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In this episode, Chelsea unpacks the rise and fall of the "girlboss," and what it says about our shared cultural values.

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Hey, guys. about the illustrious rise and tragic fall of the girlboss, both at an individual level as well as cultural phenomenon.

But before we get into all of that delicious girlboss talk, let's take a moment to talk about how any of us Let's start by being honest with ourselves. When is the last time that any of us heard someone use the term girlboss unironically?

It's hard to believe now that the term has become so cringy and loaded because just a few years ago it was something that many women used and felt genuinely empowered by. Five years ago even, when we heard the term girlboss, it was almost impossible not to associate it with the concept of fighting the good fight on behalf of women everywhere. We pictured things like Hillary Clinton standing up to Donald Trump during debates, which historically worked out super well for her.

Sheryl Sandberg, serving in Facebook's C-Suite and publishing Lean In. Thanks, Sheryl. Or publications like Refinery29, Cosmopolitan, and xoJane putting women in the forefront, even if it meant exchanging their deepest traumas for $40.

It was an era in which representation was basically the start and end of the battle. It didn't really matter what the material impacts were for women all up and down the economic ladder so that a few women were able to access the top and look fabulous while doing it. So what happened?

In order to fully understand how the girlboss persona fell, we have to understand how it rose in the first place and how it came to be so ubiquitous while almost entirely uncriticized. The term was first popularized around 2014 by author Sophia Amoruso in her book, Girlboss, although the ideals and principles express can be traced back to the '80s and '90s when it became far more common for women to have careers outside the home, and the idea of having it all was prominent in our cultural discourse. And there were many real world reasons to feel like it was a bit of an era.

On a global scale, for example, the 2010s were an excellent time for women leaders in several countries. Angela Merkel was rounding the corner on 10 years as chancellor of Germany. Four of Canada's most powerful provinces were helmed by women.

Jacinda Ardern was only a few years away from becoming New Zealand's Prime Minister, and Hillary Clinton was running what at the time seemed like an unloseable campaign. And beyond politics, it was also a time when an even remotely witty soundbite that had a slightly political sounding bent to it was cause for weeks of fawning unexamined good press. Anne Hathaway drowned in accolades for her comeback to Extra's Jerry Penacoli's invasive questions about her catsuit and fitness regime in The Dark Knight Rises, finally asking him, are you trying to fit into a catsuit?

JK Rowling was still beloved and powerful, and ensemble comedies like Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect provided a fun feminine alternative to a lot of the dude filled comedies of the 2000s. And it's also important to understand why these things seemed so amazing to us at the time because 10 years ago we were still struggling to see distinct examples of female representation in power. Academically, women were lagging behind in STEM fields.

In 2010, for example, fewer than 13% of working engineers and 25% of computer scientists in the US were women. And politically between 2009 and 2011, there were a total of 90 women in the House and Senate out of 535 total members. And essentially, all of the most buzzworthy shows on television were heavily centered around men.

Things like my beloved Breaking Bad or my beloved Boardwalk Empire or my most beloved and cherished Mad Men. I'm realizing I may have been part of the problem. And we were opening up all kinds of new discourse around concepts like mansplaining or man spreading or other terms, I guess, that begin with man.

It was a time when a lot of women were looking around and saying, hey, something's wrong here. And when you combined many of the real world signifiers of our limited power with the '90s and early 2000s being centered in this concept of having it all-- see Carrie Bradshaw or the ubiquitous image of a woman balancing a baby, a suitcase, and a martini-- it's no surprise that this concept of high powered representation as feminist achievement would be the next logical step, particularly when you consider how relatively easy representation alone is to fold into an ongoing framework that might still remain very exploitative-- see the number of female executives increasing without a marked increase in things like universal maternity leave. And let's be honest.

In principle, the idea of feeling empowered by a very superficial idea of female representation that, let's be clear, only really applies to women who were already socially and economically upwardly mobile is your right. If you feel empowered by drinking out of a hashtag lady boss coffee mug every morning, I mean, I'll judge you, but I won't like write a law preventing you from doing it. But the entire concept of the girlboss as it was framed and celebrated in our society fundamentally represented a dynamic in which women just ascended to power which they lorded over others where the fundamental dynamics socioeconomically weren't actually changing, and the power structures were assimilated into rather than questioned.

The death of the girlboss in our culture ultimately was won by 1,000 cuts. But if you had to sum it up into one concept, it's that for as ubiquitous as she was for the past 10 years for the average woman, life hasn't gotten much better. And looking back, it's very easy to see how this superficially empowering concept that might, at the time, have been genuinely believed in and felt by its advocates was co-opted and immediately assimilated into an aggressive marketing tool.

Because according to Catalyst Research, globally, women control more than $31.8 trillion in consumer spending as of 2020. And according to Forbes as of 2019, they control 85% of US consumer spending, despite earning less. And this isn't even a new phenomenon.

As early as 2009, Harvard Business Review reported that women controlled the majority of global spending. And that means from a purely profit seeking point of view, it has always been incumbent upon brands to figure out how to most effectively market to women whose dollars they rely upon. Maybe we earn less, but we do decide the brand of toilet paper that gets bought in our home generally.

So Charmin has to talk about wiping your ass like a CEO. And while, yes, it can be healthy and beneficial to show women in positions of power, if branding along the lines of an empowered corporate woman is simply a new version of pink washing otherwise indistinguishable products that used to be the norm for decades, we're not really making much advancement. Pantene, for example, famously used its quote, "sorry not sorry" ad in 2014, which urged women to stop saying sorry so much.

But its parent company Procter Gamel has been criticized as recently as 2019 for paying women less than men on an hourly rate and annual rate and bonus payouts. And we can't talk about marketing without mentioning just how essential the girlboss rhetoric has been toward the proliferation of MLMs in the past 10 years. MLMs, which almost exclusively target women-- usually women like stay at home moms and military spouses and other underemployed women-- use the language of empowerment and being your own boss to disguise what is ultimately a financial exploitation of them.

So it's hard not to be a bit cynical about how this female empowerment narrative was used to market by organizations and people who clearly didn't care about actually empowering women in the real world. And similarly, even in its actual achievements, dubious as they might have been, the girlboss success stories were ludicrously concentrated in white already upper middle to upper class women. Look at all the names we've mentioned.

Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Kathleen Wynne, Anne Hathaway, Emma Stone, Sheryl Sandberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, the entire cast of Bridesmaids, Scarlett Johansson, they're all white women and all women who already had money. And you can point to a few prominent women of color who are at the top of their games and were particularly celebrated by this slice of feminism, women like Roxane Gay or Shonda Rhimes, but for the most part, this particular brand of feminism has always been extremely homogeneous. For example, in Elle's 2017 listicle "9 Celebrities Tell Us About Their Biggest Hashtag Girlboss Moments," all of the women featured are wealthy and white, many of them speaking about fairly boilerplate stuff, like balancing career and motherhood.

This list also featured designer Rachel Zoe, who has frequently come under criticism for a lack of diversity in her shows, both body and racial. But besides the lack of ethnic intersectionality, the girlboss movement fundamentally suffered from a quest for power that is centered around becoming part of the oppressor class. Women rising to the rank of boss was almost universally praised, no matter what that meant for the people working under her.

For example, in the last year, a record number of women took over fortune 500 companies. As of Q1, the number was 41 women leading such companies, or 8.2% of Fortune 500s globally. It doesn't sound like much, but it is a steady increase and has almost doubled since 2018.

But that doesn't equate to victory for all women. For example, Rite Aid appointed a female CEO in 2019, but data from Indeed estimates that cashiers at Rite Aid still make an average of $9.11 per hour. And according to the US Census Bureau, women still represent 56% of Americans in poverty, nearly two thirds of workers earning the federal minimum wage, and 70% of tipped workers.

Essentially, more women at the top is great, but it is not translating to women at the bottom. And I think the thing that has fundamentally shifted in these past few years-- and if TFD was even an infinitesimal part of that shift, I will die a happy woman-- is that we've become much more aware of class dynamics in any discussion of power or activism. And this question of class and how it pertains to identity have become even more important since the pandemic, which has only widened income inequality.

But this false dichotomy between a glossy upper class feminism and class politics, which actually stand to benefit disproportionately women, has been a recurring theme that has in many ways prevented us from dealing with the real underpinning issues. Take, for example, Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders. I know that I am playing Minesweeper at this point, but screw it.

I'm clicking all those buttons. Now regardless of who you supported, it is hard to deny that especially in, 2016 much was made about Sanders being a quote, "old white man." And Clinton did undeniably face sexism on her campaign trail, both in the primary and the presidential race. But Clinton and Sanders also held very different beliefs on economic matters, such as tuition, student debt, and of course, health care.

For whom a hospital bill can mean the difference between financial comfort or total despair, seeing a woman in power might not be the most important thing on their mind. A deeper analysis of whose policy agenda actually stood to benefit more women, rather than a focus on who was visually representing them, was distinctly lacking from the discourse, even in that time, I think in no small part, because of the girlbossification of how we think about women's achievements. Or take the way Margaret Thatcher was venerated after her death, despite the fact that casting her in any sort of girl power framing is deeply ahistorical to the material results of her policies.

I guess you could say it was an achievement to see a woman crushing labor unions under her rule, but I guess that's sort of depends on what you classify as an achievement. But ultimately, the most damning outcome of the girlbossification of our discourse was what actually happened when the hashtag girls became hashtag bosses. Because when we talk about the actual bosses who are, in many ways, figureheads of this movement, we have more than enough examples to show that a woman being in power does not necessarily mean good things for the team that works under her.

Women are just as capable of creating a toxic, exploitative, or downright abusive work environment. One of the best examples of this might be Amy Emmerich, former global president and chief content officer of Refinery29. In the mid 2010s, Amy was a rising star in digital media, rocked an undercut, and frequently repeated her catchphrase that she wanted to teach her daughter to, quote, "kick some ass and wear lipstick while doing it." Fast forward to 2020, and Emmerich stepped down amidst an internal investigation that alleged a pattern of toxic workplace behavior.

The Refinery29 union had also demanded the resignation of Emmerich. And there are other famous examples, like Rachel Hollis, author of Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing. Hollis has really been going through it this year, starting with her fairly public meltdown after some fans responded poorly to her discussing her housekeeper, who, quote, "cleans her toilets," and sort of quasi comparing herself to Harriet Tubman in the process, which shook loose an entire stream of much pent up criticism about the fact that her advice often just boils down to the same bootstraps bullshit being fed to us by cadaverous Republican senators.

But it was interesting to see Hollis reaction to her backlash, in which she proclaimed that she didn't want to be relatable, and her fall has been precipitous enough that her conference this year barely scraped 4,500 attendees when it received tens of thousands in the past. We've also spoken at length on this channel about the hashtag girlboss antics of one Erica Jayne. Or on the political side, you have notable faces like Amy Klobuchar or Canada's former governor general Julie Payette having been on the receiving end of allegations about abusive behavior toward their staff, in some instances, reducing staff to tears or prompting them to take stress leaves.

We also have the internal scandals and ultimate downfalls of female lead girlbossified companies like Nasty Gal, Away, Thinx, Outdoor Voices, The Wing, Theranos, and many, many more. You go, girls. And when you look at how these abusive or toxic practices were allowed to go unchecked for years before these eventual downfalls, it takes you to the fundamental dynamic within the girlboss framework that basically set it up for failure.

The premise here was just getting women to act more like men and emulate their preexisting power dynamics. For example, if we throw it back to that Pantene ad telling women to stop saying sorry, it's worth considering that women statistically demonstrating more empathy, compassion, patience, listening skills, humility, and communication in the workplace is probably not something to crush out of us. In fact, I'd argue that the better path is to encourage men, especially men in positions of power, to apologize more, to reflect more on their behavior, to listen more than they speak, to second guess their own instincts rather than running roughshod over the entire company.

We automatically frame it as a bad thing that women are likely to qualify statements, but perhaps it indicates that we understand we don't know everything and might benefit as much from someone else's perspective as we do blasting our own out. But when you frame this aping of men's power dynamics and communication styles as inherently feminist, it means that calling out those practices just means you're a sexist who doesn't want to see a woman succeed, which probably is the reason why so many of these organizations and individuals were able to thrive for years before they were eventually taken down. Ultimately it is worth looking back at the girlboss era and understanding the fatal flaw in our thinking from the beginning, which was framing feminist success as one of power.

Power concentrated at the top does not mean an achievement for a group, and it certainly doesn't mean altering the dynamics that got us to a place of inequality in the first place. We should be measuring the success of our movements based on the women in the margins, women who are often overlooked, women who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, women who are discriminated against, women who are most vulnerable to the material impacts of these policy changes or changes in power structures. The girlboss era may be blessedly dead, but it is worth doing an autopsy to prevent ourselves from getting once again suckered in into the easy, cheap, and ultimately meaningless politics of representation and don't forget to hit the subscribe button and to come back every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for new and awesome videos.