‘Girlbosses’ glamorize hustle culture

A drawing of a woman in high heels, pants and a blouse carrying a coffee among a pink background.
(Chloe Barker | Daily Trojan)

With the semester in full swing, the sight of color-coordinated notes and annotated textbooks beckons the member at the top of the college food chain: the girlboss. 

Once thrown around as a comedic gimmick and ironic term, the modern-day girlboss has reconfigured itself through 60-second TikTok videos that appeal aesthetically to students of all ages. Sophia Amoruso, entrepreneur and Nasty Gal founder, popularized the term “girlboss” in 2014 through her company and book of the same name. Consequently, it became synonymous with hustle culture.

Eight years ago, if you were a young, ambitious white woman seeking to break through the rigid hierarchy at your workplace, Sheryl Sandberg was your guide. “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Sandberg’s bestselling 2013 book, was your scripture. 

Through the lens of personal growth, the book laid out a game plan for workplace success. If women simply “leaned in,” could we singlehandedly change the system through self-motivated behavioral choices? 

The distinction between institutional barriers and internal barriers is the “ultimate chicken-and-egg situation,” Sandberg wrote. To the girlboss archetype, however, no task was impossible when jotted down into a bullet journal. 

The girlboss was the millennial symbol of unapologetic ambition. Her greatest pleasure was success; being underestimated pushed her to prove her worth. By highlighting workplace gender disparities as battles fought on the personal level, Sandberg helped women view themselves as activists whenever they spoke for themselves. It was inspiring to feel like you were on the right side of a righteous cause, as if you’d received the long end of the stick — or rather, history.

To some, being a girlboss meant you succeeded in whatever endeavor you set your sights on. It was a term that inspired and motivated, something plastered across laptop lock screens and flyers that kept us focused as we worked to turn our pipedream into a reality. For others, particularly those lower on the professional ladder, the reality was far bleaker. 

If not a false feminist front programed to conceal the toxic reality of workplace culture, what is the average girlboss? Woke capitalism elevates elites, so they maintain the status quo while turning a blind eye to the demands of activists. As ethical consumers, millennials feel like they’re making a difference every time they cross off an item on  their checklist. 

In that sense, the girlboss strife sheds light on the socioeconomic divide within education and the workplace, where this whitewashed image of a girlboss has become mainstream. It’s a thinly-veiled disguise of the equally damaging toxic productivity culture rampant among university students. 

Despite her motivational book and outwardly feminist branding, Amoruso amassed her fortune through fast fashion, an industry notorious for exploiting and profiting off Black and brown women. Her career at Nasty Gal halted upon accusations of abusive management and discrimination, all culminating in the company filing for bankruptcy in 2016. 

When your perceived productivity is marketed as success, do you truly reap the benefits, or has capitalism conditioned you into the hustle culture of a nine-to-five? Seven years later, the former archetype of a girlboss — a wealthy, college-educated white woman — is now shorthand for a type of fake-woke, white feminism. 

As we collectively inch away from girlboss culture and the chains of nonstop hustling, it’s essential we continue to demand transparency from brands and companies, not settling until authority figures exercise their influence and implement feedback from their employees. 

We need to leave outdated gender roles behind us and empower businesswomen to focus on purpose over profit. The notion that a female leader could single-handedly solve the problems inherent to capitalism counterproductively places immense pressure on young women. 

In a society where Eurocentric features place you at the forefront of capitalism’s gains and paint you as a notable figure in history, we must rattle white hegemony to liberate women of color from the tribulations of the girlboss rhetoric. 

Until the United States recognizes its extraordinary wealth inequality and the government requires corporations to pay their fair share in taxes, we will continue to see girlboss reincarnations. She is a manifestation of the U.S. myth: If you’re not succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough. 

Instead of girlbosses, some of us are sleep-deprived undergraduates who need to meet their 11:59 p.m. deadline.