The last decade witnessed the arrival of feminism in mainstream culture and popular discourse. Although the popularization of feminism brought about heightened awareness to persisting gender inequality, its ties to neoliberal capitalism should not go unnoticed. As such, this article discusses girlboss feminism as an example of an oversimplified, capitalist form of feminism that failed to bring about fundamental change.
The girlboss was born in 2014 out of the successful business-memoir #Girlboss written by the entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso. The book follows her path from selling clothes on eBay to founding the fast-fashion mini-empire Nasty Gal. The book’s publication coincided with a growing awareness of the hurdles women continue to face in a corporate environment. Its success was based on a simple, alluring premise: instead of dismantling the patriarchy that kept women away from positions of power, career women should just take the power for themselves in the office. And we, the consumers, could support this process by buying their products. Women gaining commercial and professional success was thus rebranded and hailed as an inherently feminist act, a form of justice even. From the girlboss perspective, the success of female entrepreneurs and executives was a win for everybody. With women on top, empowerment was said to trickle down to women below. The creation of wealth by women through consumerism was thus framed as something inherently good for society.
The Girlboss Utopia
It is easy to see how this propagating of consumerism can be considered problematic. #Girlboss and the discourse following its publication and subsequent Netflix series presented an answer too easy for achieving equality. It sold a nice utopia women wanted to believe in: being a girlboss or working under a girlboss would result in not having to face the same discrimination and belittling of a traditional corporate setting. The appeal of this utopia illustrates how neglected women still feel in the professional world despite their persisting demands for participation. Although 2021 hit an all-time record with 41 women being CEOs among the Fortune 500, their leadership still only amounts to 8.1% of CEOs in America.
Yet, as Audre Lorde famously recognized: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Therein also lies the problem of girlboss feminism: although it promised to stop the oppression of women, it opted for fitting women into the system by simply putting them on top. But as Amanda Mull recognizes in her piece on girlboss feminism, “Structural change is a thing that happens to structures, not within them”. Having a (white) woman conveniently sit on the top does not, surprisingly as some might think, change the workplaces, if the power structures, based on hierarchy and authority, built by men remain unchanged.
Foreseeably, the fantasy that girlboss feminism propagated inevitably faltered, as many (self-)proclaimed girlbosses, including Amoruso, were confronted with accusations of systematic discriminatory and abusive behaviour towards their coworkers. This is especially scathing considering the girlboss made feminism a part of her brand. This makes apparent what the girlboss was from the very beginning: somebody co-opting feminism and empowerment for profit while failing to live up to the promoted standards.
The bigger picture: commodification of feminism
Girlboss feminism can be recognized as part of a much bigger problem: the commodification and neoliberalisation of feminism. As the scholar Elisabeth Prügl states, “feminism has gone to bed with neoliberal capitalism”. We have all become witnesses to this development, as feminism increasingly is turned into a product, with commitments to feminism plastered on mugs, t-shirts, notebooks and other consumable goods. Many international companies, like Always with their #LikeAGirl campaign, have bought into this development by investing in projects targeting the empowerment of women and girls. As expected, this is not done out of sheer goodwill. Although these projects aim to educate and overcome obstacles to female self-confidence, they also convey an aspirational idea of consumerism. Importantly, these campaigns highly emphasize individualism in the neoliberal consumer culture while lacking any form of critique of the underlying power structures, according to the scholar Banet-Weiser. Instead, women and girls are told to just stop thinking “I can’t”, broadcasted through messages of self-love, self-care and self-making.
Like girlboss feminism, neoliberal feminism advanced by corporations and popular discourse opts out of challenging the status quo and instead equates equal visibility in the marketplace with empowerment. It neither disrupts capitalism nor patriarchy fundamentally but instead operates within the system. This leaves discourses surrounding structural inequalities based on class, race, gender and sexuality completely out of the picture. One could cynically say that mainstream feminism has become popular precisely because it does not challenge the power structures present in society. Recent developments like the social justice movements and the push of women back into the home during the pandemic however showed us all how hollow such a neoliberal version of feminism truly is.
- Elisabeth Prügl (2015) Neoliberalising Feminism, New Political Economy, 20:4, 614-631, DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2014.951614
- Sarah Banet-Weiser & Laura Portwood-Stacer (2017) The traffic in feminism: an introduction to the commentary and criticism on popular feminism, Feminist Media Studies, 17:5, 884-888, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2017.1350517
- Sarah Banet-Weiser (2018) Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, Duke University Press, 978-1-4780-0277-2, https://doi.org/10.1215/9781478002772