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What Was the Girlboss?
And how did she become feminism's problem?
For one thing, she was fun to hate. She was vain, spoiled, and secretly, we felt sure, full of malice. She mistook self-interest for moral righteousness, casting the pursuit of profit as feminism and conspicuous consumption as “self-care.” I’m talking, of course, about the girlboss, that much-maligned figure of female status and success.
The girlboss, can be roughly defined as a stereotype—usually millennial, white, and straight—that represented women’s professional ambition. She rose to fraught prominence from 2016 to 2020, after Hilary Clinton’s election loss and before the pandemic. The girlboss didn’t have to be particularly successful, though the most famous examples were women in a certain tax bracket. Instead, her defining feature was her earnestness, the sense that for her, the stakes of her professional trajectory were anxiously bound up with her identity.
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On the one hand, I resented her: her curt self-importance, her purchased good looks, her judgmental competence. The worst of the girlbosses deployed a shallow and cynical appropriation of feminist rhetoric that I found offensive. Individual women who were assigned the label, either by others or by themselves, could range from the embarrassingly out of touch, the way rich people can be, to the outright malignant. Some were evil, and some were simply annoying.
But on the other hand, it seems clear that the girlboss was a distraction or a scapegoat, a genre of woman that attracted contempt far out of proportion to its actual numbers or influence. Was it really supposed to tell us something dire about the morally corrupt state of feminism to discover that one fashion blogger needlessly cruel to her assistant? Did anyone really need yet another think piece about the Wing? To risk being trite: No one ever mocks an ambitious man as a “boyboss.” The vanity and unkindness of individual men is rarely read as a critique of men in general, let alone of the legitimacy of their access to the public sphere. But the girlboss and her transgressions became fodder to condemn whole swaths of feminist history and thought, if not the whole of the feminist project itself. She was held up as a prime example of all the ways feminism had gone astray, a sentiment that was usually expressed in a rhetorical question: Why would you want women to have more power in an unjust system?
I didn’t get it. Why had the foibles and failures of these individual women come to be seen as movement failures? Who made the girlboss something bigger and worse than what she really was, and who made it feminism’s fault?
It's a bit of a fool’s errand to go looking for the origins of the girlboss. The term was coined in 2014 by Sophia Amoruso, then the CEO of a fast fashion brand called Nasty Gal, and it was supposed to be aspirational. Instead, it almost instantly became embarrassing. But the notion of female professional ambition as a kind of political expression is much older, byproduct of the liberal strain of feminism’s Second Wave.
In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, her book about the anti-feminist backlash that had followed World War II and role of the suburban housewife that many white, middle-class women had been conscripted into in its wake. In the postwar home, housewives were simultaneously revered as morally pure caregivers, and condescended to as intellectually stunted overgrown children. Their work of cleaning, cooking, and caring for children was exhausting, repetitive, unpaid, and looked down on. Friedan, a psychologist by training, saw the housewife as psychically hindered, unable to develop the meaningful life that was possible outside the home. An intensely gendered domesticity had become a kind of mental disease. To Friedan, paid work was the cure.
Today, most people who mention Friedan’s book bring it up to critique its shortcomings. (And The Feminine Mystique has many, many shortcomings.) But at the time, her book resonated with millions of women. Housewives really did feel that their lives were claustrophobic and undignified; they really did long for a more public-facing role for themselves. For decades, one item in the mainstream feminist agenda was about getting these women out of the home and into the paid workforce, and helping them make strides there. It was perhaps the Second Wave’s most successful and lasting project. In February 1963, when Friedan published her book, women’s participation in the paid labor force was at 38.2%, according to the Federal Reserve. It peaked 37 years later, in April, 2000, at 60.3%. Though the rate of women in paid work has been declining since then, the decline is comparatively slow. Currently, just under 57% of women work.
But just because the working woman became much more common, that doesn’t mean that it became uncontroversial. The career woman has long been the object of distain, discomfort, or mockery. In 1992’s Backlash, an epic account of the cultural and political antifeminism that arose in the 1980s in response to the Second Wave, Susan Faludi spends multiple chapters on media criticism, tracing the ways that an artificial notion of working women as frigid, lonely, sexless, and unhappy was advanced by the media. Faludi dwells at length on a false statistic that was invented out of whole cloth and repeated ad nauseam for years: that a single, working woman over 40 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. She spends lots of time on media depictions that cast career women as crazed and dangerous, especially the Glen Close movie Fatal Attraction. In the 80s, the career woman was met with the destain that the girlboss is met with now: she’s selfish and unnatural, evil and frivolous, unhappy and undisciplined. If the 80s career woman was so secretly desperate for a husband and a baby that she might boil your pet bunny like Glen Close, then the girlboss of the 2010s was more unnervingly sincere in her ambition, willing to stomp on you with her stiletto heels on her way to the top, or whatever. The girlboss was somehow two things at once: both craven and scheming in her pursuit of power, and too vacuous and stupid to know what to do with it. In the 80s, the press offered women an alternative to this unappealing figure: the so-called “new traditionalism,” a trendy return to domesticity and subservience.
These days, the backlash press is more likely to frame itself as subverting a demanding work culture, or bravely countering a supposed feminist hegemony, than defending a natural gender order that puts men in the world and women in the home. The anti-women’s work trend piece, often sourced with anecdote and rumor, often seems less like the description of a real social shift than a nudge or suggestion to the reader. There are the dispatches from women—it is always women—reporting that they have abandoned their ambition. There is the endless #tradwife content. One recent article in the Times even tried to a herald of a new return to “bimboism.” The hook? One single TikTok comedy influencer, who plays a dumb sexpot as a bit.
These peans to women’s withdrawal from the workforce to protest too much. They are too quick to proclaim individual women’s withdrawals from public life as liberating trends; too slow to consider individual women’s work in public life as legitimate even when imperfect. Not all the time, but at its worst, the rejection of the girlboss looked like a plain, rather uninventive form of misogyny, dressed in a flimsy costume of anticapitalism. Did the incessant critique of the girlboss represent a meaningful critique of power itself, or was it merely a thinly-veiled discomfort with the fact that some of that power was held by women?
But if the girlboss is just the most recent incarnation in a long history of demonizing women’s ambition, the hatred of her also seems like the harbinger of something darker to come. The excoriations of the girlboss dropped off in 2020, as the pandemic pushed women out of the workforce in disproportionate numbers. The female-dominated service sector was hit harder than other industries were. Schools closed, and someone had to be there to watch the kids, and to supervise the painful farce that was online learning; that someone was usually mom.
As the U.S. staggers out of the pandemic, women’s employment still hasn’t completely recovered. And as we stumble into a recession, women are already the ones being hit hardest. Now, with Roe gone and abortion banned in vast swaths of the country, many more women’s ambitions will be curtailed. Unintended pregnancies and forced motherhood will push them out of school, out of jobs, and into badly-paid work, or full-time caregiving roles that aren’t paid at all. More and more, women will become that thing that so many of them strived not to be: dependent on friends, on charity, or on a man’s income.
There’s a legitimate criticism to be made of liberal feminism in the wreckage of the girlboss, and this is it: they framed paid work as a matter of personal fulfillment, rather than of material security. Following Friedan, the message posed by the feminist mainstream has long been that women can become more complete, healthy individuals in paid work. The message is not to make enough money that you can be free of male domination. The message is simply to break out of women’s roles in the home, and to pursue new roles outside it.
But paid work, for everyone except a very lucky few, has not offered a path to self-actualization. Instead, much of paid work, for women and men alike, is tedious, devoid of ethical expression, and underpaid. Unless you’re extraordinarily lucky or already very rich, your paid work probably won’t give your life full meaning. For that, you need a therapist or a priest—not a boss.
But the fact that paid work does not solve all the spiritual problems created by misogyny doesn’t mean it can’t address the material ones. Because the fact of the matter is that paid work does indeed make women more free—if it didn’t, there would not be such a consistent and longstanding effort to demonize the women who pursue it. Without her own money, a woman can’t stand up for herself against her father or husband or boyfriend. She can’t defy him when he disrespects her, and she can’t easily push back on his preferences for where they live, or how they spend their (his) money. She can’t leave him if he abuses her, and she can’t leave him if he bores her. Critics of the girlboss, and of women’s ambition more broadly, like to point out that women can be exploited in paid work. And it’s true. But the housewife also works on someone else’s terms; she also spends her time and energy making someone else richer, and she’s also subject to someone else’s control of capital. Because the housewife has a boss, too. It’s her husband.
This brings me back to the rhetorical question that’s often posed by critics of feminism’s emphasis on women’s paid work: “Why would you want women to have more power in an unjust system?” I sympathize with the question: at its best, it can give feminism a utopian vision, and keep the stultifying fatalism of liberalism at bay. But at its worst, the question reflects an impulse to pursue moral purity at the expense of material progress. Why would you want women to have more power in an unjust system? Because the unjust systems are the only ones available. Because the exclusion of women from power is one source of this injustice. Because women gaining power is a prerequisite for them to become free. “Why would you want women to have more power in an unjust system?” isn’t a bad question. But it raises another one: Just how perfect does the world have to be before women will deserve to take their equal place in it?
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