Photo by Hannah Pahl/@hannahpahl

How the "Girl Boss" narrative keeps us from making systemic change

By:
Anusha Kav (@perhapsanusha)

Every year on International Women’s Day my social media feeds are filled with influencers professing their commitment to women’s empowerment. 

Usually, it starts with a self-described “Girlboss” who wants to encourage women that no matter their circumstance, they can become the “boss babe”, “she-EO”, or “momtrepreneur” of their dreams. 

They typically say that if women just set their minds to it and work hard towards their dreams, success will be inevitable. 

Sounds familiar, right? 

Despite its claims of feminism and women’s empowerment, the Girlboss narrative isn’t actually all that revolutionary. If you think about it, it’s really just a repackaged version of the long-standing myth of the American dream. 

The American dream says that no matter what background or life experience someone may have, because of the freedom and opportunities granted to them by American society, if they just work hard enough, they’ll see financial success. 

Canadians have our own version of this myth, where we promise a land of prosperity and success to anyone in our “multicultural society” regardless of their race, gender, class or ethnicity.

But these dreams have been long-debunked. 

Business Insider reported in 2012 that American’s social mobility was the lowest it had ever been in history. If Americans were born poor, they were likely to stay that way throughout their life regardless of how hard they worked. By contrast, if Americans were born middle class or wealthy, they would pass on generational wealth to their children and so on. But the fruits of your labour are largely related to how many opportunities you have access to in the first place. 

After Forbes released their issue of “America’s Women Billionaires” in 2018 and highlighted influencer Kylie Jenner, many took issue with the magazine describing her as “self-made.” 

Most people, unlike Jenner, didn’t inherit the level of fame and wealth that set her up for success as the youngest, American woman billionaire. 

In a tour of her “purse closet” Jenner herself remarks that her mother gave her and her sister Louis Vuitton and Prada bags as babies, which is quite literally the meaning of being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. 

For so long, women have been excluded from asserting their place in the corporate world, and in the excitement over inclusion, the Girlboss narrative masks the same issues of wealth inequality as the American dream, and ends up helping only a sliver of women.

It also hides the fact plenty of women in positions of power can certainly enable and uphold the very same systems of oppression that they were brought in to supposedly challenge. 

In her critique of the Girlboss for The Atlantic, Amanda Mull puts it simply: “Making women the new men within corporations was never going to be enough to address systemic racism and sexism, the erosion of labor rights, or the accumulation of wealth in just a few of the country’s millions of hands.”

The ability to work your way out of poverty into becoming a millionaire or billionaire is a shortsighted, unrealistic goal, that reinforces much of the inequality feminist movements are trying to challenge and overcome.

It also implicitly devalues care work, which is still a deeply gendered field, and creates a toxic culture that romanticizes burnout. 

This International Women’s Day I hope we start challenging the institutions that continue to marginalize and prevent women from achieving their highest potential in the first place. 

And for now, the Girlboss narrative can kindly step aside.

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About the author: Anusha is a first year Master of Journalism student at UBC, based out of Edmonton, Alberta. Anusha has an interest in media studies and representation in popular culture including film, television, social media, fan culture, celebrity, and beauty. Follow her on socials @perhapsanusha

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