Op-ed: To actually empower women, let us fire the girlboss


"Business Woman" by wvs is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Feminist activist and author bell hooks reveals the issues with today’s feminist theory.

Lily Xu, contributor

#Girlboss trended on social media platforms and circulated in American pop culture in the 2010s for half a decade before its façade as a woman empowerment movement collapsed. Sophia Amoruso popularized the term “Girlboss” in her 2014 autobiography “#GIRLBOSS” to inspire her female-dominated audience because if she could turn her eBay shop into a multimillion-dollar business, anyone could. #Girlboss immediately gained nationwide traction as a term to encourage women toward pursuing business opportunities.

What no one would expect was, by 2020, the tide of public opinion turned against Amoruso and other female CEOs who also embodied the girlboss template for corporate success. Lawsuits filed by former employees stated that they were fired for requesting maternity and paternity leave, and a compilation of reviews complained about toxic work culture. What led girlbosses to their own demise was that they were performing the very inequitable activities the girlboss persona condemned, exposing the entire movement as blatant irony.

Girlboss culture capitalizes on a social justice ploy that generates both financial and social capital. It creates a damaging identity that contradicts the progressive theory of intersectional feminism, which acknowledges how interconnected and inseparable class, race and gender are to social identity. I strongly think that girlboss culture hinders the evolution of intersectional feminism as it colludes directly with capitalism: Privileged women are using a deceptive feminist movement to promote their class interests.

Feminist activist and author bell hooks argues this in her book “Feminist theory from margin to center.” She explains the problem with today’s feminist theory — now championed by the modern feminist movement #Girlboss — is that it still lacks wholeness and complete representation of the female struggle. For hooks, mainstream feminism falls short when privileged women who live at the center define the movement. Women at the center hold limited perspectives on reality that rarely include knowledge and awareness of those at the margin who lack the representation and power to be included at the forefront of society.

Although hooks never explicitly mentions the hashtag, mainstream movements like #Girlboss are exactly what hooks cautioned against. Rather than progressing intersectional feminist theory, its culture does the opposite: It amplifies the class division that is already prominent within women. I agree with hooks and believe girlbosses do this in two ways: using the assertion that all women are oppressed to promote their class interests and placing a select few women at the top to address gender inequality.

Girlbosses use what hooks states as a “common oppression” ploy to use performative activism to generate profits. Girlbosses plaster a surface-level women empowerment movement into consumer culture, despite the ugly truth that their businesses are rampant with the very things they preach against. They take advantage of today’s commercial trends of giving back to the world — so branding a company as one that has a female CEO and wants to empower women? Cha-ching.

Girlboss culture also fails to address any real problems present in the U.S. workforce. No matter how they brand their businesses, #Girlboss is a grim hypocrisy. It became a successful money-making marketing template because it claimed to retaliate against the status quo; in reality, it had already conformed to the long-standing power structure in corporate America. Girlboss is a powerful example of how token gestures of rare female corporate success do not effectively solve the underlying gender inequality issues in the workplace.

What follows suit is that when the same women at the center define #Girlboss as feminism, others buy into it. Lower-class women assimilate into a phenomenon that is working to oppress them, hindering them from achieving their own liberation. We cannot try to incorporate feminism with capitalism and think that social justice will come out as the victor. The toxic culture of girlboss must go to end the cycle of false feminist narratives.

Even though we are approaching an age of accountability, there needs to be more recognition for those at the margin who do not have a voice in social movements. These changes happen by shifting the feminist movement away from the center. Underrepresented women, especially Black women, understand the sexist, racist and classist oppression more than those currently at the center. Hooks highlights that “it is essential for the continued feminist struggle that Black women recognize the special vantage point our marginality gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the dominant racist, classist, sexist hegemony.”

Ultimately, dismantling girlboss culture and all other forms of performative activism requires uplifting women by using intersectional feminist theory as a driving principle. Here at Northeastern, we can do our part to start the cultural shift: Breaking down the division between center and margin requires awareness, education and advocacy that we must embrace.

Lily Xu is a second-year politics, philosophy and economics major. She can be reached at [email protected].