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18 March 2022

Reports of the death of the girlboss have been greatly exaggerated

The girlboss walks among us. She lives in Molly-Mae Hague's hustle tips and Jane Campion's misguided comment to the Williams sisters.

By Sarah Manavis

The backlash to girlboss feminism began long ago. This corporate bastardisation of the women’s rights movement ripped through the 2010s as social media influencers, mainstream celebrities and brands sold millennial pink products baring loud slogans: “She-E-O”, “beating the boys”, “boss bitch”. Girlboss feminism was the more corporate younger sister of white feminism: it ignored the material obstacles facing many women of different races and classes, and instead blithely insisted that women can (and should) beat men at their own game, if they would only work hard enough.

By the end of the decade it had left a bitter taste, as people began to realise that gender equality wasn’t best achieved through the financial success of a minority of mostly white middle-class women. In the 2020s, new waves of web writing has since eclipsed pro-girlboss discourse: declarations of the “the death of the girlboss”. 

But reports of the death of the girlboss have been greatly exaggerated. She walks among us. You can find her alive and well in the viral life advice of Molly-Mae Hague or the TikTok posts of hustle influencer Steven Bartlett. You might even have seen her last weekend at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in Los Angeles. 

On 13 March, Jane Campion won Best Director for her Oscar-tipped film The Power of the Dog. In her speech, she spoke about the “incredible women” in the room, turning towards the tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, there to present an award and support King Richard, the biopic about their father for which they were both executive producers. 

“What an honour to be in the room with you,” Campion said, taking a tangent about how she’d recently taken up tennis, before eventually turning her attention back to the sisters. “Venus and Serena, you’re such marvels,” she went on. “However, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to.”

There was an eerie silence in the room before gradually growing applause, punctuated by some whoops, with the camera panning to a sceptical-looking Venus Williams. The reaction online was similarly disapproving: Campion was widely criticised for failing to realise that both sisters had played against men, and won, multiple times at multiple major tournaments throughout their careers. The British actress Jodie Turner-Smith, who was in attendance on the night, tweeted: “jane taking time out of her best director speech to tell two Black women that she is more oppressed than them is PEAK white feminism.” 

Though Campion apologised for her comments the day after – saying the “last thing” she would want to do is “minimise remarkable women” – her instinct to say what she said, particularly in a moment of personal triumph, reveals something deep-seated. She has spent much of this year’s awards season speaking out about misogyny in the film industry, most recently responding to the actor Sam Elliott calling The Power of the Dog “a piece of s**t”, saying his view of Westerns – and what they should look like – is sexist. Gender disparity is visibly at the forefront of her mind, making her comments seem particularly jarring and clueless.

Clearly, the “beat the boys” strain of “feminism” is still espoused by some of the world’s most successful people, and white feminism still has a tight grip on popular culture. The growing importance of intersectional feminism over the past few years hasn’t yet managed to eradicate this watered-down version of women’s rights, which benefits only the wealthiest echelon of white women.

But the swift, unanimous backlash to Campion’s speech also suggests the tide is turning against this narrow ideology. What at one point in the 2010s could have been framed as a “girl smoking the boys!”, and a woman merely “owning her worth”, is now classed as what it truly is: grotesque and misguided – a privileged white woman who was born with connections to her industry dismissing the achievements of two black women from Compton who faced enormous obstacles breaking into theirs.

Jane Campion will not be alone in this thinking, which is by no means dead. But the good news is that girlboss feminism seems finally to be losing ground.

[See also: Steven Bartlett’s self-help guide to helping himself]

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