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Let’s Deconstruct the Girlboss Persona

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

The typical reaction to other people — usually other women — calling someone a “girl boss” is a wave of flattery and a burst of laughter. The phrase intertwines with hashtags, power suits, and slogan-plastered mugs. It borders on overuse, rendering the buzzword both disarming and hilarious. This concept dominates our culture in a couple of other forms: “woman who works” and “boss babe.” The girl boss is well-known for her unrelenting work ethic and refuses to let norms dictate her career. She is well respected and inspires other women. She is, simply put, the pinnacle of feminism. 

Or so I, and millions of young girls, have believed for a long, long time.

The girl boss persona constantly attracts societal praise. Yet, it often emphasizes personal achievement rather than social progress, as it overlooks structural causes of sexism in work. This is why I believe it cannot genuinely adhere to feminist ideals, as illuminated by recent criticisms of the trope.

Structural factors bar women from succeeding in work, but this conceptualized woman effortlessly climbs the ladder; she makes those around her forget the barriers that exist in the first place. She believes the confrontation of patriarchal biases to be unnecessary and, bluntly, a killjoy. Her behavior at the office reflects this principle: she leans into the conventional, male-dominated dynamic and engages in the hustle. She believes the refusal to recognize an unequal power dynamic is the best way to combat it. Unlike other women, deemed too bossy or emotional, the girl boss is presented as confident and assertive.  

The girl boss narrative is aesthetically pleasing, which is particularly convenient for film studios, fashion companies, and publishing firms. They “tell” her inspiring yet unobtrusive story. While the narrative encourages viewers to rise to the challenge, it ensures they’re not questioning societal structures. With the girl boss’ sheer wealth, her success alone implies that years of sexist barriers have minimal influence on American social dynamics today. All that is needed to demonstrate gender equality conveniently is neatly packaged into her personality for display. 

The illustration that our spaces do not treat women differently is bothersome because they obviously do. It’s not as simple as unlocking the secret to effective female leadership. Perhaps it’s a consequence of my limited experience, but I have yet to see a female leader avoid the influence of gendered pressures in actual corporate or academic settings. Instead, it’s a gradual, learned process of acclimating to the expectations of our environments. 

I do not intend to critique women aspiring to climb the “corporate ladder.” It’s pretty clear that women cannot rely on a complete overhaul of capitalist structures as their solution to gendered issues. Instead, it’s a question of why we often abandon acknowledgments of structural barriers in celebrating female success.

But what is “female success,” anyway?  

The girl boss has become the very definition of feminism — so much so that any woman who is not like her could never possibly be perceived as a feminist. Women who struggle to climb the corporate ladder or do not work in that professional category have been perceived as “too weak” to trailblaze opportunities for others. Those who live similarly to the norm of a housewife are looked at with disdain, the justification being that they unconditionally adhere to societal expectations and play into a patriarchal system with a smile. 

The girl boss character is also widely admired, especially when considered with her material wealth; this suggests that those not wealthy do not reach the standard necessary for feminist role modeling. The concept of the female millionaire, which the girl boss emanates, is marketed as empowering — regardless of its attainability. So, once she has become the “American dream,” the girl boss writes career books, complete with bright pink covers, that guide young girls through how they can accomplish the same material gain. And, you guessed it: not working hard enough is the only element holding them back. 

A feminist woman does not have a particular “look.” Garnering support and solidarity for feminist issues means focusing less on the aesthetics of the movement and more so on its ideology. Moreover, it’s critical to remember that women who promote feminist ideals in positions of power are susceptible to the same corruption and abuse of position as other executives. Even if a woman in power is perceived a manifestation of feminist ideals, she can absolutely still partake in actions that oppress women in the workplace; calling out this behavior remains wholly necessary. 

As women continue to face structural disadvantages in society, having one female CEO is not a catch-all sign of progress. There is much more work to be done. 

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