‘Girlboss’ suggested some kind of model. How did this become a sexist denunciation? | Marthe Gill
OWhat is the difference between a girlboss and a career woman? The simplest answer, perhaps, is time. It used to be the term “career woman” that translated female ambition as selfish, immoral, and slightly ridiculous; now “girlboss” does the job. The moral in question has changed. The effect is the same.
You may not have heard the word. It traces the rise and fall of a particular movement of feminism. Girlboss was born around 2014 as an approving description of the type of success embodied by Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” approach. He encouraged the rugged individualist who succeeds in a man’s world through “moxie” and “hustle”.
Then, around 2019, as fashion tilted, feminists changed their minds. Girlboss has become a slur, used to belittle and accuse a type of manicured woman who pursues success at the expense of others. The founder of The Wing, a “feminist” workspace company that turned out to be riddled with toxic practices, is a girlfriend. Elizabeth Holmes, the fraudulent CEO of Theranos, is perhaps the boss par excellence.
The strength and magnitude of the backlash is such that it is still lasting three years later. There’s a show going on in Edinburgh called Gas lamp, Gatekeep, Girlboss and a forthcoming book of the same name. There’s a fashion for on-screen girlboss villains: non-feminist Shiv Roy in Succession (“What were you doing, having brunch with other sock puppet presidents?” Her brother Roman mocks her at one point); the film’s psychopathic but well-dressed heroine I care a lot.
We should note that there is some merit to the backlash against girlboss and the larger “lean in” project. At least it started with a good observation. Feminists have rightly pointed out that a few women learning to rise to the top of the corporate world does not solve the great structural problems of patriarchy. There is still a lot to do.
But that general observation quickly turned into something more target-specific, which is where it started to go wrong. The girlbosses themselves – successful or ambitious women, in other words – have become objects of hate. It was noted that they were not always feminist, although they tended to say they were, and that they were not always “good” or “nice”. Worse still, like men, they had the temerity to want to succeed in systems and workplaces that were not fair to everyone and yet, like men, sometimes showed little interest in solving these problems more wide.
Bad CEOs, like Holmes, began to be seen not just as bad people, but as a reflection on the very idea of championing women in business. Soon, girlboss was a reusable slur that could be directed at any woman who seemed to have corporate ambitions or had a particular aesthetic (suit, heels, manicure). This mission creep looks familiar. The pejorative term “Karen” once usefully described a particular kind of racist white woman, but can now be freely directed at any middle-aged woman with a particular haircut.
To solve the unpleasant problem of overconfident or authoritative women, girlboss also took on a ridiculous quality: these women didn’t have as much power as they thought (after all, how could a woman really have power in a world of men?). They weren’t self-taught as they claimed, they were the unwitting products of “benevolent sexism”.
Feminist writer Moira Donegan has underline that the trajectory of the girlboss has similarities with the phenomenon recounted by Susan Faludi in Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women – the demonization of career women as lonely, unhappy and unlikely to marry. (Men, remember, are not ridiculed as “boyboss”.)
What happened here is that what started as feminist observation turned into old-fashioned misogyny. The idea that women only deserve success if they are also good, kind, caring people who put everyone first is, of course, sexist. No other civil rights group is responsible for ensuring that all other groups have civil rights first – that would be a recipe for no progress at all. Deaf people who succeed in the workplace through thick and thin don’t tend to be castigated for neglecting the blind cause.
It would be nice if every successful woman were a model of brotherly virtue. But is it really hypocritical or immoral to be a member of an oppressed group and only care about your own success? Follow the logic and the only group with no obligations is the ones with no experience of oppression – wealthy white men. Surely, the success of one woman should be considered a (very small) feminist victory.
What happened to the girlboss is symbolic of a clash between two currents of feminist thought that run through the movement. Should you try to change society or should you help women navigate society as it is? Take, for example, the perennial question of whether the police should warn women not to drink too much at night or to go down dark alleys alone. Many feminists oppose this by blaming the victim and failing to address the real problem: violent men. But some, like Louise Perry, point out that these warnings are nonetheless vital. Violent men exist and failing to warn women of these dangers would be a failure of feminism.
The answer to the riddle is that you need both. Push for change and help women in an imperfect world. Address male violence and also warn women. Push for change in the workplace and celebrate women who are still successful. They are not incompatible.
Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent
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