By Karen Patel and Anne Graefer
The term ‘girlboss’ is confusing. How can a ‘girl’ be a ‘boss’? While the term may appear to signify some sort of new ‘girl power’ and female empowerment in the work force, it actually reinforces the idea that ‘girl’ and ‘boss’ are mutually exclusive terms. This is firstly because it reiterates the gendered nature of the term (we wouldn’t say ‘boyboss’) and secondly, because it diminishes women in management to the status of children. Therefore, a ‘girlboss’ cannot be taken seriously. And that is indeed true of the ‘feisty’ and unlikable protagonist, Sophia, of Netflix’s ‘comedy’ Girlboss, which we believe is a dangerous depiction of female entrepreneurship.
Girlboss is loosely based on the experiences of online clothing company founder Sophia Amoruso, and her autobiography of the same name which was released in 2014. Set in San Francisco back in 2006, the show depicts Sophia as she follows her ‘passion’ and begins her clothing enterprise, buying cheap clothes from thrift stores and selling them on eBay for a much higher mark-up, not least because the clothes are modelled by herself. Even though the programme promised ‘fun, fashion and feminism’ many critics have pointed out how Girlboss explicitly repudiates feminism by equating the main character’s individual business success with women’s empowerment.
Throughout season one we see Sophia doing as she pleases without much consideration of others: She throws tantrums, damages property, brazenly shoplifts and tries to exploit her best friend by refusing to pay for her work. A key scene which demonstrates that Sophia is a far cry from a feminist (leader) is when she shoves a half-eaten burrito into the mouth of an older woman who confronts Sophia’s boyfriend on the street: ‘You, you are the problem’, the woman yells at him, ‘Another white male who walks around like he owns that place’. Sophia, in her shiny retro baseball jacket, gets annoyed with the older woman berating her about male privilege, and shoves her burrito in her mouth to shut her up. We as viewers are certainly meant to roll our eyes at this crazy, old and ungroomed woman who stands for political feminism of the past. Nowadays, so the show implies, we are invited to stand with Sophia, the postfeminist ‘phallic girl’ who apes the behaviour of men, never complains about inequality and becomes an active participant in their own objectification.
We argue that Girlboss also has a lot to answer for in its reductive portrayal of female entrepreneurialism in popular culture. Throughout the show Sophia is shown following her ‘passion’ and refusing to follow a traditional career path in order to realise her dream of being a fashion entrepreneur, which is a simplistic depiction of both starting a business, and of contemporary working life for ordinary people. In one scene, Sophia loses her job at a shoe shop because she spends her working hours on the internet, eats her boss’s sandwich, and refuses to apologise for it. Later we see her stealing a rug, a book (Starting a business for Dummies) and dumpster-diving, despite her father offering financial support while she finds another job.
Scenes like this serve to reinforce the neoliberal myth of the classless society in which family background no longer matters. It might be tough, so is the message, but anyone can make it even without help from former generations. The sequence is also an exaggerated depiction of what Angela McRobbie refers to as the ‘refusal of work’ by young women of traditionally female dominated jobs such as checkout work in favour of potentially more autonomous and self-directed work. Of course, refusing work is a luxury that people from less privileged backgrounds cannot afford, and though Sophia resorts to dumpster diving, this is more to do with her desire to live a creative, ‘bohemian’ lifestyle rather than poverty. Like the choice to refuse work, the ‘bohemian’ lifestyle – associated with artists and creating ‘art for art’s sake’ with little concern for making money – is also only viable for those who can afford to live in such a way.
So what does this tell us? Girlboss celebrates highly individualistic, precarious creative labour by coating it in a bohemian lifestyle, where it is okay to eat from dumpsters and skip paying the bills because one is living an ‘artistic’ life, and looking good whilst doing it. In the end, one’s passion and self-belief will pay off and the dream of owning one’s creative business will be realised. This seemingly empowering message for women glosses over class inequalities in creative work, and is therefore detrimental to female solidarity and political organisation in the form of a lobby, association or union which would benefit the working conditions of all women – not just Sophia.
The show also obscures the actual skills and knowledge – the expertise – one needs to succeed in business. This is not to say Sophia does not have fashion expertise, because she does. Yet in the show this is obfuscated by her ‘rebellious’ and reckless behaviour. Her first sale online, a jacket, is a rarity that she identified in the thrift shop, and she explained this to the shop worker once she had paid him a pittance for it. The scene unfolds as follows:
Sophia: I want this. I’ll give you eight bucks for it.
Shopkeeper: No way. The tag says 12.
Sophia: I only have eight.
Shopkeeper: I think you’re lying.
Shopkeeper: You have shifty eyes.
Sophia: Thank you.
Shopkeeper: I’ll let you have it for ten.
Sophia: Nine bucks – and some free business advice.
Shopkeeper: Deal. So, what’s the advice?
Sophia: This is an original 1970s East West calfskin motorcycle jacket in perfect condition. Know what your shit’s worth, ’cause you just got played. Bam, son! [Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” playing]
It is apparent from the exchange that Sophia possesses a certain degree of fashion and entrepreneurial expertise (both her knowledge of the coat and her ability to negotiate a price), but this is obfuscated by her abrasive and selfish behaviour, presented in the show as key to her success.
An important moment in Sophia’s pursuit of self-enterprise is her decision to model clothes herself, in her bra and pants, resulting in in her first major sale online. Rather than requiring any substantial effort or pursuit of more ‘traditional’ career paths in the first instance, Sophia’s success appears to be due to her thin, white body, while her expertise is secondary. What does this mean for depictions of women’s enterprise? Again the show appears to be taking this to the extreme, and exaggerating postfeminist sensibilities, which refer to the contemporary attitude to feminism that gender equality has been achieved. As a result, gender discrimination is sometimes ‘unspeakable’ in workplaces, and women’s bodies are once again objectified and exploited, but this is under the guise of #empowerment (a la Kim Kardashian) and freedom of choice over what women do with their bodies. In this sense, the #empowerment movement could be misleading and detrimental to feminism, and in its depiction of female enterprise, Girlboss potentially takes this to the next level.
Thus rather than problematizing the structural inequalities that young women face in today’s recessionary culture and the labour market, Girlboss repackages precariousness and the bohemian lifestyle as ‘free choice’, fun and freely available for everyone who has enough ‘passion’, rather than involving hard work and having the skills and knowledge to start and maintain a business. This is not only very concerning in relation to wider issues about inequality and barriers to access for entrepreneurial and creative work, but also for potentially reinforcing classed and racial divisions between groups of women. Sophia’s exploitation of her body for capital gain and gratuitous outpouring of emotion afterwards is a distasteful and worrying portrayal of women’s entrepreneurialism, and is typical of the heavy-handed, ‘tone deaf’ treatment of women’s enterprise in Girlboss.
Karen Patel is a researcher at Birmingham City University, UK. Her PhD investigates the politics of expertise in cultural work, including how cultural workers signal aesthetic expertise on social media. Publications include a chapter on signalling expertise in the edited collection Collaborative Production in the Creative Industries and research with Dan Ashton on vlogging in Working with ‘the new normal’. Karen is particularly interested in expertise in cultural work and gendered presentations of expertise in cultural work and contemporary culture.
Anne Graefer is a Lecturer in Media Theory at Birmingham City University. Her research focuses on the sensuous and affective dimensions of media and has been published in journals such as Celebrity Studies, the European Journals of Popular Culture, Ephemera, and Critical Studies in Television. Her PhD research on digital media and skin is published in the Journal of Popular Culture. She is co-author of the book ‘Provocative Screens: Offended Audiences in Britain and Germany’.
Originally posted 8th August 2017.