Is Being a ‘Girl Boss’ a Bad Thing? It’s Complicated

On TikTok and Instagram, a term that used to embody Millennial female empowerment has become a way to mock capitalism, superficial activism, and more

Calling someone a girl boss is ironic and also a “sincere insult,” says Leigh Urbowicz, a 23-year-old recent college graduate.

“When I use it, it’s definitely context-situational, but I mostly use it either ironically or as a sincere insult as kind of a way to call out non-inclusive feminism,” she says. “I think that’s been the way it’s been co-opted and that’s how I use it.”

Sophia Amoruso, founder of the online fast-fashion retailer Nasty Gal, helped coin the term “girl boss” when she founded Girlboss Media and began hosting weekend-long events for Millennial entrepreneurs starting at $350. Amoruso wrote a book titled #Girlboss and executive produced a TV show by the same name.

But now Gen Z is redefining what it means to be a “girl boss” and it’s pure irony. The joke has been around for a few years—The Eric Andre Show featured a sketch about whether Margaret Thatcher had “girl power,” but lately, it’s taken off on TikTok. The “girl boss” hashtag on TikTok has more than 998 million views with users poking fun at the kind of white Millennial woman who ropes in other white women to sell MLM products. Singer and social media star Rebecca Black posted an Instagram cosplaying as a Sunday School girl with the caption “girlbosses rise up!”

It’s also hustle culture. It’s putting bright red lipstick on capitalism. It’s the idea that anything a woman does is feminism, no matter how harmful it is.

Right now the ultimate girl boss is Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the health tech company Theranos when she was 19 years old. The company ended up being a huge scam, resulting in Holmes being indicted for wire fraud.

“She was a woman in STEM,” Urbowicz says. “She was a woman in Silicon Valley and she really pushed upon that even when people were doubting that Theranos could do what she said. So if it hadn’t come out that she was a scammer, she would still be successful and I think people are really taking the Elizabeth Holmes jokes as a way to critique this idea that anything women do is feminist.”

Rania Blaik, a 24-year-old living in Texas, says she began ironically calling Holmes a girl boss after the HBO documentary about Holmes, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, premiered in 2019. She has since opened an Etsy shop selling T-shirts reading “Elizabeth Holmes is my #GirlBoss” for $22.25.

“Having a fraudulent healthcare company with an awful culture and simultaneously being named Glamour’s Woman of the Year is deeply funny,” Blaik says. “I also think girl boss as a term is so versatile because you can apply it to women doing anything. It doesn’t necessarily have to be objectively awful even though that’s kind of when the irony is at its height. You could be like, ‘Oh, I ate a bagel today, that’s such a girl boss move.’”

At its core, however, the term wasn’t meant to be all this. Amoruso explained the meaning at a Girlboss Rally in 2017: “Girlboss is a feeling, a philosophy. It’s a way for women to reframe success for ourselves, on our own terms, for the first time in history.”

That’s why Kayla Curry, a 20-year-old student in Missouri, uses the term to uplift women. Even though she made a TikTok making fun of the different kinds of girl bosses (conservative girl boss, bimbo girl boss, liberal girl boss: “I care about the causes, but what do you want me to do about it?”), she says it’s a “supportive term.”

“It’s been used to water down women’s successes and it’s especially hurtful to hear it from other women who are just doing their thing,” Curry says. “They’re in their bag and they’re making fun of them for it.”

Curry might be one of the few who sees it that way, though. Nicky Romano, a 20-year-old student, posted a TikTok joking that he likes to comment “#girlboss” on the Citizen app on posts about female criminals. (“A woman can pepper spray someone just as well as a man can,” Romano says. “That is girl boss. She is breaking the glass ceiling.”) But women like Vice President Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres can also be girl bosses because of their “surface-level activism.”

“Anybody can be such a girl boss,” Romano says. “Really girl boss is in the eye of the beholder. I just had a graphic design teacher with micro bangs and I was like, ‘She is seriously in her girl boss era.’”

According to Blaik, lifestyle influencer Rachel Hollis, who compared herself to Harriet Tubman because she wakes up early, is a girl boss. Likewise, Anna Delvy scamming people into believing she was a German heiress worth millions was “such a girl boss move.”

“If you eat the silica gel beads you’re supposed to throw away when you get a new product, you’re probably a girl boss,” Blaik says. “That’s, like, girl boss fuel.” [Ed note: Please to don’t eat silica gel beads.]

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