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Same as the Old Boss

The rise of the girlboss was not a victory for feminism

Prominent white feminists tend to stick together. I would know, after having written a book called Against White Feminism. I was criticized or dismissed by a good many of them, not least the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was asked directly about my book last year and essentially declared that “complicated and difficult conversations” about racism and feminism are a distraction from the need to oppose draconian anti-women laws being pushed by Republicans. Similar furor erupted this week when New York Times journalist Alisha Haridasani Gupta wrote an article titled “The Sunsetting of the Girlboss Is Nearly Complete.” The main “girlboss” in Gupta’s article was Emily Weiss, the former CEO of a make-up company called Glossier. Gupta shows how Weiss—along with a few other female CEOs who have also stepped down from top jobs—represented a form of leadership that celebrated markedly un-feminist values: domination, hierarchy, and capitalist greed. Gupta suggests we’re seeing the demise of a certain kind of acquisitive, ruthless, and white female entrepreneur encapsulated in the girlboss ideal. Among the reasons that Gupta enumerated for the end of Weiss’s tenure was an internal memo in which retail employees complained of a “racist, toxic work environment.” One cited example was the company’s inability to handle situations such as when white teenagers used products in the “experiential” Glossier stores to emulate blackface.

Most millennial feminists have already denounced the girlboss label, which began as the title of a book written by a white woman who advocated a ruthless, “let’s beat the white men at their game” brand of feminism, a sort of younger version of what Sheryl Sandberg so skillfully sold in Lean In. Here was a hard-driving and individual quest for individual success dressed up in feminist frocks, the opposite of an “intersectional” awareness, which advocates a multidimensional understanding of female leadership. The girlboss might have treated women of color in the workforce terribly, but she still got to be a shining feminist CEO, breaking glass ceilings for an admiring audience of other white women.

The girlboss label was also discarded because its clever sleight of hand was exposed. Being celebrated this way in the start-up culture enabled privileged white women to install themselves in leadership roles even as they trampled on others, often women of color, to get there. Here was capitalism and racial privilege using the lingo of women’s empowerment as a front. The white women who were the new founders and leaders never had to actually do something to further anyone other than themselves, let alone something that promoted a collective feminist consciousness committed to equality for everyone. Nor were you or your company answerable for policies or products that actually hurt the larger feminist cause. Essentially, being a girlboss was a front, allowing white-male-adjacent white women to grab power for themselves even as they planned to perpetuate structural racism as usual.

It paid off for some. Between 2010 and 2020, white women more than doubled their numbers as Fortune 500 CEOs. Yet of the forty-one female CEOs currently leading Fortune 500 companies (an all-time high), only two are Black. Most white women who have been appointed since 2015 have similar backgrounds: they are well-educated and come from privilege.  Such was the silky sheen of these white girlbosses that white men in the venture capital world sometimes gobbled up anything they had to sell. Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, managed to convince an entire board of powerful white men that she had pioneered a way to test blood with a single drop. For years no one asked to see the vaunted machine actually test the blood. Such was the charm of the white and blonde “pioneer” that millions flowed into the Theranos coffers.

The girlboss paid homage to a patriarchal system as long as it made room for her. It exchanged white male dominance, with all its pernicious racism, with white female dominance—same stuff in a different package.

As the world knows now, the Theranos machine did not do what it promised; it barely even existed in physical form. The girlboss was also a failure. Despite its proliferation by white women, intersectional feminists began to point out just how the term paid homage to capitalism’s dog-eat-dog ethic, paying no heed to women’s collective efforts to build movements that would promote equity for all women. The girlboss was racist because she was committed only to her own equality and uninterested in collective feminist efforts; the girlboss ultimately paid homage to a patriarchal system if only it made room for her. It merely exchanged white male dominance, with all its pernicious racism, with white female dominance—same stuff in a different package.

The white feminists of today know not to push the girlboss model except when they can be self-righteous about it. Gupta’s article about Wiess provided just such an opportunity. Instead of noting the need to retire a model of success so blatantly based on individual advancement and masking racial privilege, some turned on Gupta with the same sly logic of Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Against White Feminism. “The negative narrative that chases women in the limelight is exhausting, and a huge barrier to more women stepping into leadership. Stop dragging women down at any excuse,” tweeted Debbie Wosskow, the cofounder of an online community to “empower women.” Megan Quinn, the COO of Niantic Labs and an “investor-builder” (with “growth stage” investments in Glossier) located in the Bay Area, got nastier: “It’s a terrible article with an awful headline and an outrageously sexist thesis. And I refuse to send it a single page view,” she tweeted, prompting her followers, such as Simon Zeigler, to declare the piece “shameful.” Laura Minquini added rhetorical flourish: “Why is it always female journalists writing these stories?”

In their response to Gupta’s article, white girlbosses and their cheerleaders have decided to give us the encore performance no one asked for. Ganging up against a brown woman who puts forward legitimate questions concerning the questionable intersectional credentials is crucial if feminism is to become racially and otherwise inclusive. Sadly, Gupta’s incisive framing of how feminist posturing hides careerist opportunism appears to have inspired the very cliquish ganging up that silences race-based critiques of white feminists altogether. In this takedown tactic, it is the brown woman who is accused of sexism simply because she has dared to question (gasp) a white woman who headed a multimillion-dollar make-up company.

The defenders of the girlboss, it appears, have taken refuge in numbers, in that glib tsk-tsking at an interloper who must be taken down for risking “complicated and difficult conversations.” There is, however, another dynamic at play here. Not only is this cabal of revived girlbosses taking aim at the content of the article, they are also questioning Gupta’s own credentials as a feminist. She should be looking at the misdeeds of male bosses and not drawing undue attention to failures in “the sisterhood.” That line of attack underscores just how cleverly white women impute the lacking of feminist credentials among “other” women. A white woman, better schooled, hewing to the views of HillaryWorld, would never make such a mistake.

It would be funny if it weren’t so ironic—a brown woman prodded and pinched as inadequately feminist because she dared expose the opportunism and leadership failures of a much-celebrated white woman. If any of Gupta’s chorus of girlboss revivalists were asked if they supported an intersectional approach to feminism, they would nod and smile and signal their support. Yet, when it comes to an actual test, the superficial veneer of this commitment is revealed. Gupta’s detractors are women who are committed to the worst kind of acquisitive individualism, to a system that treats the non-founders, the workers, the women of color as cogs in the capitalist machine. There is more than a little nostalgia here for those halcyon days when the girlboss was queen and white feminists ruled the roost, grabbing and gobbling money and opportunity, trampling on Black and Brown women without anyone to call them out. All of them are still there, wearing intersectional masks that fall off whenever they see a brown feminist stepping out of line.