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How Our Disenchantment With the Girlboss Is Playing Out on TV

Somewhere between #MeToo, COVID-19, and the racial and labor reckoning that followed, people soured hard on the idea of the “girlboss.” The successor to “Lean In” feminism, a girlboss is a woman in business who purports to lead with empathy rather than traditionally masculine leadership qualities — but really just decorates her office with a lot of millennial pink. While the “girlboss” originally seemed like an inroad to female empowerment, it’s since revealed itself as just another tool of capitalism and hustle culture: a way for women to be just as toxic and myopic in the workplace as their male counterparts. And while the heyday of girlboss feminism saw TV shows like Netflix’s Girlboss, based on Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso’s memoir and meant to inspire with its protagonist’s entrepreneurial spirit, today’s post-girlboss culture has newly grappled with how to portray ambitious women on TV.

As the pandemic in particular has made many of us wary of productivity-first thinking, and less inclined to view all-consuming drive as inspiring, the stories we’ve chosen to tell about driven women have changed too — and it’s led to a flurry of negative depictions of female ambition on TV.

It was Amoruso herself who coined the term “girlboss” in 2014, using it as the title for her memoir #GIRLBOSS about her rise to the top as the entrepreneurial founder of clothing brand Nasty Gal. She describes a girlboss as someone “whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream.” But Amoruso’s own story went on to show the failures of the trope she created — and years later, we’re seeing those same troubled, success-at-all-costs “girlboss” archetypes all over TV.

Shortly after the publication of her memoir, Amoruso stepped down as Nasty Gal’s CEO amid allegations that she discriminated against pregnant and chronically ill employees. In 2016, the brand filed for bankruptcy. And Amoruso wasn’t the only leader who embraced a girlboss mentality and later faced troubling allegations.

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Sophia Amoruso at the ‘Girlboss’ premiere in 2017 Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

In 2017, the founder of feminist, millennial-friendly period panties company Thinx Miki Agrawal was accused of a pattern of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct. In 2020, Audrey Gelman, the founder of women’s co-working space The Wing, hailed as a feminist respite for women in the patriarchal business world, resigned too — when employees of color spoke out about their treatment at the clubs. Those who called themselves girlbosses had at first exuded success: but their failures were sharply at odds with the white feminist catchcry that, if women ran the world, there would be no inequality. When girlbosses succeeded, it didn’t result in real change for women’s opportunities, but embraced old systems of power — elevating a single (usually white) woman at a time, at the expense of the vulnerable. When girlbosses failed, their failure reflected on women everywhere.

As our real-life criticisms of the girlboss grew, our interpretations of ambitious, boss-like women on TV have changed too: fittingly, many of the most ambitious women we’ve seen on TV in the past year have been criminals, from Shonda Rhimes’ Inventing Anna to Elizabeth Holmes series The Dropout. These shows, along with Hulu’s Dollface, have adopted a darker definition of girlboss feminism at their core, using it as a justification for lying, overstepping boundaries, or doing whatever it takes to get ahead in a world that’s stacked against them. The ambition of the women in these shows ranges from misguided to menacing, a sharp change from girlboss-era success stories.

Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes’ much-anticipated Netflix show, took on the true story of Russian-German scammer Anna Delvey (née Sorokin), who lied to investors and friends alike about being a German heiress, defrauding them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund her lavish lifestyle and career hopes. The show first began to show signs of embracing Anna as a girlboss as multiple characters defended Delvey’s actions with the explanation that, if a man did it, it would be just another Tuesday. Inventing Anna seems to float a theory that true feminism looks like women behaving as badly as men and getting away with it — and that’s certainly been an ethos many real-life girlbosses have appeared to embrace.

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Julia Garner, James Cusati-Moyer in ‘Inventing Anna’ ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Then, there’s Elizabeth Meriwether’s The Dropout, based on disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who took millions from investors for a blood-testing technology that had never worked and risked patients’ health with incorrect test results. Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth (and, from what we know, the real Holmes) was relentlessly ambitious, certain her idea and the resulting technology would change the world — and it’s interesting to see that particular story told in our current, girlboss-critical era.

In The Dropout, Seyfried’s Elizabeth struggles with her role as a female boss, which leads to a number of choices about her appearance and presentation over the years. Holmes notably used her appearance to convey a certain seriousness, from her infamous deep voice to her black turtleneck uniform and everpresent (if messy) blonde hair and dark eye make-up. Holmes balanced traditional femininity that appealed to her male colleagues with a Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg-esque uniformity that suggested she didn’t really care about her appearance — she’s not like other girls, she’s focused on business.

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Amanda Seyfried in ‘The Dropout’ ©Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Seyfried’s Elizabeth is also shown bristling multiple times at the assertion that her success will help women in tech and STEM gain more of a foothold — but both on-screen and in real life, Holmes couldn’t escape the effect of her trajectory on other women’s opportunities: When she failed, she was judged for her failure as a woman CEO and not just a CEO. The girlboss isn’t perfect: But The Dropout suggests that just trying to be a boss, as a woman, still isn’t possible.

Finally, there’s the new season of Dollface, an under-the-radar Hulu show about millennial women starring Kat Dennings, Brenda Song, Shay Mitchell, and Esther Povitsky. Jules (Dennings) is a perpetual slacker who’s decided this season to turn it around and try to succeed at the parodic women’s wellness company, Woom, where she works alongside Izzy (Povitsky). Izzy is trying navigate her working relationship with boss Celeste (Malin Akerman) and separating her work from personal relationships. Madison (Song) has been furloughed, and Stella (Mitchell) has quit after one day of her finance job to start the bar version of The Wing, called the gender-essentialist Gi Spot. This all takes place amid Jules and Madison’s looming 30th birthdays, their “last years of youth” that were lost to the pandemic, and their fear that they haven’t girlbossed hard enough by that point in their lives.

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While each of the characters are at various points in their journey of girlbossness (“[I’m] like Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg fighting for women’s rights to drink too much rosé,” Madison announces at one point), the show makes it clear that it’s not always fueling them in the right direction, making them feel guilty over looming, self-imposed deadlines of success or encouraging them to give more and more of themselves to work when they’re trying to draw boundaries. A rival women’s wellness company exuding strong girlboss energy attempts to lure Izzy over to their team this season with admonishments that Celeste “treats her like an employee” rather than a friend or, indeed, a family member.

Each woman is facing a reckoning with self-worth as it relates to their job success, and the show suggests a more complicated path forward than each woman doggedly pursuing their own empire. It’s a nuanced and relatable portrayal of how women can rectify their career ambition within a drastically changed job market — something I can certainly relate to after seeing many of my dreams go down the toilet in 2020 and realizing in 2021 that I wasn’t actually ready to give up on them.

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Brenda Song, Kat Dennings in ‘Dollface’ Jessica Brooks/Hulu.

If we can learn anything from the downfall of the girlboss, it’s that single- and narrow-minded drive à la Anna Sorokin and Elizabeth Holmes is unsustainable. We should be moving towards a mutual success — what former Call Your Girlfriend podcast hosts Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman call “shine theory.” When you succeed, so do your friends — more in line with the ethos of Jules and co. on Dollface. But both in TV and real life, we’ve struggled to divorce goals of being fulfilled by our work from the idea of the girlboss, and it’s important that we separate the two as we go forward.

Ambition isn’t a dirty word, but the idea of the girlboss has made it easy to condemn, and we’re due for a new reckoning. I worry that the failure of the girlboss will perpetuate the attitude that women in leadership roles was a nice experiment, but we should get back to men running the show. I worry that depictions of scheming, lying women like Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey will only further give ambitious women a bad name, just like the girlboss movement did. But Dollface makes a truer point than “ambition is untrustworthy” amid its jabs at the girlboss: It argues for real change in how we approach work and self-worth, and a moving away from capitalist ideals without sacrificing a desire for success. In this post-girlboss, pandemic era, it’s worth fighting for a new vision of female success.

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