Nevo: Girlboss feminism is harmful. Mocking it may be too.

Lily Nevo, Columnist

Any Gen Z-er on social media has probably seen the phrase “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.” It’s the 2021 parody of “live, laugh, love” and social media’s snappy callout of White feminist productivity culture. 

The term “girlboss” was coined by Sophia Amoruso, founder of the fast-fashion brand Nasty Gal, in her 2014 memoir “#GIRLBOSS”. Rather than dismantling the structures that have enabled White male supremacy, “#GIRLBOSS” taught women how to beat men at their own game. It also conveniently allowed women to rebrand their capitalist pursuits as gender equality activism. 

“I entered adulthood believing that capitalism was a scam, but I’ve instead found that it’s a kind of alchemy,” Amoruso wrote in her book. “You combine hard work, creativity, and self-determination, and things start to happen.”  

I’ve written before about the danger of this kind of “If she can do it, why can’t you?” backhanded empowerment, as it fails to account for the support systems that facilitate an upper middle class White woman’s success. 

To claim that hard work alone got Amoruso to where she is now ignores the labor that propelled Nasty Gal to success. Just one year after the “#GIRLBOSS” release, four employees sued Nasty Gal for laying them off right before maternity or paternity leave. I don’t need to dwell on the irony of a self-proclaimed feminist discriminating against pregnant women in the workplace, but this serves as a prime example of how girlboss feminism exists to uplift one woman at the expense of many others. 

In June 2020, reports of unsafe working conditions and insufficient pay in factories that supply Boohoo, Nasty Gal’s parent company, emerged. The report revealed that the factory did not follow social distancing guidelines and workers were expected to continue working even after testing positive for COVID-19. Additionally, the workers were paid as little at $4.40 an hour. 

Such allegations are not uncommon in women-owned companies. Kylie Jenner has been accused of refusing to pay workers. Audrey Gelman, founder of The Wing, a women-only workspace — and, by definition, a girlboss hub — mistreated employees of color and failed to deliver promised $500 grants under the “Employee Relief Fund” in Spring 2020. Miki Agrawal, founder of Thinx, resigned as CEO of the company after she was accused of sexual harassment. 

This is not to say that all female entrepreneurs will create toxic working environments or that women can only become successful through exploitation. I also want to be careful of labelling any successful woman as power-hungry, because that trope certainly does just as much harm to the feminist movement as the girlboss mentality itself. But there is a line between economic mobility and success built on the oppression of others, which girlboss feminism clearly crosses. 

To be successful under capitalism often means squandering another’s opportunity to thrive. If #girlboss equates success with productivity and conflates feminism with capitalism, then it is no feminist movement at all. Feminism advocates for equality by uplifting all women. It does not advocate, for example, that there be an equal number of female exploitative CEOs as there are male exploitative CEOs. In other words, feminism advocates for structural change, not a change working within the structure itself. For women to abuse others in the same way that men always have is not equality or empowerment, is harm. 

However, there is also a difference between holding an individual accountable and making harmful generalized assumptions based on a couple people’s actions. The social media girlboss critique, though rooted in a clearly legitimate problem, has evolved from calling out indisputably hypocritical women to instead demonizing women’s success as a whole. 

Sarcastically calling any woman who takes initiative a “girlboss” inexplicitly undermines her power and mocks her ambition. Though explicitly misogynistic language is rarely employed, the fact that a synonym for successful woman has become one of the most popular insults reveals that internalized misogyny plagues even those who claim to be the strongest proponents of intersectional feminism. Simply put, calling out girlbosses for upholding the patriarchy is misogynistic in its own right. 

The girlboss conundrum is entrenched in capitalism. If every successful person in a capitalist society inherently subjugates another, then is it even possible for true gender equality to be realized? Acknowledging that capitalism is at the root of this problem requires an admission of everyone’s personal stake in its perpetuation. So, for now, women will just have to take the blame. 

Lily Nevo is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.