You’ve probably seen it plastered across cheap merchandise and scattered throughout the Instagram profile of that one girl from high school – #GirlBoss.
It’s a term that entered the collective vocabulary back in the early 2010s, first popularised by female CEOs looking to establish themselves within the public eye as a role model to women in business. Figures such as Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took to using the phrase as a snappy slogan for their uniquely female brand of business leadership – a way to fight back against the ‘bossy’ stereotype that had previously followed women in business and positioned them as supposedly overbearing and domineering people.
Ask such a figure and they’d tell you that the archetypal ‘girl boss’ certainly wasn’t weak or entitled. She was strong and hard-working, both warmer and smarter than her male peers. Her position on the frontline of big business heralded a new age not just for women in business, but women everywhere – this, they’d have you believe, was a milestone moment for feminism. In the age of the #Girlboss, all women win.
However, it never quite panned out that way. Once a term synonymous with female empowerment, #GirlBoss has since fallen out of favour with millions across the internet, joining other popular buzzwords of the early 2010s (remember #YOLO?) as seeming entirely dated. If you see #GirlBoss, chances are that you’re looking at a sarcastic joke or the words of somebody who didn’t get the memo that we simply just don’t say it anymore.
This is the story of the term that went from being the strong woman’s catchphrase to a terms that warns of surface-level feminism and toxic business practices ahead – how the idea of the #GirlBoss fell.
The rise of Instagram brought with it the rise of hustle culture.
The self-made millionaire has always been at the forefront of popular culture, but social media made it easier than ever to gain insight into the lifestyles of the business worlds’ filthy rich. Instagram provided the wealthy with the space to share an inside look at their lives whenever they liked, showcasing their lavish houses, fast cars, beautiful clothes and trips to exotic locations – unsurprisingly, followers wanted in. Hustle culture was born.
Characterised by Instagram graphics and inspirational quotes designed to motivate the masses, hustle culture took over – it was all about the rise and grind, the hunger for success and the idea that anyone could be a billionaire if they simply worked hard enough. Get up at 5am, take that cold shower and then get straight down to work – you’ll be posing in front of that Lambo before you know it.
The problem was that hustle culture seemed almost entirely geared towards males. It’s no secret that men traditionally face fewer roadblocks on the road to success – salaries are generally higher and there’s no expectation that men in business will eventually take time off to have a family. In response, the businesswomen of Instagram kicked back with their own entrepreneurial subculture – the #GirlBoss.
With the aforementioned Amoruso and Sandberg amongst the faces of #GirlBoss culture – alongside fellow female entrepreneurs such as Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes – the hashtag soon became a breeding ground for its own unique brand of motivational content, tailored to appeal to the businesswomen of the world. Hustle culture had ‘Rise and grind’ and the girl bosses of the internet had ‘She believed she could, so she did’.
#GirlBoss culture quickly became synonymous with modern feminism. Anything a man in business could do, a woman could, too – and a girl boss could do it even better. Before long, it was the word at the core of every conversation about women in business and a title that thousands of entrepreneurial women wore like a badge of honour. However, it wasn’t long before the cracks in the #GirlBoss community began to show.
Having grown to symbolise the rise of women in the workplace – increasingly in positions at the top of their respective businesses – the #GirlBoss movement was seen as a staple of modern feminism.
However, as more and more commentators began to deconstruct what #GirlBoss feminism really represented, it didn’t look all that positive. For one thing, the drive to bring more women into the workplace seemed to largely ignore the increased struggles to land high-paying job roles faced by women of colour and those within the LGBT community – the movement was almost entirely focused on straight, white women. Furthermore, the idea put forward by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg that more gender equality in the workplace would mean a less toxic work environment has been proven incorrect on several occasions – several times by accusations of her own negative business practices by Facebook staff.
Sheryl wasn’t the only girl boss role model who fell out of favour, either. Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso stepped down from her CEO position, citing that she was unprepared to deal with the demands of the role – though, when Nasty Gal filed bankruptcy in November 2016, it was speculated by ex-team members that a ‘toxic work environment’ had contributed to its financial failure.
However, the most shocking scandal to surround any #GirlBoss poster girl is arguably the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes. Once the biggest name in health technology as the founder and CEO of Theranos, a company that sought to eliminate the need for needles when drawing blood and revolutionise the way blood samples are studied, Elizabeth Holmes soon found herself at the core of one of the biggest fraud cases in history. Accused of misleading investors and the general public, Theranos had allegedly made false claims about the equipment that they had at their disposal in order to secure financial backing, supposedly having used equipment from other companies in published findings rather than the Theranos systems that had earned them multi-millions in investment. In other words, the company had secured huge amounts of money to support a product that they weren’t even working with.
It wasn’t just scandals at the downfall of the #GirlBoss, of course. Many had felt from the start that the movement simplified the struggles of working women and excluded those who weren’t straight, white and middle-class. In the eyes of many, the term itself was patronising. Why should it be ‘girl boss’, anyway? Why not just ‘boss’? You wouldn’t call Mark Zuckerberg a ‘boy boss’, would you?
Before long, #GirlBoss was no longer the businesswoman’s buzzword – it represented a movement that had ignored the problems experienced by millions of women and celebrated figures that had been exposed for using underhand tactics. It was out in the lexicon graveyard, destined to lie amongst ‘swag’ and ‘yolo’ as words we can’t believe we once used unironically.
The glory days of the #GirlBoss were well and truly over.
For every movement that falls apart, there are always traces left behind – the girl boss movement is no different.
These days, #GirlBoss has joined #BossBabe as the unofficial catchphrase of women working within multi-level marketing companies. MLMs recruit team members, mostly women from lower-income households, in order to sell company products to friends and family, as well as by recruiting others to join the company for themselves. However, in many cases, the products are overpriced or of low quality, meaning sellers can only make money by convincing others to join the team and work underneath them. Forced to continue purchasing stock in order to remain on the team, very few MLM sellers will ever make any money – 98% will lose out financially and many women will go into debt. The predatory nature of MLMs has seen them compared to everything from illegal pyramid schemes to cults.
The desperation of women within such companies to make money means that they are forced to cultivate an entirely different lifestyle for social media in order to convince others to join them – in fact, they are often instructed to do this by the company that they work for. Behind the scenes, they may be struggling to make ends meet, but their Instagram profiles are peppered with photographs of new clothes, expensive dinners, car showrooms and that very familiar term, #GirlBoss.
If the work environments fostered by Amoruso and Sandberg were toxic, the culture surrounding MLMs are pretty much nuclear. Once women sign up to be a part of such companies – usually sold dreams of being their own boss, working wherever and whenever they like and achieving consistent financial stability – they are repeatedly conditioned by higher-ups to believe that the company is not responsible for their inevitable failure. You didn’t sell anything this month? You weren’t trying hard enough. You couldn’t recruit anyone this week? Maybe you should stop taking ‘No’ for an answer. Your friends and family believe you’re being brainwashed by the company and will ultimately end up in debt? They just don’t want to see you succeed.
In the world of MLMs, the real girl bosses are the women at the top of the company, lucky enough to have achieved the financial stability and work-life balance dream sold to those who join underneath them. However, the reality of this business model means that these women have undeniably used underhand tactics to get them to where they are. They’ve targeted women who are desperate for work but can’t, for whatever reason, work a traditional job. They have lied to team members to keep them from jumping ship and have contributed to the illusion sold by those in control.
With over 6 million people participating in MLMs in the USA alone, platforms such as TikTok and YouTube have seen the rise of anti-MLM content, which looks to expose the reality of this predatory business model. Anti-MLM content creators have even come up with a catchphrase of their very own, an ironic slogan for the targets of their movement: ‘Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss’.
Once a word synonymous with the world’s most successful female entrepreneurs and symbolising the beginning of a new chapter for working women, #GirlBoss now conjures up a very different image – the ‘live, laugh, lawsuit’ lifestyle of the millennial Karen.
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