By Nicole Froio
Growing up in the 1990s, I was raised to believe that, despite my gender, I could achieve anything—if I worked hard enough to achieve it. Mainstream gender politics at the time insisted that gender inequality was no longer relevant to the modern workplace, and that workers would be recognized and rewarded on their merit rather than their gender. This sounded like a promising future for me, and I had no reason to disbelieve it, so I aspired to be an academic success.
In 2016, intoxicated by girlboss culture and a newfound interest in women’s rights, I enrolled on a Women’s Studies PhD course in the United Kingdom. Despite my subject of study, which I hoped would encourage an environment of sisterhood and solidarity, the ideology of meritocracy and the pitfalls of neoliberal competition infested the department I worked in. Despite intellectually learning how women’s careers and financial independence are hindered by a sexist, capitalist society, I was promised, without hesitation, a brilliant future in academia by my department and by the university. So I worked hard, hoping my efforts would pay off.
I dreamed of a distant future where I would be able to rest with the comforts of financial stability, a manageable workload, and a research position that would chip away at the patriarchal system. Though the literature I was reading suggested otherwise, the academic setting I was engaged in convinced me that I was simply paying my girlboss dues, and that my workload would subside once I got a job that would comfortably pay my bills.
To achieve my goal of full-time stable employment, I needed to market myself as an academic worker. I needed to demonstrate that I could do it all: work, take care of my home, and go the extra mile—volunteering to organise conferences, engaging the public, providing free workshops—to show future employers that I’m a hardworking woman academic worth hiring.
The fatigue of everyday life in that period was infuriating. I couldn’t understand why I felt so tired all the time. After being sold the idea that the girlboss must achieve feminine self-sufficiency to conquer financial independence, I had drawn a hard line between my domestic life and my professional life, not recognizing my labour in the home as work that is essential for the maintenance of capitalism and of myself as a worker. Maintaining my own home was a private matter that did not correlate with my work outside the home. It was only when I read Silvia Federici’s work on the Wages for Housework movement that I began to recognize the housework I did as work, rather than individualised self-maintenance. Federici also wrote that, if domestic work is recognized as work, women’s entrance into the workforce was akin to women getting a second job that will not only “increase our exploitation, but simply reproduce our role in different forms” (59). As I read those words, my discontent was explained.
My subject of research was the workplace itself, in the context of #MeToo and sexual violence and harrassment in professional settings. I traced the issue of workplace harassment back to liberal feminist theorizing on the public/private division that resulted in the demand of women’s right to work outside the home. Carole Pateman emphasises that women’s right to work primarily affected working class women who work in low-paying, low-status, non-supervisory jobs, and who are then expected to also perform domestic tasks in the home. In my thesis, I theorized that the coercive nature of sexual harassment in the workplace wasn’t an isolated facet of work: the labor we perform as women—both at home and at our workplaces—is inherently coercive, but has been branded as a “choice” and a “right” to support ourselves through the exchange of our labor for wages.
Domestic work, in turn, has been rebranded as a type of “self-care,” where women are responsible for the upkeep of their own spaces, whether they are married or not. Though I didn’t work a low-status job, Pateman’s argument was in-line with what I was experiencing as a young scholar in other ways: though I was working in a much-coveted workplace, living a public life many of the women in my family couldn’t have dreamed of, I was barely paid a living wage for my teaching work and at home, I was responsible for performing domestic tasks like cleaning, cooking and house management. I felt the pressure of being a “girlboss” scholar, while I was also constantly disappointed in my inability to keep a tidy house, cook for myself and work 10 hours a day.
As a woman in my mid-20s, I was looking for happiness, which Sara Ahmed suggests involves a form of orientation: “the very hope for happiness means we are oriented in specific ways, as happiness is assumed to follow from some life choices and not others” (54). The “girlboss” appears in women’s lives as an ideal of modern femininity, made up of choices and performances that promise them the reward of happiness; Alexandersson and Kalonaityte describe the “girlboss” as a “particular framing of femininity [that] treats gender equality as an already accomplished fact in Western societies, assuming that women need to take an enterprising approach in order to succeed in any – or every – area of their life” (419). Within this ideology, my success or my failure would be wholly dependent on my ability to perform “assertiveness and empowerment”within my field, and trade within what Gill and Orgad call “confidence culture”, where women are encouraged to “stay ‘calm’, (supposedly) not to work too hard and to avoid ‘shaking the glass’ (read: rocking the boat!)” (30). In other words, I was encouraged to perform and enact a non-threatening version of “women’s empowerment” in my own pursuit of happiness.
In this way, the “empowered woman” mythology — aka the girlboss ideal — is a disciplinary technology that maintains feminised workers’ relationship with capitalism and labour power production in multiple ways. Though the relationship between women workers and wage labour is inherently coercive, the girlboss ideal convinces women workers that if we work hard, we will succeed and achieve happiness, thus reaching a level of autonomy that would be impossible otherwise. This works on multiple levels: for higher earners with secure jobs, fulfilling a postfeminist ideal does not necessitate the abdication of any privileges, domination power dynamics or patriarchal constructs; for lower wage earners in more precarious situations, where the abolition of capitalism and equal distribution of wealth would provide them with the means to live without struggling, the girlboss archetype holds the promise of financial stability over their heads, once again promising happiness for the exchange of hard work. The individual performance and enactment of “empowerment” also maintains women’s private relationship with domestic work, framing it as an effort to keep yourself afloat rather than reproductive labour that should be remunerated. For higher wage earners, the postfeminist ideal allows them to live in relative comfort while performing a version of feminism that does not require the abolition of heteropatriarchal capitalism; as such, lower wage earners are often blamed for their own “failure” to become “empowered” enough to overcome their own circumstances in a sexist society, while high wage earners can point at themselves to prove the existence of women’s empowerment.
While postfeminism might treat women as capable of overcoming their gender, class and racial positions, it does so from a position of neoliberal individualism which ignores structural hierarchies of power that might impede the individual ascension of women workers. Postfeminist marketization of the private sphere promotes normative ideals of beauty, physical fitness and motherhood as natural and essential parts of the feminine entrepreneurial self, thus reinforcing white heterosexual middle-class femininity as an ideal to be reached if an aspiring girlboss wants to succeed.
Introducing women’s right to work, instead of liberating women from domestic and reproductive labour, has further entrenched domestic success into the image of the aspirational modern woman. In the digital realm, this has resulted in a new subcategory of content-creation genre, such as mamapreneurs, bloggers and influencers that promote the image of the girlboss as an empowering achievement for women .
When I finished my PhD, I did not conquer an academic job through my self-fashioning into girlboss—instead, I had several mental breakdowns that dwelled on the question of not being “good enough” for academia. Once I moved away from university, I sought mental health support and was diagnosed with burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The high pressures I put on myself in attempting to conquer happiness in neoliberal, postfeminist academia through the model of the girlboss quite literally made me ill and I had very little material achievements to show for those years. I went back to writing on a freelance basis and doing contract work, just like I was doing before I embarked on my PhD journey.
I am writing this in between remote work shifts, forfeiting washing the dishes on my work-from-home break to disentangle the double bind women and non-men find themselves in, particularly during a global pandemic. From the postfeminist perspective of “empowerment,” where I am supposedly the arbiter of my own destiny if I work hard enough, my individual failure to secure an academic job is explained by my own lack of discipline as a worker and a woman rather than by overwork, burnout and an immigration system that is explicitly against my immigration to the UK. However, according to representations of the “postfeminist woman”, my discontent actually lies in the struggle to integrate “it all” into my life and combine my job aspirations and material success with my desire for a rewarding home life. The question of whether I will reach success is not relevant within a girlboss narrative—my attainment of success is implicit and unquestionable, because to question this promise, we would need to question the whole capitalist system and who gets left behind. But the postfeminist woman does face a dilemma: reconciling her experiences of being “feminine, and feminist without falling apart or having to abandon one integral part of her existence”, she is “simultaneously frustrated and elated by her contradictoriness and hybridity, wrestling with self-doubt and despair as well as celebrating hope and confidence” (Genz, 99).
In my experience of trying to be an empowered feminist academic, I found that to “be empowered” is to take on all the labour, both at home and at work, or to delegate reproductive labour to working class, racialized women, who still have to do reproductive labour in their homes after their paid shifts. Dalla Costa and James describe domestic labour as “social services inasmuch as they serve the reproduction of labour power and capital” by liberating men from these functions so they are “free” to be directly exploited (17). While the institution of the family structure and the naturalisation of women’s domesticity normalise the reproduction of the worker as unpaid labour, the more recent mythology of the “empowered woman” disciplines postfeminist subjects into reproducing themselves as workers as well as their families, and/or outsourcing or sharing that reproductive work for their own reproduction as workers.
However, this essay would be incomplete if I did not remark on the clear correlation between domestic violence and women’s financial independence via the wage. Studies suggest that as a woman’s financial stability increases, the likelihood that she will experience domestic violence decreases (Lloyd, 1997; Raphael, 2000; Renzetti, 2009). Financial dependency on abusive partners prevents women from leaving dangerous relationships, and often, this dependency is the result of abuse tactics used by violent partners to “prevent their significant others from accessing education, training or opportunities needed to establish independence” (Showalter, 38). The direct correlation between women’s participation in wage labour and their ability to live a life free of abuse means low-income women are more vulnerable to violence than women in high-income groups, even though women of all groups and different economic statuses experience domestic violence. This complicates a potential anti-work feminist perspective.
Anti-girlboss memes: the refusal of work as oppositional consciousness
The girlboss myth allegedly gives its subscribers more “choice” over what work they do and how they earn a wage to survive capitalism. The girlboss is a manifestation of “choice feminism”, which Catherine Rottenberg argues is a colonisation of feminism by neoliberalism, “remaking [feminism] in its own image, transforming collective liberation based upon a commitment to the common good into a limited form of individuated self-care” (433). “Choice feminism” fails to represent a unified theoretical position or organized political program–rather it describes a feminist politic informed by the interpretation of freedom as the capacity to make individual choices. Since women’s choices are always historically and structurally conditioned, the act of individual ‘choice’ in and of itself does not necessarily deliver progressive outcomes for women.
The anti-girlboss meme is an emerging genre that articulates an opposition to the ideal postfeminist woman, both visually and politically. These memes express a specific opposition to the ideal of the girlboss as it relates to feminised work and the overwork of women more generally. In this digital language, the neoliberal transformation of feminism into individuated self-care is opposed, expressing feminist ambivalence towards ‘choice feminism’. The “decline of the girlboss” and its manifestations through memes in online communities has been a point of recent fascination. As Michelle Santiago Cortés writes for The Cut: “the incandescent girlboss that millennials identified with is now a ghost, the poster child of a bygone era of pop feminism. Her fraught memory lives on in memes: The few girlboss-related TikToks to recently go viral are all memes criticising, parodying, or making some kind of fun of the #girlboss.” It’s in this sense that anti-girlboss memes can be understood as a digital articulation of feminist oppositional consciousness aesthetics, and a tool for thinking through and opposing the failed promises of postfeminism.
Instead of analysing the origins and contexts of anti-girlboss memes, I want to focus my analysis on my own interactions with the material I collected here, and anti-girlboss memes that “circulate across media platforms, producing a recognizable structure that enables the emergence of an open set of images subject to continual remaking” (Jenkins, 443).
While the study of feminist memes has clarified their position as a kind of resistance language against patriarchy and hegemonic sexist discourses, the exploration of feminist meme production has so far not identified memes that might correspond to what Chela Sandoval terms “oppositional consciousness.” Sandoval describes the oppositional consciousness of US third world feminists as “a feminism at odds with that being developed by US white women” (4). Sandoval emphasizes that US third world feminists have also “long understood that one’s race, culture or class often denies easy of comfortable access to either [binary gender] category,” and instead points to a practice of “mapping of consciousness in opposition to the dominant social order which charts the white and hegemonic feminist histories of consciousness” (4, 11). In their critique of corporate feminisms, anti-girlboss memes are a manifestation of contemporary oppositional consciousness.
Here, an exhausted doll with a USA t-shirt stands for the image of the girlboss, in contrast to manicured, corporatized representations of the working woman who ‘has it all’. The words, written in different colors and fonts to deliver a gratingly incongruent aesthetic, read “Sometimes all a girlboss needs is a girl break,” getting to the central issue of being a girlboss—the lack of control over our own time.
If being a girlboss represents women’s right to work, what choice does an exhausted girlboss have when she needs to rest? Does the girlboss have a right to rest? Here, the ‘girlboss’ is challenged as a disciplinary technology, and refusal to perform or do work is articulated through women’s need for rest. “No more girlbossing, just girlresting, girlsleeping and girllayingdown” also pokes fun at the sexist and infantilizing concept of ‘girlbossing’ and the neoliberal co-optation of feminism, as if asking: can we put the word ‘girl’ in front of any word to make it seem feminist? Will putting the word ‘girl’ in front of ‘resting’ lead us to a future with less work since ‘girlboss’ delivered us more work?
Anti-girlboss memes are an invitation to imagine a world that is not structured by capital, wealth accumulation and exploitation—an invitation to imagine a world where our time really belongs to us rather than to our employers and our patriarchs.
When I started my PhD research, I was excited to produce knowledge that would contribute to the project of women’s liberation, but as my research progressed, I felt the constraints of the academy dampening my imagination of what a better world for all genders could look like. I was negotiating my survival within the congruence of postfeminism and neoliberalism, where entrepreneurial success and the ideology of individual agency are understood as the solution to social justice issues. Even within an academic space where ‘feminism’ was the context for knowledge production, I found that the potential for political solidarity between feminists was severely undercut by the competition inherent to the neoliberal academy; there is feminist complicity in imperial and capitalist/neoliberal projects and therefore, there are limitations of knowledge-making projects in feminist academia. The ‘feminist establishment’, as Mohanty calls it, is capable of absorbing oppositional work and de-politicizing it for the benefit of the neoliberal academy.
The belief that hard work will deliver financial stability and happiness to women is the most pervasive aspect of girlboss ideology; instead of building a society where women are given what they need to survive, we have been forced to provide those resources for ourselves. On International Women’s Day 2022, Kim Kardashian, perhaps one of the principal examples of modern-day girlboss figures, was asked to give advice to women in business. “It seems like nobody wants to work these days,” Kim declared, perhaps in response to what the American media has called the Great Resignation, where workers started quitting en masse after years of discontent with their jobs. “You have to surround yourself with people that wanna work. (…) Get your fucking ass up and work” (Variety, 2022). The social media backlash was pretty much immediate—Kim’s declaration was out-of-touch with the actual conditions of working women. The reason people “don’t want to work” is not voluntary demotivation based on laziness, but the realities of how the capitalist system is failing and overworking them.
This meme’s response to Kim’s imperative to “get your fucking ass up and work” is a simple and direct “no” accompanied by a heart emoji, which adds a biting, mocking femininity to the joke. The meme, posted by writer Kendriana Washington at the Instagram account @futurefemmetext, is a gentle but firm response to what the future for women and femmes cannot be: overwork, exploitation and burnout for individual women’s gain.*
After finishing my PhD thesis, I was particularly drawn to the promise of rest and the possibility of not being held hostage to knowledge production, or just production, period. I allowed my imaginary empire to crumble to make space for a life of care, love and pleasure. However, this isn’t a dream that is entirely possible. If I wish to rest, I must work harder to complete my work tasks so I can get time off. If I wish to eat, I must do the work of planning and preparing meals. If I wish to have a clean house, I must do the work of cleaning every room, every surface. If I wish to travel, I must work and save money to afford time off. It turns out that work is not so much about the building of an empire, but about making survival bearable under capitalism; as such, the delusions of postfeminist empowerment fall away to reveal the reality of “women’s right to work.”
Anti-girlboss memes allowed me to look at my own struggles as a working woman through a humorous perspective that encouraged me not to take the institution of work so seriously–but they also illuminate so many vital questions about what an anti-work feminism could be.
*The project @futurefemmetext is a “cross-platform art-media, journalism, and digital storytelling project centering culture, science, creativity, tech, and socio-political issues from a futurist perspective” (Patreon https://www.patreon.com/kendriana/). Via @futurefemmetext, Washington shares and creates her own view of a femme future of freedom and liberation rather than the construction of individual girlboss empires that perpetuate the exploitation of capitalism.
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