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The Carletonian

Feminism, Girlbosses and Elizabeth Holmes

Over spring break, my mother and I decided to watch the new television series on Hulu “The Dropout” which discussed the story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of ‘Theranos.’ Prior to this, we had listened to the podcast together, read every bit of news on her, and were constantly staying up to date.

The story of Elizabeth Holmes is absolutely fascinating. A wealthy, intelligent and ambitious woman, Holmes dropped out of Stanford during her sophomore year to start a business. She believed she could replace current blood tests with a new technology that would only require a finger prick. After nearly ten years of investments from hugely wealthy individuals—notably former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and former Secretary of State George Shultz—Theranos’ blood testing device was being sold in Walgreens stores. Soon after, Theranos and its technology were found to be fraudulent. This year, Holmes went to trial and was found guilty on four out of 11 charges, including three counts of fraud and one count of conspiring to defraud private investors. She is currently awaiting sentencing but faces up to 20 years in prison.

Outside of the technical story of her company, the intrigue of Holmes for me lies squarely in her attitude, mannerisms and title as the original “girlboss.” She dressed exclusively in black turtlenecks, mimicking Steve Jobs, and deepened her voice to sound more like a man. Once the youngest self-made billionaire, Holmes has not lost her title of “girlboss,” despite having manipulated not only investors but also thousands of consumers.

In fact, the very definition of “girlboss” has come to match her current status. It’s clear to see that what was once an empowering term has become a satire, and in many ways incredibly reductive. 

Think to yourself about how you would hope to envision a “girlboss.” In my mind, it would be someone who doesn’t care about what others think, who wants to make a difference. Someone who is passionate and ambitious. Regardless of who they are and what their goals are, it, in my mind, is certainly an embodiment of powerful femininity. 

Yet, according to Urban Dictionary, which is a crowdsourced dictionary that tracks definitions of slang and pop culture phrases such as “girlboss,” the term refers to someone who is “lauded as being a feminist icon, despite the fact that they are actually extremely unpleasant or unfeminist.” It seems that the simple term “girlboss,” merely connoting women and power, must refer to someone manipulative. According to societal definitions, there’s no way a woman could be powerful on her own terms––it must be that she’s “unfeminist” in some way or acting against others. 

Women, it seems, are not permitted to be strong. We cannot even fathom it enough to take the term “girlboss” seriously. The concept of equating womanhood and power is so alien to us that it must be satire. In no way am I trying to shame anyone for playing with this narrative or joking around with the term “girlboss,” I know that I certainly have. But, while the notion that femininity and power cannot exist in the same plane is not novel, it remains a counterproductive narrative to continue perpetuating.

Today, the idea of a “girlboss” has come to be a black turtleneck-wearing, deep-voiced, woman, ready to conform to the capitalistic and exploitative business expectations that have been set by men. She may be willing to manipulate and put others down, go against the very tenets that make up feminism and burn bridges at every corner in order to achieve her goals. Her passion and ambition are unchecked, and she is willing to make the system work for her rather than challenge the status quo. 

Constantly being forced to fit our personalities into neat little tropes, it was perhaps inevitable that “girlbosses” would have to become a caricature. Our femininity and womanhood is expected to fit into a box––we’re “bruh” girls or “hii” girls or egirls or “pick me” girls––and “girlboss” has simply become another trope. We’ve watched it happen as we try to fit ourselves into the “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” trifecta. A term that could simply describe one aspect of your personality or work ethic must become your whole identity.

We are obsessed with typifying ourselves, perhaps as a result of a society which tells us our femininity only has validity when it makes sense. And, for it to make sense, we should be able to define it. Our femininity not only defines who we are but creates a box that is all we are allowed to be. Make a choice—are you a girlboss or are you not? The decision you make can, and likely will, define how you are supposed to, even allowed to, act.  

It seems that there is no way for women to win. Each and every stereotype placed on women is meant to pit us against each other, to highlight a negative view on a subset of women and femininity. We shouldn’t be “tomboys” who are just trying to be like boys but we also shouldn’t be “girly girls” who are too caught up in an overly traditional depiction of women. We cannot simply exist and a “girlboss” cannot simply be a powerful woman. No, it must be a personality type and caricature that someone fits into, and it must, of course, be negative.

The problem with the satire of “girlboss” is not the terminology—it is the way it represents a system wherein women are not allowed to be powerful, and are instead expected to fit into tropes of society. Rather than being permitted to have strength on our own accord, it must be a strength that fits into what society has crafted as permissible for women. 

We have fought so hard to prove our womanhood has worth and value. To prove that it is not something that inhibits us, but in fact something that can drive us to be better. We can work the 9-to-5 job, or be a manager, or a CEO, and hell, we’ll do it in a pantsuit or a pink dress and heels. Beyond that, we will challenge the system and we will support the women around us, and we certainly don’t need to conform to the roles and boxes that men assign for us. 

I’m fed up with a society that tells me who I am allowed to be, that tells me where my personality fits and what it should be. I’m fed up with having to constantly prove my femininity is valid, to constantly typify myself. Women should be allowed to have power and strength without it having to fit into a trope or caricature. Each and every one of us has the ability to be a “girlboss” and there is no reason that should have to come with restrictive narratives that tell us what we are and are not allowed to be. 

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