I was excited when I heard about Netflix’s Girlboss. Here was a compelling story about a young entrepreneur making a name for herself, brought to life by the same company that gave us Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This show had to be feminist. Right?
Unfortunately, streaming Girlboss brought me about as much feminist joy as reading news stories about Ivanka Trump; the show tries to capitalize on the “girl power” feminist narrative without doing the heavy lifting. This isn’t a hard and fast rule as the show has some redeeming qualities. However, the show’s “feminism” feels disingenuous as you watch a middle class white woman carry out a montage of various thefts and broken rules to the tune of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”.
The implication is that Sophia, the titular girlboss, is the rebel we’re supposed to root for. It feels hollow when what she rebels against are common societal rules and basic decency. It doesn’t seem to fit with the vision espoused by Kathleen Hanna’s radical vocals when Sophia has nothing she really needs to rebel against.
Feminism is not simply supporting anything a woman does. And the form of “girl power” this show seems to be putting out into the ether feels false. There is nothing radical about breaking the law for your own gain without cause. There is nothing revolutionary about getting away with it because you appear to be an unassuming white woman who is rarely forced to face consequences of any kind. Trying to paint these qualities as female empowerment is nothing more than a co-opting of feminist language and discourse in a hollow attempt to cater to the current relevance of feminism in pop culture.
Beyond Sophia’s selfishness, the show centres around her relationship with her best friend Annie. It is comforting to see a complex and loving relationship between two women in a show with so many tone-deaf moments. These two are, however, the only female characters who are allowed a character arc over the course of the season. In a show that exists under the pretense of empowering women, that is disappointing.
All of the secondary female characters can very easily be categorized as one-note or two-dimensional. These are caricatures of female pop culture tropes. We have the bitchy boss, the absentee alcoholic mom and the uptight spinster to name a few. With better writing these characters could really pop on their own, but they clearly only exist to serve Sophia’s narrative.
That said, there are some strong elements to the show that deserve recognition. It is exciting to see a woman who is allowed to screw up and be intensely unlikable at points. Sophia is allowed to be horrible to the people around her. She is allowed to fail before she succeeds. She is allowed to fall down and pick herself back up--and even ask for help. In short, she is allowed to be a real, complex woman. And while it should not be revolutionary to see this type of female character, it still is relatively new in our culture to see women who refuse to be pleasing.
Watching Sophia build her business with the help of an unusual cast of characters is enough to bring a smile to your face. With colorful supporting characters like the eBay antique fashion forum who work to get Sophia kicked off the site, to Lionel, Sophia’s neighbor (played by RuPaul, who steals every scene), to Mobias the vintage store owner who reluctantly helps Sophia and Nathan, her art school friend who is a horrible artist, the show encourages us to rally around Sophia, a reaction she could not elicit by herself.
Though at times entertaining, Girlboss is incredibly problematic. Its female characters largely suffer from a lack of development and its heroine comes off more as an effort to co-opt feminist girl power than she does an empowered woman. If you can get past the sour taste some elements of the story might leave, Girlboss is not a terrible sick day binge watch. However, if you’re looking for a radical feminist narrative, maybe keep this “rebel girl” off your list.
Kelly Livingston is a freelance writer with a passion for intersectional feminism. After four years studying English and Anthropology at the University of Florida, she remains fascinated by the ways we can use writing to comment on and change our culture.