In the massive influx of scammer narratives that have defined 2019 thus far, one throughline has become clear: the corporate feminist #girlboss has had her flower crown removed, her status as feminist icon revoked, and her platform squashed. Most recently with Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos scam, the first three months of the year have also hosted scandals from #girlbosses like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, bullshit-peddling Girl, Wash Your Face! author Rachel Hollis, Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway, college admissions scammers Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, and more.
It’s warranted. The sort of self-serving, non-inclusive vagaries these women have peddled as applicable feminism have set things back several Monopoly board spaces. What’s missing from this conversation is the fact that the #girlboss, no matter how slimy, does not occur in a void. No, dear reader, in this era of rightfully criticizing the women whose careers and public images have set feminism back several Monopoly board spaces, the wealthy, powerful men whose ignorance created them are still getting off pretty scot-free. And some of them, I shudder to inform you, are even wearing Bitcoin ties.
Let’s backtrack: what is a #girlboss? Based off the title of the 2014 bestselling memoir by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, the #girlboss has become shorthand for the shameless capitalist hiding beneath an umbrella of oversimplified feminism with a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 blockbuster book Lean In in her hand. Amoruso herself perfected the persona, preaching a “fortune favors the bold who get shit done!” gospel while maintaining an extremely toxic workplace behind the scenes. She’s far from alone; other CEOs who proved not to practice what they preached on further scrutiny are the “She E.O.” of Thinx period panties, high-up employees at the plus-size clothing company Modcloth, and hell, Lisa goddamn Frank.
Elizabeth Holmes is the newest to the stable of the public imagination, a Silicon Valley scammer who had her healthcare startup Theranos valued at nine billion dollars before the world realized she never had the technology to begin with. Holmes has been the subject of an HBO documentary, an ABC News podcast and special, and the subject of an upcoming Adam McKay movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. Five years ago, the myth of the #girlboss was potent. Now, the corporate feminists who led it are coming down, hard.
As EJ Dickson pointed out in Rolling Stone last weekend, the #girlboss is nearly always young, white and well-educated, creating the same narrow space for success in business that women have been allowed in entertainment and beyond. Sure, you can be like these women, as long as you already have every conceivable American privilege working in your favor besides gender—and even then, you can never, ever stop bringing up gender. It’s not an inclusive label at all, but markets itself as one—the #girlboss can often be found preaching the importance of diversity while making no effort to make that come forth, the importance of women in the workplace while offering slim to no maternity and paternity leave. For some time, a lot of women were excited about these figureheads, with the concept of a woman spearheading a business empire at all still feeling relatively new. Maybe they would run things differently, and something could be taken away from their experiences.
Six years after the incredibly vague Lean In took the world by storm, the world has concluded the #girlboss was another false promise, a sinister blend of late capitalism and white feminism. The problem with the #girlboss, most recent pieces conclude, is that they are not critical of the black hole of late American capitalism—they just want women (who fit a very narrow profile) to have access to its spoils. The promise that the #girlbosses made, that a capitalist endeavor spearheaded by a woman would automatically be more just, fair and empowering to all, has been proven false again and again. People of any gender can be a complete and total asshole, and that’s the closest to equality that 2019 has served thus far. Yes, we can all agree that the #girlboss is bad.
And yet. In this sea of pointing out the myriad lies, worker abuse and public deception Holmes was guilty of, it takes a startlingly long time into anything written about her to come across the name Sunny Balwani, a man nineteen years Holmes’ senior who began to date her when she was eighteen and was complicit and sometimes at the head of every misdeed Theranos was responsible for. There are some cases in which the public is willing to examine the power dynamics that factor into a grown man becoming involved with a far less experienced young woman, but Holmes’ has not been one of them. In Sandberg’s case, she was rightfully raked over the coals for her part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but was the subject of more gendered hit pieces than CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That is to say, the public implication is that these women do not just let down the integrity of their business when they turn out to be capitalist hacks, they let down womankind as a whole. In a climate where women are pressured to constantly justify their presence in a male-dominated space and few are afforded second chances should they fail, this can often prove true.
Sandberg intentionally made herself a center of the corporate feminist movement with her 2013 book Lean In, which inspired a spin-off nonprofit much in the same way that Amoruso’s #girlboss did. If your gender is a part of your brand, it makes sense that it would be addressed during your downfall. Still, this is a strange space to navigate. Because both these women made the choice to involve addressing their gender in a male-dominated space a part of their brand, it remains unclear if they would have achieved the power they did if they had not done the double duty of their jobs and establishing themselves as a Good Example For Women. No matter how you feel about them, this certainly isn’t a consideration for most men.
Take Elizabeth Holmes’ baritone voice, one of the central pieces of discussion around the Theranos scandal. It’s widely accepted that Holmes strategically lowered her voice to be taken seriously by investors like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, James Mattis and more. Most of the conversation has hinged around what a diabolical move of Holmes’ it was to employ a more masculine voice to gain credibility, but nearly everyone who has heard her speak has been able to recognize it as a fake straight away. Why didn’t these veteran businessmen and world leaders, and why haven’t they been asked to examine that? It’s much easier to say that Elizabeth Holmes is a criminal mastermind than to admit that you didn’t do your due diligence. One of the primary reasons that people like Holmes, Sandberg and others are able to get away with peddling Dove wrapper rhetoric as actual feminism is because it’s a version of feminism that men are comfortable with, and one they can capitalize on without being forced to change their perspectives all that much.
This is a complicated area of discussion. I don’t want to look on Sandberg, Holmes or any of their ilk with a shred of empathy any more than I’d want to see a #boyboss. Unfortunately, dear reader, the conversation surrounding these women is different, and the way in which we delight in seeing them implode is, too. So yes, by all means, enjoy the fall of the #girlboss, but don’t forget who made them possible in the first place. And then tell those old chinless men to fuck right off, too.
Jamie Loftus is taking her show Boss Whom Is Girl, a dark look at fictional #girlboss Shell Gasoline-Sandwich, on tour this summer.