The first time I can remember considering my career was browsing through the games on Barbie.com.
I was 5, maybe 6, squished into a chair with my best friend during a playdate. We pecked at the keyboard with pointer fingers still sticky from snack time, until a glimmering pink screen asked us the fateful question:
Which Barbie do you want to be?
We had myriad options to choose from: Hairdresser Barbie, Fashion Designer Barbie, Sports Barbie, Makeup Artist Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Salesgirl Barbie, Lifeguard Barbie, Schoolgirl Barbie — the list went on. And these days, that list is even longer; Barbie’s become a writer, an astronaut, a small business owner and president, among other things.
In some ways, the breadth of her career choices is empowering. This toy, a staple that many girls have looked up to for generations, is telling them that they can have any career they aspire to. At the same time, Barbie is offering them education on what some of those options can be. That’s a really noble, and important, message.
But it’s also Barbie.
Despite all of the aspirational messaging, she’s still a plastic, stylishly-dressed, perfectly-coiffed standard we’re telling girls to live up to. Even if Barbie is no longer always white, blonde, blue-eyed and stick-thin (which she still is the majority of the time), her main appeal continues to lie in dressing her up and playing with her hair. Her main draw is still her looks. And somewhere beneath it all, even with the countless impressive careers she’s had over the years, Barbie is what she always has been: superficial. Making her a pediatrician or salon owner or athlete won’t cover up the fact that her “progress” feels a little, well, fake.
The new Barbie is what some might call a girlboss.
“Girlboss” is defined as “to make something or someone appear as a feminist idol or inspiration for profit, despite the numerous flaws of the person.” The term was coined by Sophia Amoruso, founder of the fast fashion website Nasty Gal, who wrote a 2014 autobiography titled #GIRLBOSS. Amoruso’s literal rags-to-riches storyline was inspiring, and she gained a massive following with many young professionals looking up to her. That is, until Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015, citing “toxic” workplace culture and leadership issues.
After the fallout of the ordeal, the term slowly became a less aspirational mindset and more of a backhanded compliment. My editor, whom I would characterize as “take-no-shit, badass bitch,” admitted that being called “girlboss” makes her uncomfortable and that she takes it as more of an insult. The girlboss went from an example of ambition and hustle to a personification of tokenism and unhealthy attitudes. University of Michigan Rackham student Megan Kelly, who studies sociology with a focus on gender and work explained how this developed to me over Zoom.
“There’s just a broader sort of idea of, what are the consequences of saying that the way that omen should succeed at work, is to do more, the sort of the ‘lean in’ type of thing,” Kelly said. “Part of what’s important about that is that it’s not just individuals. It’s built into the way we structure jobs, the way we think about work in the United States, and therefore encouraging people to sort of invest themselves more is essentially saying that the way to succeed is to put more into that system and it doesn’t really do anything to address the root causes. That’s problematic because no matter how hard you lean in, that’s not going to fix those systemic inequalities.”
The girlboss essentially became the early-2000s postfeminist caricature of the career woman. You know the type: the queen of the stiletto-heeled walk-and-talk, she’s working 24/7 (she’s the glue holding the office together), constantly cradles her phone between her shoulder and her ear so she can multitask and has a stylish designer wardrobe far beyond what her salary could realistically buy. She’s probably played by Katherine Heigl, and there is a very strong chance that, at some point in the movie, she falls in love with (a) her boss, or (b) a man she meets because of the job she’s always at. And just like that, with a wave of her ever-present PalmPilot or BlackBerry and a click of her sky-high, sexy-but-still-professional heels, the girlboss fixed everything that was wrong with our workplace culture. The girlboss gets her career and her happy ending.
She didn’t need feminism anymore. All the progress has been made.
In part, the girlboss became that because the goal we gave her was impossible. (Unattainable goals for women? Groundbreaking.) We wanted the girlboss to fix everything that was wrong in our workplaces: the competitiveness, the workaholism, the fraternity-style sexist collegiality, the racism. The girlboss was supposed to represent the change in the workplace, but more than that, she was supposed to bring that change to the workplace.
Instead, she was right at home there within all of these workaholic, toxic patriarchal structures, and we couldn’t forgive her for it. Instead of changing the system, the girlboss just took on those traditional leadership roles and claimed the problem had been solved by the nature of her being there. But, by deeming her “girlboss” instead of just “boss,” we kept her separate, somehow othered, in the workplace world that she’d become a part of.
“It gets wrapped up with her being a woman in a position of authority,” Kelly said. “(Girlboss is) an attempt to reconcile femininity and being like, ‘Yes, I can fulfill our cultural ideals of femininity, and at the same time, I can have a powerful position at work. I can combine those two things successfully.’ Yeah, when you criticize that term, of course, you’re kind of suggesting that those two things are not compatible in some way. But I also think that there are reasons to think based on our culture that those two things are already not viewed as compatible.”
Even in the spaces created by, and theoretically for, girlbosses, the problems remain, proving that the change promised by the girlboss was surface-level at best and negligent at worst. Nasty Gal had a toxic environment. Reformation and Glossier (girlboss-founded clothing and makeup lines, respectively) had thinly disguised but ever-present racism. Those brands are still thriving (at least for now), whether it’s because of their vocal commitment to change and accountability in the wake of these stories, or because of their widespread popularity. Interestingly, though, the viral fashion blog Man Repeller folded after former employees called out their ex-(girl)boss for performative activism; it likely won’t be the last company, female-founded or otherwise, to shutter under increased scrutiny for these issues.
These cases made one thing clear, though: The girlboss didn’t change the system. She was a product of its benevolence, and as a result, she became a part of the system. We found the chance she affected insufficient, as we realized that not only was she a part of the broken system, but also that she wasn’t as representative of us as we thought (or hoped) she was.
She was white, cis-gendered, straight and very often wealthy, and eventually, the actions of many so-called (even sometimes self-titled) girlbosses reminded us that her gender identity alone did not ensure she would fight for change that would include everyone.
“It’s possible for a woman to be both a feminist and to be racist,” Kelly said. “It is possible for people to be working towards something that feels liberatory for them as a white woman, and for those things to not actually represent or perhaps even be harmful to women who are not white, and so it could be that they’re just completely blinkered to the fact that the feminist ideals that they are advocating for represent their own experience as white women.”
In the end, the girlboss went from iconic to ironic. Maybe that’s just a product of our culture, because these days, we’re making everything ironic, even (maybe especially) things that started out sincerely. Or it could be a generational gap: girlboss was a millennial ideal, but a Gen Z insult. So while millennials may think of it as a compliment, Gen Z-ers are taken aback by its less-than-shiny implications. But for ever-increasing numbers of us, girlboss falls somewhere on the spectrum between backhanded compliment and outright insult.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that in this use of the term, we’re still denigrating ambitious women in the professional space. I don’t mean that the problematic examples this article discusses should be forgiven because they’re women, nor do I mean to minimize their very real shortcomings. But by using “girlboss” as an insult, are we implying that it’s degrading to be compared to career-driven women? Are we implying that that’s a bad thing for a woman to be? There’s something off-putting about insulting someone by comparing them to career-driven women, like we still see ambition as a bad thing for a woman to have.
“The question is, can we criticize the parts of the individual’s actions that are problematic without criticizing her as without, without also criticizing her for being a woman who is ambitious in her career and has pursued certain goals?” Kelly said.
Ultimately, there are so many complexities lurking beneath the pale-pink, boldface-type package of the #girlboss. It’s a tangled web she’s been woven into, and it’s unclear whether unraveling it is even possible or desirable. The girlboss has come to represent so much toxicity, but we still want — we still need — the change she claimed to champion and represent. But how do we get there without becoming something of her ourselves? It seems to be yet another impossible task set by the patriarchy, now in the looming shadow of our past problems.
In the face of this seemingly perpetual conundrum, I’d like to hold onto a little of that girlboss optimism. Don’t get me wrong — she was unhealthily committed to her job, to outdated, harmful power structures and ideals and her empowerment was often exclusionary. I don’t endorse any of that. But at the same time, the girlboss was so sure she could make a difference, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy her in that regard. In the end, the girlboss isn’t the answer to the problem (in some ways, she even helped perpetuate it). But maybe, somewhere in her story, there’s a lesson to be learned on how to solve it.
Statement Correspondent Abby Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.