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The GirlBoss Phenomenon


Disclaimer: I have chosen to use the word ‘women’ instead of ‘womxn’ in this article as following further research I discovered the term ‘womxn’ has trans exclusionary ties. 


Have you encountered the term Girlboss? Perhaps you’ve come across a cute infographic on Pinterest that says something like “just a girl boss building her empire”. Maybe a self-declared Girlboss has slid into your dm’s offering you a chance to join a pyramid scheme under the guise of financial independence? You may have even watched the Netflix series based on the entrepreneurial journey of Sophia Amoruso – NastyGal founder and fast-fashion pioneer, Amoruso, is responsible for propelling the term into the mainstream but we haven’t properly considered its short-comings.


The Girlboss phenomenon could be described as a branch of feminism that focuses on solidifying women’s positions in the corporate world. On a surface level, this seems rather harmless. What could be so bad about encouraging women to hustle hard to reach their entrepreneurial or business goals? Well firstly, the term itself is quite problematic. It infantilizes women by reducing them to childlike qualities.  A powerful, career-driven woman being qualified by her gender is both unnecessary and patronising. As we are moving towards a world devoid of strict gender binaries the use of Girlboss is terribly outdated. Too often, when women and femmes reach influential positions, is their gender seen as the most interesting and notable aspect of their being. 


Beyond the belittling name, the culture surrounding Girlboss is also questionable. Being a Girlboss is seen as a marker of success and victory for women in the corporate world. When we see one woman overcome misogynistic obstacles to achieve her goals it feels like a victory for all of us. However, is a seat at the table enough? Which women even get that seat and whose interests do they protect? We celebrate the appointment of women in leadership roles but in reality, so much more needs to be done to create an environment that allows all women to thrive. The possibility of being a Girlboss by climbing the corporate ladder undermines some real issues, beyond representation, that need to be addressed. Combating the gender pay-gap, fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, and advocating for longer maternity leave are just a few issues that desperately need attention and decisive action. 


The Girlboss phenomenon measures equality and success by one’s ability to emulate men in positions of power. It appears to suggest that your individual hard work, confidence and hustle will be enough to destroy the systemic barriers that stand in your way. It fails to account for the barriers that may be in place beyond sexism. Racism, transphobia,  homophobia, classism and ableism are woven so deeply into corporate institutions and definitely can’t be overcome with a dash of Girlboss-ness.  


Finally, the very notion of being a Girlboss is incredibly individualistic. It implies that once you reach the top, you have done enough for the movement. It places little emphasis on uplifting others and using your new found influence for good. This Girlboss version of feminism (which technically isn’t even feminism because it is not intersectional) does little to dismantle patriarchal corporate culture and rather gives it a new face. We don’t need power hungry women who uphold the status quo and perpetuate the same toxicity as their male counterparts; it is equally deplorable. Women tolerating hostile work environments and exploitative labour practices isn’t revolutionary. It holds up the same patriarchal status quo and inflicts more harm onto others. These structures and institutions remain the same, they just have a new face in women. 


Amanda Mull articulates this perfectly: 

“Slotting mostly white women into the power structures usually occupied by men does not de facto change workplaces, let alone the world, for the better, if the structures themselves go untouched…Making women the new men within corporations was never going to be enough to address systemic racism and sexism, the erosion of labor rights, or the accumulation of wealth in just a few of the country’s millions of hands—the broad abuses of power that afflict the daily lives of most people.” 


Oppression is still oppression, even if it’s done in a power pantsuit.


2020 has given us very few moments of celebration or joy. The closest thing many of us have experienced was Trump’s election loss. Kamala Harris has officially made history as the first Black, South Asian woman elected to hold the office of Vice President of the United States. From her power dressing to her impassioned speeches, Kamala Harris definitely encompasses what it means to be a #girlboss. Harris is without a doubt, a hard-working woman who has shattered glass ceilings to get to where she is today. However, she is not devoid of criticism and unfortunately her track record is a troubling one. Her career as a self-proclaimed “top-cop” district attorney is worrying, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement. In her career she has overseen thousands of marijuana convictions, seen felony convictions increase under her leadership and denied trans inmates their basic rights and protections while incarcerated. Harris is by no means the ‘radical’, conservatives are trying to paint her as. We can only hope that the Vice-President Elect will use her new position to correct some of her past errors in the social justice sector. 


To quote Assata Shakur: “There’s nothing revolutionary about nationalism by itself. Any community seriously concerned with its own freedom has to be concerned about other people’s freedom”.  So while we can celebrate the fact that so many young girls can now envision themselves in the highest of positions we cannot ignore what Harris’ appointment will mean for Palestinians and incarcerated Black folks. We can celebrate this historic appointment for the much needed representation and competence she will bring to the white house especially in comparison to her predecessor. We just have to remember representation isn’t a valuable tool if it is not accompanied by redistribution and redress. 


All we can do is hold those in positions of power accountable and try to evoke change on a grassroots level. We are fighting a global imperialist system that is so much bigger than all of us. In this revolutionary journey towards liberation we are unfortunately going to be met with disappointment, even from pioneering women in their respective fields. 


My most recent instance of disappointment was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie coming out in support of JK Rowling’s anti-trans views. (https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/11/15/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-jk-rowlin…). Both Adichie and Rowling were incredibly important literary figures to me and finding out they share a similar TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) tendencies was heart-breaking. Adichie shaped so much of my feminist learning and her literature really connected with me. Finding out that someone important to you holds harmful beliefs is devastating, especially when you have idolised that person and celebrated their successes.


Earlier this year, the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg exposed me to some of the racist and anti-indigenous decisions she had made in her career. While her efforts and life were extraordinary and she impacted the lives of so many women positively, we have to remember her in her entirety. 


I would not disrespect Kamala Harris, Chimananda Ngozi Adiche or RBG with the demeaning title that is a Girlboss. I also will not put them on pedestals and will hold them accountable for their flaws and short-comings. Having women who inspire you is important, but it is also important to recognize that the women we idolise, may engage in harmful behaviour themselves. I believe that this is yet another opportunity to learn from them.  We must ensure that our feminism is intersectional and our actions and endeavours as a new generation of women foster a fresh culture of inclusivity, sustainability and equity.






Aleya is a first year student at UCT currently completing her undergraduate degree with majors in Politics, Psychology and Law. She is an intersectional feminist and avid follower of current affairs with big dreams of making the world a better place.
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