal’s 2016 implosion. “I thought the girls who followed me on social media and read the book would think that I was a fraud. But they were like, ‘Wow. This happened to you on a really global scale. We’re all failing in small ways every day.”

Well into the saga’s second act now, Amoruso’s named her new company Girlboss. It’s a media-slash-networking company for aspiring girlbosses, and holds an inspiring annual ‘Rally’. Guests include heiresses, savvy beauty bloggers and vloggers-turned-businesswomen and actresses like Paris Hilton, Emily Weiss, and Gwyneth Paltrow. It's easy enough to think that you might become a self-made woman and then a Strong Woman by going to the right panel discussions or buying the right books. But you’ll likely also need major social and financial capital to keep yourself afloat. While I don’t think I am a girlboss, with my immediate debt and student-living-at-27 lifestyle, I do, in fact, work all the time and try to smile doing it. I hate girlbosses but just like you, I’d like to be one.

@hannahrosewens