Last month I was identified as a “Girl Boss” and invited to participate in a networking extravaganza, organized by Intervivos, a mentorship society in Edmonton. http://www.intervivos.ca. After saying yes, I googled “Girl Boss” to discover what in the hell that was. I learned that the term should always be typed in caps, with a permanent hashtag. So far, so good. I also discovered that #GIRLBOSS is the title of a best-selling book by Sophia Amoruso, the CEO and Creative Director of Nasty Gal, a kabillion dollar online clothing company that she started on ebay while in her early twenties (http://www.nastygal.com). In the autobiographical book, Amoruso describes her meteoric rise from shoplifting bad ass to hard-nosed entrepreneur in a mere eight years. She is now hot shit, employs hundreds of people, and recently turned 30. Every hip girl wants to be her.
The Edmonton event inspired by Amoruso was fun, with each speaker—including a local mayor, founders of successful clothing stores, and the owner of the Traveling Tickle Trunk, a great feminist sex shop that I have been known to frequent—rotating between tables of delightful networkees who had actually paid to be there. These ladies, and a few young men, were prepared with many questions, looking for guidance to chart their own futures and start their own businesses. Though I was useless on those topics, I was happy to speak about the Feminist Figure Girl Project, which seemed to fit the #GIRLBOSS mandate. It was a risky venture that had required discipline, online technologies, endless self-promotion, and of course the word “girl.” I suppose that it also included fashion, if you are a fan of sparkly bikinis and plastic shoes. Yet as I rushed home from the Intervivos venue to breastfeed my son, I was both tired and confused. Was I really a #GIRLBOSS? Or had I been invited by accident?
I immediately ordered Amoruso’s book to see what all the fuss was about. It was short and fluffy, using a giant font to make it seem longer. Though the book took me only an hour to get through, I could see its mass appeal. The first half provides a sassy narrative of Amoruso’s life, moving from her rebellious childhood, which included dropping out of school to work at Subway, to her forays in dumpster diving, and general angst while working at a string of crappy jobs. Nasty Gal was born during one of these brain-numbing employments, with Amoruso passing the time by using ebay to sell the vintage clothing she had found at thrift shops. Her passion for tedious hard work—to me this was the most interesting part of the book—ultimately paid off big time, attracting investors and transforming Amoruso into a respected entrepreneur with many employees [hence: “boss”]. Amoruso’s #GIRLBOSS ethic, especially the motto: “Life is short. Don’t be lazy” won my respect and admiration. I began to jump up and down while shouting: “I am #GIRLBOSS, hear me roar.”
Throughout the book, Amoruso presents herself as a brash, mischievous, and daring character who does not take herself too seriously. Amoruso is a heroine in her book, battling the odds to succeed on her own terms. This emphasis on the courageous individual conforms to the parameters of the American Dream, especially since the free market system enables her to find herself. Amoruso shapes her story along the standard lines, like a movie plot. I suspect that it is currently being considered for some kind of film script, though there is not enough tragedy in it to merit Oscar buzz. Everyone loves a tale in which the underdog rises from poverty to riches, from subjection to power, by pulling themselves up by their own boot straps. Amoruso’s version is especially appealing because she did not pursue formal education [indeed there is a certain anti-academic spirit to #GIRLBOSS that I find slightly annoying]. I am ashamed to admit that I like to tell a similar story about myself, mostly silently inside my head because no one really wants to hear it. I did not receive parental or other support for my studies, and rose through the educational system through merit, not class privilege. I worked full-time while taking full-time courses during my undergraduate degree, and nevertheless earned the highest GPA in my discipline, winning scholarships to graduate school and a gold medal while avoiding student debt for ten years in a row. Blah blah blee blah…. I can tell that you are beginning to hate me. Well tough shit because I am on a roll…
Amoruso succeeded because she worked hard, doing unpleasant things and constantly learning new skills, never resting on her laurels. Most people don’t want to do that. I often encounter people who expect opportunities to come their way, or fail to take up opportunities when they present themselves. Then they wonder why their careers have stagnated. Like Amoruso, I placed my career as a priority. That means that it took precedence over family, fun, and relaxation. I moved to accept employment in places where I did not want to live, and initially took jobs for low pay. After putting myself through grad school, I worked hard every day and every weekend between 1996 and 2006, publishing so that I could move up and out. Now that I have the salary and research career that I want, I put family as my first priority. It took over twenty years to get here, ten of them in school, and ten of them feverishly working at a job that did not pay much. I made tough choices based on my long term goals. I think that most people make decisions according to their priorities rather than actual opportunities or choices. If they value family, children, partners, material goods, relaxation, sleeping, partying, routine, or immediate gratification more than career goals, they may well not have the career they really want. It is not a matter of “bad luck” if they hate their job or feel devalued in it. I think that Amoruso and I are on the same page here. One woman at #girlbossyeg asked me how she could “have it all.” I said that she could not have it all, at least not for a very long time. She could have some things now and some things later, maybe never. This reply displeased her greatly. So be it.
I know that I am not completely right about this. Women face greater challenges when pursuing careers and are routinely punished for having children. That is why I waited until I was 46 before having a baby (by accident, but still…). My story and its parallels with that of Amoruso ultimately reinforce hierarchies and the dominant vision of the neoliberal individual: each person is responsible for his or her life, either working hard to earn their keep or being lazy. I have written about the problems with this neoliberal way of thinking at length in other posts and will avoid repeating myself here [see “Fitspiration Brouhaha” and “The ‘Fat’ Female Body (in Search of Happiness)”]. Let’s just say that it is quite possible to hold paradoxical viewpoints. On one hand I can critique neoliberal values, but on the other hand I am enabled by them; they frame my sense of self. Oh Foucault, why are you always right? I would be something of a hypocrite if I attacked the concept of a #GIRLBOSS for creating yet another subject position that reinforces governmentality and its self-help ethos. So here goes me being a hypocrite: self-help discourse encourages you to “find yourself” by listening to authorities and following the rules. It demands that you seek and find happiness in specific ways, and yet “on your own terms.” It is complete bullshit. Amoruso’s book fits into this genre. Sigh.
In the end, I found Amoruso and her ideas likeable, but also very conventional. Work hard and the free market will embrace you is hardly a revolutionary concept. Nor is the book particularly sophisticated; it fails to reflect on, for example, the possibilities initially offered by such technologies as ebay that are arguably no longer in place. All the same, encouraging young ambitious women to get out there and get shit done can only be a good thing. Plus #GIRLBOSS barely mentions romantic relationships or boyfriends, offering alternative ways for smart women to find meaning in their lives. And to that I sing Hallelujah.