The Problem With the Girl Boss

Graphic by Erin Sass

As I have gotten older, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with labeling myself as a “feminist.” I realize how bad this statement sounds on the first read — I promise I’m not a woman-hating, self-loathing human. Rather, my discomfort surrounding the word “feminist” stems from the exclusivity of the term. To get technical, there is nothing exclusive about the definition of “feminism” in itself, as it simply means “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” 

Consideration of the social and societal implications of the term, however, is where I find myself torn. Modern-day feminism is largely dominated by a distinctly white flavor of feminism. The focus on gender-based issues in wealthy countries such as Canada and the United States over racial issues is not only tone-deaf, but extremely dangerous. Focusing blindly on feminist initiatives often means focusing on ameliorating the gender-pay gap or reproductive rights rather than preventing Black people from being killed by the police. Fairly obviously, the latter holds a heavier weight, not to mention that women of color are excluded from the conversation despite them being most affected by these issues.

[Feminism] has been brutally mutilated, forced to be nothing more than a superficial and grossly incompetent term to address female rights.

Modern-day feminism’s focus on birth control and reproductive rights — although important — exemplifies how women of color have been excluded and victimized in the struggle for so-called “equal” rights. After all, Margaret Sanger developed birth control on the basis of eugenics, and forced sterilizations of women of color persist even today. It is damaging and frankly disappointing that many (white) feminists today prioritize the fight for reproductive rights while effectively ignoring how women of color are most affected by these issues.

In fact, feminism was initially started by women of color. With time, it has turned into a deeply segregated concept. It has been brutally mutilated, forced to be nothing more than a superficial and grossly incompetent term to address female rights. Many modern women of color have been turning to the concept of womanism (as introduced and developed by Alice Walker and other radical Black scholars), which emphasizes the struggle of gaining gender equality specifically for their own communities. However, the remaining effects of Black women being shut out of the movement that they first cultivated are irreparable. The segregation created by the appropriation of feminism is painful and heartbreaking for women of color, and yet it continues to pervade most spheres of the movement. 

We’ve all seen it before: it manifests in trendy mugs and tote bags with emblems of ‘Feminist’ or ‘I bite back.’

Feminism is continuing to be manipulated over time, now bringing us to the advent of the “girlboss,” an identity adopted by many white women who pride themselves on corporate success in male-dominated fields, despite the fact that this success essentially feeds into the very system that continues to oppress marginalized groups. Feminism has become deeply and horrifyingly commodified, and the culmination of this is seen in society’s strange obsession with certain white female politicians. Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Wendy Davis, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all examples of women that are idealized (to a fault) by modern-day white feminists. Without actually considering their policies and problematic histories, many white feminists cling to these women as icons and role models, blindly supporting them and buying into capitalism to do so. It is an objectification of sorts — these women are no longer seen as dynamic, but rather as stagnant, manipulated models of the idealized “woman in politics.” This model is extremely elitist, majorly depicting white, moderate Democrat politicians. 

This objectification quickly blends into commodification. We’ve all seen it before: it manifests in trendy mugs and tote bags with emblems of “Feminist” or “I bite back.” These products serve to further appropriate feminism as a fashion trend, rather than a serious social movement. 

Capitalism and the oppression of women, specifically women of color, go hand-in-hand.

At times, this commodification feels tragic to me. Although I’m not a fan of the majority of politicians that I have already listed, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy feels too grand to be commodified in tacky Etsy shops. Her legacy is defined by the wave of feminism in which success is never defined by proximity to masculinity. In Ginsburg’s prime, she fought against corporate gusto: blue and black suits and masculine camaraderie, leather briefcases, and exclusion. Ginsburg and her lace collar defied this monotonous definition of success and instead drew from feminine power, giving us a new definition of femininity and feminism alike. The t-shirts and mugs with the sprawling cursive lettering of “When there are nine” and necklaces that resemble her dissent collar feel, to put it plainly, gross. 

By buying into this image of the perfect “woman in politics,” we are feeding into the very system that oppresses us. Capitalism and the oppression of women, specifically women of color, go hand-in-hand. The strange support of the “girlboss” trope only exacerbates this.  

Perhaps my frustration with this commodification is first solved by tackling the root of the issue: objectification. Blind support of female politicians for simple optics is dangerously naive. Female politicians are meant to be dynamic and critiqued in order to act as fair representatives for the public. Therefore, ‘fervent’ feminism should never lead to the idolization of these public figures, purely due to their womanhood. We can see this issue in current politics, as the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s current pick for Supreme Court justice, federal judge Amy Coney Barett, occurred on Oct. 26th. Despite Barett’s long history of opposing reproductive rights and abortion, I’ve seen countless people pledging support towards Trump’s commitment to replacing Ginsburg with another woman, claiming that feminism means we should support the advancement of all women, no matter her political background. However, feminism shouldn’t be an apolitical feat if one side of politics actively goes against its intentions. Women are not accessories for expressions of diversity, and female politicians should not be valued solely for their femininity. Feminism cannot be reduced to the sheer statistics that “break down the glass ceiling” in politics. Instead, it is a means of reversing the economic and social systems that created the ceiling in the first place. 

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