In 2011—when I was fourteen and had just started high school—I had a vague understanding of women’s and LGBTQ+ issues, but it was heavily influenced by the anti-feminist rhetoric that I consumed from my favorite YouTubers and television shows. I admit now that in my early teens; I was definitely pretty confused about feminism and the need for it (if any); I made arguments that made sense in my head but were ultimately just grossly misinformed ramblings that I parroted from someone just as uneducated as I was. Even as I type this now, I feel my skin crawl at the internalized misogyny that I held until I was fifteen or sixteen.
Now, my feminism has flourished, and I continue to learn how to empower other women every day. As a 23-year-old woman, I am so proud of the strides I’ve taken since then, and part of what I give thanks to is the popularization of feminism and feminist rhetoric in our culture.
By the time I was in eleventh grade, the consensus among my peers regarding feminism was a positive one. For the first time in my life, I was seeing a celebration of the word ‘feminist’ from the girls and women around me: celebrities held up signs that said, “this is what a feminist looks like,” my local art crawl sold magnets that said “Pro-Choice, Pro Women, Pro Feminism,” and women’s marches were becoming the cool place to be. Feminism was being folded into popular culture.
While I do credit, the popularization of feminism to my feminist awakening (once feminism wasn’t seen as a bad word, and I didn’t have to worry about being unlikable as a teenager for wanting respect, it became very easy to explore my feminism and grow outward), also; I acknowledge that when something once counterculture becomes popular culture, usually that thing or that ideal is appropriated and sold to us again by capitalists, which is where Girl Boss Feminism comes from.
What is Girl Boss Feminism?
The term (and hashtag) #GirlBoss was coined by the head of the fast-fashion company Nasty Gal Sophia Amoroso in her 2014 book of the same name. The concept is that instead of seeking to dismantle capitalist systems of oppression that have victimized women, women should just become a part of them and be successful in the confines of the system itself. The ideal Girl Boss climbs the corporate ladder and replaces men in jobs that men traditionally hold. This makes me want to vomit.
It’s a fundamental idea that transcends neoliberalism. Instead of empowering others to have a better world for each other by dismantling oppression systems, we need to just diversify who is doing the oppressing—celebrating a woman who is exploiting the labor and capital of other women just because it’s not a man doing the using for once. Girl Boss feminism asks why there aren’t more female billionaires instead of asking why—in a world of starving people—there are billionaires at all.
The American Dream
Girl Boss feminism is basically the American Dream concept in a blonde wig with a #feminist shirt on. Girl Boss feminism suggests that if you pull yourself up by the bootstraps and work hard enough, you can outgrow and overcome your oppression—that misogyny will just cease to affect you once you’re a CEO. There are several major issues with this concept that we also see in the American Dream concept.
Misogyny still exists towards every woman, regardless of financial success. The richest women in the world still experience misogyny because we live in a patriarchal world. No amount of success, money, or adoration will rid you of our culture’s hatred for women. Financial success will afford you more kindness, opportunity, and means than a poor woman, but ultimately, no one can earn enough money to be unaffected by misogyny. You don’t become a man just because you replaced one within an oppressive system.
It’s significantly harder to become a Girl Boss if you’re not a white, able-bodied, Cis woman. Much like The American Dream, Girl Boss feminism works much better if you’re white, able-bodied, and cis. Disabled women, women of color, and trans women have bigger hurdles of oppression to overcome and do not have the privilege of simply “shedding” their oppression with corporate success. Because this narrative that you can outgrow your oppression is being pushed, it effectively leaves women who are not white and cis-gender behind and actively uses their backs as stepping stones for white women’s success.
Girl Boss Feminism blames women for their own oppression. As noted earlier, there is no individual corporate success that could absolve anyone of misogyny, but for anyone to claim that misogyny works in this way is to blame women for their own oppression. It definitely reads as a suggestion that women who feel oppression and abuse, whether verbal, financial, emotional, or sexual, just haven’t worked hard enough or been strong enough to overcome it and to stop it from happening to themselves.
Capitalism Disguised as Feminism
I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly touch upon the idea that Girl Boss Feminism and just neoliberal brands of feminism altogether are, of course, not feminism at all, but a desperate attempt to commodify the movement. As I mentioned earlier, when pop culture adopts a counterculture, corporations will inevitably appropriate the culture to sell it back to the community that started it in the first place.
Girl Boss feminism and corporations that support the idea like BuzzFeed constantly try to commodify and sell feminism as if it’s not an ideal or a movement, but something to be obtained with enough money. It is not feminism; it is an exploitation of the movement and sinister capitalism. A t-shirt from Forever 21 with the word #Feminist on it made by a woman in Bangladesh being paid less than a dollar an hour does not a feminist make.
Its Ties to Pyramid Schemes
I think I’ve seen many #GirlBoss, and #BossBabe talk has been surrounding women in pyramid schemes—or multi-level marketing (MLM)—if you want to be polite about it. From my experience, often pyramid scheme companies like Herbalife, Mary Kay, and Avon target vulnerable women who are in low positions of power (unemployed, working minimum wage jobs, or working for a company where they feel unappreciated) and market the concept of being a Girl Boss to them in order to loop them into working for them.
If you’re unfamiliar with a pyramid scheme, that’s a whole other article, but John Oliver did a really in-depth episode about them. Basically, pyramid scheme companies target vulnerable women into buying and selling their products for virtually no money with promises of unattainable riches and the ability to “be your own boss.” They use the idea of the trend and want to be a Girl Boss in our culture to manipulate women and exploit them for money. The Girl Boss trend has been very helpful and instrumental to these companies.
Individualist vs. Collectivist Feminism
If I were going to summarize the main issue with Girl Boss feminism (other than it not being feminism at all), I would say that Girl Boss feminism is individualist while intersectional feminism is collectivist. Girl Boss feminism regards the individual and how one can use feminist rhetoric to serve themselves; this is a very selfish and unsustainable form of feminism that does nothing for the collective good, doesn’t empower women, and does not fight or dismantle systems of oppression. Feminism should always be collective, meaning we as women strive to empower each other and create a culture of equality and success without oppression. If you’re not thinking about all women and just seeking to make life better for yourself, you’re not a feminist; you’re an opportunist.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I do partially credit the popularization of feminism in popular culture for my feminist awakening—when something becomes normalized and comfortable to talk about, more people will be able to freely express it—but with popularization comes appropriation, and this is where the problem lies. We don’t need to see feminism turned into a commodity for the individual when it’s meant to be for the empowerment of the collective.