Urban Dictionary’s definition of girlboss (verb) is: to make someone appear as a feminist inspiration for profit, despite the numerous flaws of the person. Introduced to the mainstream media’s consciousness in 2014 by Sophia Amoruso’s autobiography, #Girlboss, the term has most recently become associated with the alliterative and satirical TikTok catchphrase, ‘girlboss, gatekeep, gaslight’ (picture here any of the chilling scenes of Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne). Evidently, the term’s originally positive connotations of women’s successes standing in opposition to the male-dominated business world, have undergone a complete reversal.
Vicky Spratt, writing for Refinery29, recognizes the reasons behind this reversal – that while the term suggests elevating women, granting them access to the spaces still overcrowded by men, it in fact diminishes our authority. To have to infantilize a female worker thus suggests society’s ongoing need to make female success more palatable (there has never been, and likely never will be, a ‘boyboss’).
Of course, the appeal of the term to young women is entirely understandable. Empowerment, especially in a corporate world which for generations has upheld systemic barriers that prevent advancement, or entry into the career field in the first place, is always alluring. But the issue remains: why should we qualify our gender in our leadership positions, and most importantly, why do so in such a patronizing way? It is a flawed concept, one that unfortunately makes for a cute graphic t-shirt (more often than not produced by underpaid women workers).
What further concerns me is that the term seems to define success as strictly financial, where female power is defined by domination. Not only does it ultimately, ironically, comply with age-old gender stereotypes, but it encourages a very binary notion of success: ideally, you are a non-threatening woman, profiting from and upholding the very same system that feminism strives to dismantle.
This dilemma is reminiscent of Brit Marling’s brilliant opinion piece for the New York Times, ‘I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead’. She describes how ‘even when I found myself writing stories about women rebelling against the patriarchy’, the stories she wrote still ended up mirroring ‘the confines of patriarchy’. She further reflects on the harmful limitations of the Strong Female Lead, roles that represent respected women, who in Marling’s words are always ‘a soldier, a superhero, a C.E.O’ – a #girlboss. These are women who without a doubt yield great power, but on closer inspection, their strength is revealed to be incredibly narrow – ‘physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power.’ While admittedly, in a world where women are often denied both agency and voice, Marling continues, it is hard to resist the temptation of the strength that these roles offer. What we need to work towards, however, is the understanding of femininity itself, of nurturing empathy, and vulnerability, as strong.
Beyond superficial linguistic inclusion, we must also evolve beyond the exaggerated binaries that have developed between masculine/feminine, male/female, and develop a kinder balance. Above all, Spratt concludes, what we need is not ‘glittering’ catchphrases or ‘inspirational memes’, but fundamental policy changes, driven by supportive women in power.