COLUMN: Girlboss preaches a feminist mantra

The new Netflix original series Girlboss, based on Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso’s autobiography #GIRLBOSS, is a curious shell of a show. Belied by flaws in both subject and substance, it is still fascinating — driven by leading lady Britt Robertson’s riveting performance, Girlboss is the red carpet on which its protagonist Sophia walks. She’s the new brand of female character whom audiences love and everyone inside the series seems to hate: a girl who wears what she wants and does what she wants and, most of all, doesn’t care what you would seem to think.

The first episode gets off on a rocky start, with two disjointed scenes of Sophia pushing her car out of the path of traffic and then conversing with an old woman in a park about her philosophy of life. But the ball soon gets rolling, although not before one of the most cookie-cutter girl-meets-boy sequences I’ve ever seen. (Unfortunately, I’m still curious why the episode would smash right into cliche after a teaser so tailored to the unique.) Good thing the story that follows feels like a cleanse: It begins with one of those one-night stand scenes that start with two people falling into bed wrapped around each other — right until Sophia stops it in its tracks. She just doesn’t feel like it anymore. What she does feel like, however, is having the man, Shane, make ocean noises in her ear so that she can fall asleep better. And apparently, Shane likes it, too. He falls for Sophia, even if she doesn’t think twice about leaving his room the next morning with the breakfast he prepared for her left uneaten behind her.

Girlboss, as its title promises, is a feminist mantra all the way through, vivacious and bursting with as much life as the colors on its screen. Sophia’s questioning of old wisdom, her unbothered air at having tens of cars honk at her, the conscious decision not to call her boss a bitch: all of it matters, and all of it hits the viewer — whether he or she realizes it. The beauty of Girlboss is that you don’t have to think hard while watching it, but it doesn’t matter: Its message is crafted so cleanly it doesn’t feel like a message at all. Bold feminism: It’s the protagonist, and it’s the world.

Nevertheless, the big brass spine of Girlboss won’t ring with everyone who watches it, and it’s maybe why the series seems to be doing lukewarm in its reception. Simply, not everyone will see Sophia in themselves. And if you don’t, well then, good luck digging your heels into this show.

“Why am I such an asshole?”

It’s a question Sophia asks herself after being fired by her boss for careless behavior. Sure, maybe I’m the opposite of the bubbly, charismatic and fashion-conscious Sophia, but when she walks down the street afterward, tears in her eyes and wondering what the hell is wrong with her, I can’t help but understand. Not from being fired, but from wondering what it is about yourself that seems so out of odds with what people expect.

It’s a fact of womanhood that if you don’t check all the right boxes, then you are perceived as a number of things: morally indecent or lazy or bitchy or selfish. But the thing about Sophia is that her flighty, restless and unrestrainable energy, which sends her barreling through life like no one’s business, is not a choice. It’s not a mask, not an act, not a pose to attract men or appear more charming. It’s just who she is, and what she thinks like, and sometimes it’s so strong it can break her. But for all it’s worth, it’s not going away.

As someone who doesn’t fit directly into the mold society would like women to adhere to, I sympathize. For the life of me I can’t pretend to smile when I’m not happy, pretend to like someone when I don’t, or pretend to do a task I don’t have faith in it. And I won’t fake it till I make it, not for a man and not for anyone. To this extent, I see myself in Sophia, and for that I admire Girlboss. It is unapologetic.

And it’s not like riding high is all that Girlboss is about: As the series’ first episode demonstrates, Sophia’s free-for-all mentality can have devastating consequences — alienating a gruff but loving father (played by Dean Norris, who I can never again imagine as anyone other than Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad).

It’s a heartbreaking scene, but it’s about as emotionally rough as Girlboss is going to get, and that’s a problem that needles into the show from the first episode — the stakes are never truly present. Sophia faces eviction, but somehow avoids that by successfully selling her newly purchased thrift-store cowboy jacket online. Cool — unless further episodes prove this new development to be truly innovative or inspiring, Girlboss has my superficial vote but not my emotional engagement.

A premise that only holds air: It’s neither forgivable nor enough. And maybe Girlboss won’t last, but I’m still glad it’s here. Sometimes, I’m just in the mood to watch easy television about women who don’t care, and for whom rules are just obstacles to smash out of their paths. Dumpster-diving for bagels, stealing carpets, it’s not about lawlessness — it’s about not having a care. When you have no pride, you have no shame, and in Sophia’s world there is nothing — not a father, a boy, a lost job or an eviction notice    that can trump her brazen spirit.

AV Club recently took the series to task for Amoruso’s real-life problematic activity: Nasty Gal stole multiple clothing designs, and fired several women who were pregnant. The Girlboss series may be a big long commercial for Amoruso’s #GIRLBOSS book, but how much are we supposed to separate it from each other (Amoruso, it is important to note, serves as an executive producer for the show)? That is a question only the viewer can answer for herself.

As for me, I think about all of these things. But I also keep thinking about the scene in Girlboss’ first episode where Sophia comes home from a heartbreaking dinner with her father, only to rediscover an eviction notice taped to her door. She’s spent a day eating bagels out of dumpsters and stealing a carpet, but instead of moping she goes inside, pegs the carpet to a wall and begins taking pictures of herself in front of her new backdrop.

It’s a ploy to sell the jacket she’s wearing, of course, and it’s a choice that will jumpstart her career in internet commerce. But for now, staring boldly into the camera, it is a reminder of Girlboss’ inescapable message: When you have nothing, at least you still have yourself.

Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” ran Wednesdays.