“She was fifteen when it occurred to her for the first time that women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought—and never worried about it again.” This is as close to a glimmer of feminist consciousness that you’ll find in Dagny Taggart, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Still, it’s a lot more of a recognition of gender barriers than you’ll find in the pages of #Girlboss, the best-selling book by Sophia Amoruso, which in turn inspired the Netflix series Girlboss about her journey from dumpster-diving anarchist to founder of Nasty Gal, Inc. the multi-million dollar girls clothing retailer.
“I have never once in my life thought that being a girl was something I had to overcome,” writes Amoruso. Of all the obstacles she faced in her entrepreneurial rise, sexism is glaringly absent. So why does its author, Sophia Amoruso, call her memoir “a feminist book”?
Probably for the same reason so many male businessmen speak of “giving back” when far from taking anything away, the businesses they’ve built have added value in terms of jobs, wealth, services and innovation. Because our culture still grants greater moral stature to the disadvantaged than to its doers.
As such, Amoruso makes for an uneasy standard-bearer for a new capitalist female role model. Just like Virginia Slims used the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” to peddle cigarettes to women in the sixties and seventies, to suggest lighting up was a celebration of the fight for women’s suffrage, pink entrepreneurs use a fuzzy feminism to market buying makeup and accessories.
Amoruso reflects on how the chances “that I’d ever find myself seated in the corner offices...were that of a snowball in hell.” The chances of her evolving a political consciousness beyond the muddled socialism offered by her favorite high school teacher were even less promising.
Her early disdain for capitalism helped her rationalize a shoplifting habit. Over the course of the new Netflix series’ first 13 episodes, the fictional Sophia steals a rug, a copy of Starting an eBay Business for Dummies, a bottle of champagne, a sandwich, a stuffed monkey, and a Christmas tree.
“Nobody really owns anything,” was how the real life Amoruso described her thinking at the time. “I had deep discussions about how I didn’t believe in ‘property,’”at first with her “uber liberal” high school history teacher and later with her circle of “tree-sitters, activists, naturalists, hobos, feminists,” etc.
To her credit, the real life Sophia ultimately recognizes that she wasn’t stealing from “The Man,” she was stealing from people. She didn’t exactly trade in Abbie Hoffman and Emma Goldman for Aristotle and Ayn Rand -- but she did seem to have expanded her perspective enough to occasionally tweet Rand quotes alongside the hashtag #mondaymotivation).
In her bestselling memoir, #Girlboss, on which the Netflix show is based, she emphasizes that her values haven’t changed -- she’s just learned to compromise: “I once believed that participating in a capitalist economy would be the death of me, but now realize that agonizing over the political implications of every move I make isn’t exactly living.”
If you were hoping for a more resounding embrace of the system that has made Amoruso rich and famous, you won’t find it in either her memoir or the show.
Dagny Taggart she is not.
Indeed, it would be a mistake to equate any self-described ‘girl boss’ as one that Rand would fully celebrate. The fictional Sophia of Girlboss and the wannabe ‘pink market’ entrepreneurs who embrace the #girlboss hashtag are not so much models of rational selfishness as they are models of feminist opportunism.
The ‘Girl Boss’ (or, #girlboss) is marketed as a new model of empowered female role model – and it’s savvy marketing. The Girl Boss, as embodied by the real or the fictional Sophia Amoruso or any female entrepreneur featured on the cover of Fast Company, is meant to be aspirationally feminist – she can do it, ladies, so you can too!
She is ambitious, assertive, and feminine; she’s a boss who is unapologetically girl. Which would be (arguably, should be) an interesting coda to latter-day feminism, if it more fully embraced a capitalist, rationally self-interested posture.
The Girl Boss persona is just that: a persona.
But it doesn’t. The Girl Boss persona is just that: a persona. It’s a hashtag, a fashion editorial, a lipstick line; it’s a social media identity that signals a woman’s place in the capitalist sisterhood.
And make no mistake – it is a sisterhood. It’s an overtly feminist community with an explicit moral code, and one that is quick to condemn anyone who doesn’t abide by that moral code.
Witness the ongoing cultural critique of the Kardashians (sure, they’re a family of tough women making billions of dollars on a homegrown media empire, but they’re doing so while wearing tight clothes and posting naked selfies), or the feminist takedown of Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal.
Even Sophia Amoruso herself, the original Girl Boss, was dragged by the millennial feminist blogosphere for insufficiently maintaining a pro-woman culture at her company, Nasty Gal (from which she later stepped down as CEO.) Capitalist empowerment for women is understood as good, but only so long as it serves the communal good: ‘girl bosses’ are aspirational not for their bank accounts, but for their ability to provide higher pay and better benefits to female employees. They’re not allowed to be fully selfish or self-interested.
Which is a shame, because the Girl Boss model really could offer an interesting alternative to dominant narratives about what it means to be a powerful woman.
The fictional Sophia Amoruso is played as ambivalently selfish – she’s aggressive in pursuing her goals, but she’s prone to giving girl power speeches and to hedging her self-interest. But she’d be far more interesting, arguably, if she came off a little more like the real Amoruso, who was reputed to be utterly unambivalent in her selfishness – a ruthlessly driven and unapologetically self-interested entrepreneur, one far more likely to quote Ayn Rand than Gloria Steinem. Or like Miki Agrawal, or any one of the Kardashians – women who are fully comfortable asserting their ambition, ignoring their haters, and rejecting calls to adhere to any kind of feminist moral duty.
It would be far more interesting – and inspirational – for driven young women looking for role models in the worlds of business and entrepreneurship to be able to see women being unapologetically self-interested – being extraordinary bosses, no ‘girl’ qualifier necessary.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.