Skip to main content

When Netflix’s original series Girlboss landed on Friday, I eagerly clicked play. The narrative is loosely based on the book by the same name written by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso. The popular narrative surrounding Amoruso is as classic an American bootstrapping tale as you can find: She parlayed selling vintage wares on eBay into a multi-million-dollar e-commerce business—and as a woman no less. Amoruso wrote a book and became something of a cultural icon, exemplifying the rise of women in entrepreneurship and a hunger for narratives that show unconventional women reaching great heights. In the Netflix series, Amoruso is fictionalized as Sophia Marlowe, a down-on-her-luck twenty-something living in San Francisco who goes from rags to riches seemingly overnight. After flipping a vintage jacket on her eBay shop for hundreds of dollars in profit, she realized that she could make a living out of this practice and went about making it happen—with little regard for humanity along the way.

I watched all 13 episodes of season one in a single day because I am on a constant lookout for feminist success stories and role models to add to my mental list of inspiration. Extra points go to tales of women in their early twenties like myself. Sophia, however, was not the feminist hero that I was hoping she would be, and I can’t recommend watching the series. Her path to Nasty Gal success was paved by kleptomania, middle fingers, broken relationships, and worst of all, total narcissism. While she ultimately got what she wanted, I walked away feeling like the tale was much more cautionary than inspirational.

Multiple times in each episode, Sophia claims, “she has figured out life.” Methinks the bosslady doth protest too much. For someone who has it all figured out, Sophia exemplified everything I dislike about the millennial stereotype: She was entitled, jaded, and more interested in shock value than any sort of real values. She stole her boss’ sandwich, showed up late to work unapologetically, claimed that adulthood was boring and not for her, and carried on about her sexual past and present in vulgar detail. All the while, nothing is ever her responsibility (including being evicted because, you know, paying your rent late doesn't mean they should kick you out). If Sophia has figured out life, then people who have obtained success honestly and by treating people with respect have been doing it all wrong, I guess. You can probably see how the protagonist here isn't exactly the portrayal of young adulthood one wants to watch unfold for hours.

What kept me watching was the naïve hope that she would improve (and, I won’t lie, the fabulous fashion kept me on my toes). I so badly wanted to root for Sophia, to see her overcome her own character flaws, and likely some large doses of sexism, on the way to business success. I'm clearly not alone: Amoruso's own book, alongside the likes of Lean In, Settle For More, and I Know How She Does It were devoured upon their releases. Women were, and remain, eager to learn from other women who have found success against the odds. Sophia, however, was not a woman doing her best despite society’s limiting standards and expectations. She had opportunities—a job she threw out the window in an angry rage, a friend’s selfless help that she took advantage of—yet she remained incapable of seeing beyond the bridge of her own nose. This was not a complex female character evolving despite challenges; this was a woman bulldozing her way to what she wanted.

The problem with Girlboss isn’t so much that Sophia has these flaws, it’s that her success is treated as an endorsement of her bulldoggedness. What we see in her character panders to the confused trope of feminist success. Through characters such as The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly, Scandal's Olivia Pope, House of Cards' Claire Underwood, and many more leading women, the current narrative is that to be a powerful woman one has to sacrifice happiness, kindness, relationships, and life outside of work. But this pigeonholing doesn’t serve anyone. I don’t believe that being a leader and being kind are mutually exclusive. Sophia treats her friends like afterthoughts, her significant other like he doesn’t exist, and everyone else like a means to an end. 

Perhaps this is why at the end of the day, even at the peak of her success, Sophia never appeared fully happy. In the finale, the self-proclaimed "nasty gal" popped a bottle of Champagne at her launch party and immediately ran outside and burst into tears. The achievements and the money she earned didn't mean much. How could it, when her roots were so shallow? Sophia’s unrelenting unhappiness was the biggest cautionary message I took away from Girlboss: Outward success means nothing if you don’t have things well-ordered on the inside. Being negative, mean, and self-absorbed may get you what you want in the moment, but the burned bridges, bad reputation, and lonely malaise that are par for the course are hardly worth it.

My idea of success means being humble even in the face of achievements as well as honest and hardworking on the road to your goals. I also think success means valuing one’s work alongside one’s personal life, not in spite of it. As a young woman today, if I don’t embrace a career-first, must-break-boundaries mentality in all aspects of my life, I struggle with the idea of being “unfeminist.” To that point, Sophia’s example was an accidental reminder that such a route does not, in fact, always lead to the most healthy attitude or lifestyle. Sophia wasn't the role model I hoped for, but her story wasn't without insight. As I continue searching the humble, brave role models I never saw in Girlboss, I’ll just have to strive to be that woman myself.

Photo: Netflix