In 2017, Netflix debuted Girlboss, a fumbling comedy following the trajectory of Sophia, a Bay Area burnout who begins flipping vintage clothing on eBay and builds an accidental empire in the process. Loosely based on former Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso’s 2014 memoir of the same name, the show arrived one year after Amoruso was named one of the ‘richest self-made women’ by Forbes for her thriving ecommerce business, which at its height, pulled in over $100 million in sales and employed over 200 people.
Though Girlboss received poor reviews — Vanity Fair suggested it was Netflix’s first “truly terrible” show — and was canceled after one season, it did manage to leave an indelible impact on the culture. The term girlboss became synonymous with a bubbly She-E-O who had climbed her way to the top of the corporate ladder, or a capable woman with an aspirational career. As Amoruso explained in 2017, “Girlboss is a feeling, a philosophy. It’s a way for women to reframe success for ourselves, on our own terms, for the first time in history.” But more recently, the meaning of girlboss has begun to shift. No longer shorthand for success, girlboss has become, well, an insult.
On TikTok, the veritable primordial soup of internet trends, videos in which a woman addresses a front-facing camera with “Hey girlboss” abound. Delivered in a saccharine trill, each video drips with irony, stripping the term of its complimentary qualities and replacing them with sheer contempt. Meanwhile, phrases like, “They hate to see a girl boss winning,” “Just a girlboss building her empire,” and “Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” have taken off as ironic Gen Z catch phrases used to poke fun at clueless millennials who once uncritically bought into the notion that craven careerism is somehow inherently empowering.
“A girlboss is someone who steps on people on their way to the top,” says Annie Z., 22, a recently-graduated student based in St. Louis, Miss. Annie runs the Twitter account Girlboss OTD, which highlights various fictional characters as ‘Girlboss of the Day.’ Previous selections have included the titular she-demon from Jennifer’s Body, and Villanelle from Killing Eve -- both, notably, murderers. In order for a character to be chosen as Girlboss of the Day, Annie says they have to be an “archetype of a really powerful woman” but also “a little bit of a bad person.”
Annie says that a girlboss isn’t just a withering insult -- it contains positive qualities as well.She uses the term to describe when someone is at the top of their game, only with an ironic spin. For example, while playing video games like League or Apex Legends, “Every time [my friends] kill someone or punch someone down, I’m like ‘Oh, you’re a girl boss.’”
This amoral definition is reflective of IRL girlbosses like Leandra Medine, Audrey Gelman, Miki Agrawal and Steph Korey who were dethroned after being exposed for cultivating toxic work environments for their employees while presenting themselves outwardly as paragons of female empowerment. Leandra Medine, the former CEO of Man Repeller was accused of discriminatory hiring practices after she laid off the site’s single Black employee at the beginning of the pandemic. The New York Times ran a damning expose on how poorly The Wing treated its Black employees, which led Gelman to resign. Former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment including touching an employee's breasts. Steph Korey, the rare girlboss who remains in her post,was accused of bullying employees, calling one “brain dead.” Even the original girlboss herself, Sophia Amoruso, fell from grace after her company went bankrupt in 2016 and was accused by four former employees of firing them after they became pregnant.
Over time, the girlboss revealed herself to be a Wizard of Oz-like figure who operates contradictorily behind a curtain, using smoke and mirrors to sell women’s empowerment while doing nothing materially to support this facade. For the girlboss, feminism was a brand building exercise rather than a show of solidarity.
According to Sayna Fardaraghni, 22, a filmmaker based in London, UK, girlboss describes “the epitome of corporate feminism that’s not really intersectional at all.” On January 22nd, Fardaraghni went viral with a tweet asking, “are u a live love laugh or are you a gaslight gatekeep girlboss?” The popularity of “gaslight gatekeep girlboss” is rooted in its ability to actively demonstrate the toxicity of girlboss culture to begin with. A girlboss is unconcerned with the dismantling of oppressive social structures like patriarchy and capitalism and instead focuses on manipulating those systems for personal gain. For the girlboss, the personal is indeed political, but to the detriment of everyone around them.
For the girlboss, feminism was a brand building exercise rather than a show of solidarity.
Not only has the girlboss proven to be a hypocrite, there’s a growing distaste towards the “hustle and grind” culture that these women typified. “Women are collectively realizing that the term girlboss has excluded women who do not fit a certain type of social reality,” says Judicaelle Irakoze, a feminist organizer based in Portland, Maine. “When you think about ‘girlboss’ you have to think about who gets the economic and social opportunity to actually be a boss. Black and brown women don’t get access to the same opportunities.”
Irakoze calls the term girlboss “a distraction” from the reality that a small number of women managing to access economic power isn’t inherently empowering for women as a whole. She appreciates Gen Z’s appropriation of girlboss because “they’re making fun of the idea that you have to show you have it together when you really don’t.” While millennials have clung to the concept of ‘fake it until you make it,’ “Gen Z has taught me not to take everything so serious,” she says. “What they’re really saying is, you know, just be real.”
Perhaps it’s not that the meaning of girlboss has shifted but rather, people have come to understand what it signified all along: a narrow form of white feminism that praised personal profit and gain without so much as an afterthought to building community or uplifiting others. The girlboss is effectively a millennial Karen, only ten years younger and with a better haircut. Instead of making a fuss with the manager, she’s the manager herself, exclusively looking out for her own interests while ignoring the needs of her overworked, underpaid employees.
So what comes after the girlboss? “What comes next is collectivity, but also freedom,” says Irakoze. With girlboss now firmly entrenched as a punchline, unions are beginning to gain steam after decades of weak engagement and workers are coming to understand the power of solidarity and collective bargaining.
“The best survival strategy is cooperation,” says forest ecologist Suzanne Simard in an interview published in Jonah Weiner’s Blackbird Spyplane newsletter. “Yet people have gotten away with telling us about this capitalist notion of ‘survival of the fittest’...But there’s no such thing as a ‘self-made’ person who deserves to dominate all others. That’s nonsense.”
While “girl union member,” “girl organizer” or “girl collective bargainer” don’t quite have the same ring as girlboss, that’s probably for the best. Liberation isn’t supposed to be trendy.