The Downfall of the Girlboss

Back in the 2010s, the girlboss dominated feminist spaces. However, in recent years, the term has come to take on a new meaning.


Tech Crunch, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Here is Sophia Amoruso, founder of the Nasty Gal clothing line, during 2014, the year in which her memoir was published.

In 2006, from a pool house in the California suburbs, 22-year-old Sophia Amoruso launched Nasty Gal, an eBay store where she sold vintage clothing. Amoruso brought a new voice to the rather prim and proper vintage community, with her edgy, “cool-girl” brand. Her specific style and the unique touch she added to her listings made her popular with consumers, eventually propelling her humble eBay store into corporate success. Amoruso eventually began to sell her designs whilst retailing others, growing into an “e-commerce darling.”

A short eight years later, in 2014, Amoruso published her memoir #Girlboss, detailing her growth as a shop-lifting anarchist turned businesswoman. In it, Amoruso offered advice such as, “Be a nice person at work,” exemplary of the girlboss’ intended core values. She highlighted the significance of independence and ambition, attributing her success to her individuality and incessant drive. Her book, although criticized, received a largely positive reception from female audiences, who resonated with her story.  

That same year, it was reported that women made up a mere 4.8% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. Women, who were so dramatically underrepresented in the business sphere, resonated with Amoruso’s journey and ideals. The “girlboss,” as coined by Amoruso, was the embodiment of early 2010s feminist principles and found popularity within groups of aspiring young women, regardless of their pursuits. Soon enough, #girlboss was everywhere. 

Despite being a modern feminist icon, the girlboss was not as progressive as she seemed. 

Girlboss culture prioritizes the experiences of privileged, wealthy, white women and places them at the forefront of the conversation, brushing minorities to the sidelines where their voices are shushed and unheard. The women who most benefited from this movement, such as Amoruso and Emily Weiss (founder and former CEO of Glossier), came from privileged backgrounds that made success accessible to them.

White women who participated in this culture attempted to put up an inclusive front through the lack of emphasis on race in discourse. However, their attempts fell short because of their hypocrisy.  

The term “girlboss,” itself emphasizes femininity, rejecting the typical male boss that dominates society. Despite this, leading girlbosses were willing to compromise their ethics, which in many cases meant exploiting minorities. 

In 2015, former employees of Nasty Gal filed lawsuits concerning gender and medical care discrimination. Several claimed that they were fired before or during their scheduled maternity leave. Farah Saberi, a former accountant at Nasty Gal, similarly sued the company after she was laid off while suffering from advanced kidney failure. After, she was offered a severance agreement, granting her 6 months of healthcare under the condition she gave up her right to sue. She agreed, but Nasty Gal failed to meet the requirements, leaving her with no healthcare coverage and unable to meet her rising bills.

Other employees that did not take legal action noted that the workplace culture at Nasty Gal was overall toxic and misrepresented in the media. One former employee said, “Of course her success is noteworthy but if you read her many articles and interviews, she rarely acknowledges the people who helped her build the company, instead credits the success to her ‘hard work, long hours, paying models with burgers, etc.’ I’m not saying those things aren’t true, but the CEOs and managers that inspire are the ones who shine the light on the team around them, instead of desperately taking ownership for every win.” 

Nasty Gal and Amoruso denied all claims made against them. 

That same year, Amoruso stepped down as CEO, but remained at the company as Executive Chairman. Later, in 2017, Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy and Amoruso simultaneously resigned as Executive Chairman. 

A similar workplace culture exists at other girlboss-led companies. In 2020, “Outta the Gloss,” a collective of former Glossier retail employees wrote an open letter stating that the company had an “ongoing, insidious culture of anti-Blackness, transphobia, ableism and retaliation that many retail employees experienced.” Outta the Gloss gave several examples of incidents that Glossier failed to address. Customers’ satisfaction was very often prioritized over the employees’ well-being. They wrote, “Even after countless complaints, management wouldn’t fire a manager who would routinely confuse BIPOC editor’s names.” After being neglected in this way, they “had come to expect no intervention and little recourse” and realized HR was “a dead-end resource.”

Outta the Gloss also noted that the physical working conditions at Glossier retail locations were inadequate. They stated, “Things weren’t so pleasurable behind the scenes for us: the penthouse ‘showroom’ was outfitted with non-functioning air conditioning during a NYC summer; we violated occupation limits of the penthouse with our sales team alone; we worked through and alongside construction of the Flagship space.” 

In response, Emily Weiss made an Instagram post, where she apologized to former employees, writing that the culture that had developed went “against the values that inspired us to build Glossier in the first place.” She also outlined the company’s plan for change, which attempted to address the issues Outta the Gloss had expressed. This included a “no-tolerance” policy that protected employees from discriminatory customers and hiring an HR leader for every location with over 100 employees. Outta the Gloss responded with another Instagram post saying they were “embracing Glossier’s plan with some reservations.”

In 2022, Emily Weiss resigned as CEO of Glossier. 

With the decline of popular female millennial CEOs, it is no surprise that the term “girlboss” has declined in popularity. Thasina Tabassum ’24 said, “In the present, I think we’ve recognized how girlboss culture is very exclusionary and promotes one-dimensional narratives.” People have come to understand that highlighting the gender of women in positions of power to the extent that it becomes their entire brand only allows for them to be infantilized. This enforces the idea that because they are a “girlboss” and not a regular boss, they should not be held to the same standards, which inevitably allows their problematic actions to be brushed over for too long.  

When the social media app TikTok skyrocketed in popularity, the meme “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” spread like wildfire. Instead of its original intent, “girlboss” was used ironically to mock those willing to exploit others for their own means under the guise of empowerment. 

In 2022, Sophia Amoruso, the original girlboss herself, tweeted, “Please stop using the word girlboss. Thank you,” signaling the end of an era. As intersectionality is emphasized, the girlboss no longer has a place in feminist spaces. Post-girlboss, women continue to support each other’s ambitions, only now with more nuance.

Girlboss culture prioritizes the experiences of privileged, wealthy, white women and places them at the forefront of the conversation, brushing minorities to the sidelines where their voices are shushed and unheard.