Before I came to university I was definitely indoctrinated into what I now know is ‘girl boss’ feminism. Girl boss feminism is a hollow brand of ‘empowerment’ which seems to celebrate women whilst not interrogating the root causes of sexism. It makes feminism palatable; women are never angry but ‘fierce’, they are not female professionals but ‘girl bosses’. It infantilises and patronises women because, as Refinery29 put it, ‘if we weren’t so scared of women’s power we wouldn’t need to do this, to make it more palatable by rolling it glitter and pinkwashing it’.
You see it every day, because it is marketable, easy-to-stomach feminism. It is embodied in encouraging women to buy t-shirts with feminist slogans on from the very companies that exploit female workers. On my 18th birthday I wore one of these tops, it read ‘Feminism: the radical notion that women are people’ and it was from H&M. Now I don’t even buy clothes from H&M or any fast fashion retailer because of their dubious ethics, but am I still guilty of the patronising girlbossery that my 18-year-old self was blind to? Have I broken up with the girl boss?
One of the first steps to cutting ties with this phenomenon was recognising that not only is ‘girl boss’ feminism pink-glitter-washed but whitewashed. It is the image of the white female entrepreneur which forgets working class women and people of colour. As I said, it is marketable feminism, so of course it forgets to empower the working-class women it relies on to make their garments and work in their shops. What would happen if those women were truly empowered? Who would sit in sweatshops making #girlboss tops for New Looks’s newest collection? Whose ideas and quotes would girlboss feminism steal and slap on Instagram? All the time women of colour’s ideas are stolen by white women who then make more money from them because they are more a marketable, palatable representation of feminism. Take the case of Florence Given and the Slumflower, which you can read more about here.
So, what can you do? I think the first step for me was diversifying my reading list with women of colour’s work, both fiction and non-fiction. My journey to doing this started at university when I became aware of just how white my experiences and TBR pile had been through reading some amazing female writers of colour on my modules such as Toni Morrison. Today, I am thoroughly aware of the need to read more writers of colour and actively act on this, with a little help from my university modules. For example, Black British Contemporary Literature has introduced me to Afrofuturism, a movement advocating for black writers to create more fantasy, sci-fi, futuristic work to show the immense possibilities for black people apart from a world which is so often concerned with their painful past. Of course, we should read history books and theory to educate ourselves on how this past affects our present but it is also important to support black futures.
Secondly, don’t buy into girlbossery, think about the brand’s ethics before buying a #feminism mug. Make sure you are actually supporting the movement your purchase claims you do. For example, I once saw Primark selling tops with Frida Kahlo on them and at first I thought, ‘oh cool, I love Frida Kahlo!’ but then I realised how much she would probably hate that this global corporation had stuck her face on a few nicknacks to exploit well-meaning women who might fall prey to girlboss feminism. Look for women owned businesses, buy local, shop small, this is more important than ever in the pandemic where small businesses need support to survive.
Thirdly, educate yourself and act to create a better world for women of all shapes, sizes, sexualities, races etc. For most students this is difficult but there are great ways to make a small difference, for example I try to remember to buy a couple of things to go in the foodbank every time I go to the supermarket. Even a small act like this, or reading more diverse experiences of womanhood can help you to create a better world for women everywhere.
I am by no means a saint when it comes to leaving the performative change that is girlbossery behind, but I am trying to make some positive changes to sack the girl boss this International Women’s Day.
-Yzzy (English Literature and Hispanic Studies)