Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Girl Boss Has Failed Us

Is the age of the #GIRLBOSS over?

When I attended the Los Angeles Women’s March in January of 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, I felt a mix of emotions flowing through me; I was angry with our country, worried for the rights of immigrants, women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community (basically anyone who was not a straight cisgender white man), but also empowered to see how many people came together to march and stand up for what they believed. I was living a few blocks away from City Hall and walked there by myself, not knowing what to expect at all. When I saw the crowds of pink knit hats and protest signs spanning as far as I could see, I broke out into tears. Here we were, hundreds of thousands of frustrated Americans, channeling our anger into this outpouring of love and support. Donning an all-pink outfit and surrounded by thousands of fellow Nasty Women, I felt that we were onto something beautiful.

This was 2017, the peak of the Girl Boss era. Hillary Clinton was the ultimate icon for a generation of She-E-Os, taking her bold pantsuits and meme-able sass just about as far as a woman could possibly go. What is winning the presidency if not shattering the ultimate glass ceiling? She was the champion of a whole class of entrepreneurial women who weaponized millennial pink graphic designs and donned brightly-hued pantsuits with stilettos and blowouts, corporate badasses who owned their femininity rather than hiding it, as older generations of businesswomen had done. And despite losing the presidential election, in corporate America, the reign of the Girl Boss seemed inevitable.

Emily Weiss of Glossier. Jen Gotch of Ban.do. Yael Aflalo of Reformation. Sara Blakely of Spanx. On and on and on. You know the Girl Boss when you see her and her brand. She’s fashionable and cool, but never trying too hard. She dolls out career advice on Instagram and usually on her own podcast series too. She’s either written a book that combines career highs and lows with personal reflections, or she’s working on the draft now. She is a strong advocate for feminism, and her brand is all about championing women.

You’d think such a woman would advocate not just for white cisgender women, but for all women and non-binary people who should fall under the protection of feminism. 

Instead, half of the aforementioned women (namely Gotch and Aflalo) stepped down from their posts this month after numerous allegations of racist behavior and toxic work cultures. Leandra Medine of Man Repeller, The Wing co-founder and CEO Audrey Gelman, and Refinery29 co-founder Christine Barberich have all also left their posts after similar complaints of racist behavior and work environments. The behavior of these women is absolutely unacceptable, but to the outside viewer, these allegations came as a bit of a shock. Their brands and social media personas would all have you believe these women were champions of intersectional feminism, but this year has proved that the Girl Boss’s digital persona of championing diversity and intersectionality is just a facade.

The Girl Boss wasn’t how you acted as a businesswoman, but how you branded yourself.


The term “Girl Boss” first rose to prominence with Sophia Amoruso’s 2014 autobiography #GIRLBOSS, which led to a short-lived Netflix series as well as an events and media business of the same name, all off of the idea that Amoruso is exemplary of how a woman in a position of power should behave. Let’s ignore the fact that she nearly ran her first company Nasty Gal (the one that made her a Girl Boss to begin with) into the ground, being bought for scraps by Boohoo and hanging on to this day only by running permanent ‘50% off everything’ sales. Amoruso is a talented woman who is responsible for Nasty Gal’s quick rise to prominence, but her true talents lie in her ability to market herself and her brand, not her proficiency as an executive. If you really examined the rise and fall of Nasty Gal, Amoruso wasn’t much of a boss after all, and there are the toxic workplace complaints and wrongful termination lawsuits to prove it, but no matter. What really mattered was how Amoruso made herself appear. The Girl Boss wasn’t how you acted as a businesswoman, but how you branded yourself.

A slew of female founders followed in Amoruso’s founder-to-celebrity footsteps, becoming the spokespeople for their companies and creating brand identities that weren’t just selling a product but a whole lifestyle. Jen Gotch opened up conversations about mental health with Ban.do, discussing her bipolar disorder and selling “I Cry At Work” T-shirts, blending personal ideology with branded products ready for consumption (and culminating in a book for Gotch as well, a memoir entitled The Upside of Being Down). Reformation highlights sustainability and the importance of ethically-made fashion that is also, you know, cool. The brand often featured their Los Angeles factory in campaigns and marketing materials. The creation of The Wing in 2016, a women’s club with locations around the country, felt in many ways to be a direct response to the 2016 election and our desires to keep the momentum of Hillary’s campaign going; a place for women and gender non-conforming individuals of all races and sexualities, to come together, network, and have a space all our own. How could these beacons of feminist ideology, mental health, and environmental awareness be such disappointments when it came to being genuine advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement?

ban.do 'I Cry At Work' T-shirt
Intended to stimulate conversations about mental health in the workplace, Ban.do's "I Cry At Work" T-shirt now hits differently when considering the numerous allegations of racist and toxic behavior at the company's offices

In short, we were bamboozled by pretty marketing and a co-opting of feminist ideals to sell product. And if you feel disappointed that you didn’t see the signs earlier, I feel you. I fell for it all. I’ve purchased Ban.do planners for years and have applauded Jen Gotch’s honesty and vulnerability when it comes to mental health issues. My closet is filled with Reformation pieces. I read Refinery29 and Man Repeller articles on a regular basis. I became a Wing member last June. I believed that these companies, who featured diverse women on their social media and aesthetically-pleasing quotes from feminists and civil rights leaders, believed in the message they were plastering across their platforms. But if the person—and the company culture as a whole—beneath the facade was known for racist remarks, discriminatory hiring practices, microaggressions, and other toxic behavior, the celebration of women and diversity now starts to ring hollow. Were these women just marketing themselves as paragons of the 21st century female founder, using the language and imagery that women of diverse backgrounds would shell out money for, all while hiding their true feelings of discontent for anyone not like them (in other words, white, thin, and well-off)? That I fell for any of it makes me uneasy.

Like the Women’s March in 2017, this month’s Black Lives Matter movement has inspired me that change is possible, although difficult, and worth fighting for. It should not have taken this long, or the devastating loss of life that the Black community has experienced not just this past month but for years, to reach this turning point, but watching the ripple effects of the Black Lives Matter protests hit all industries, including the fashion and beauty world, has been incredible. These industries absolutely need to expand their definitions of beauty, and that starts with creating inclusive workplaces and encouraging diverse representation in magazines, online, on television, and so on.

With the mass exodus of so-called leaders like Jen Gotch and Yael Aflalo, I’m hopeful that the companies they started can move toward inclusive and respectful businesses, both in the way they market products to their consumers and the way their businesses cultivate a welcoming and positive corporate environment that accepts employees of all backgrounds. Moving forward, it won’t be enough just to wear the mask of the intersectional feminist and social justice advocate for the sake of reaching consumers. These brands must truly reflect that image both externally and internally, starting with diversifying their workplaces.

The age of the Girl Boss may be over, but all that means is that we are paving the way to celebrate true feminist business owners who actually embody the ideals that they publicly project. From these past few weeks, I’ve learned about so many incredible Black-owned businesses founded by women who are genuinely passionate about sustainable fashion, clean beauty, and redefining what the world sees as beautiful. For example, UOMA Beauty founder Sharon Chuter sought out to create a truly inclusive beauty brand, including 51 shades of foundation so people of every skin color can find their perfect match. Another beauty brand, Hanahana Beauty, provides natural skincare products that are ethically sourced from Ghana. These brands aren’t just wearing the mask of ethical, intersectional feminism; these tenets are built into the very foundations of these brands. 

UOMA Beauty
UOMA Beauty's ad campaign shows how wonderful and diverse the beauty industry can be

This isn’t to say that white business leaders can’t be true allies. Emily Weiss’s brand Glossier recently announced they would be giving $500,000 in grants to Black-owned beauty businesses, as well as another $500,000 to organizations combating racial injustice. Glossier is one of the core brands of millennial culture, and Weiss every bit in the mold of the Girl Boss, but she has clearly recognized her power and her privilege, and she is using that privilege to help amplify underrepresented voices in the industry. There is a way forward for such entrepreneurs, one where they not only talk the talk of intersectional feminism but also walk the walk and create actions that echo their marketing sentiments, fostering truly inclusive workplaces and celebrating diversity in all forms.

Long live the new generation of women who will change the world. 

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