When Netflix signed on for Girlboss, it probably sounded like a great idea. Feminism, fashion, and San Francisco? We were about to have our first female president, so what could go wrong?
When the show starts streaming on Friday, things will be a little different. Not only are we living in Trump’s America, but Nasty Gal, the multi-million-dollar startup the show was based on, is bankrupt. The soul-searching of the feminist movement post-election has caused more people to realize that feminism as used by businesses to sell their products, no matter how cool, is at least an incompatible match, if not an entirely hypocritical one.
Girlboss is fictional. The show, based on the 2014 book #Girlboss by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, follows a 23-year-old, shoplifting, aimless version of Amoruso who can’t keep a job and has an epiphany when she makes hundreds selling a $9 thrift store leather jacket on eBay. Through the series’ 13 episodes she steals a rug, eats her boss’s sandwich, launches an eBay store, dates a drummer, goes on a worse version of the San Francisco tour from The Princess Diaries, and eventually reaches the early days of Nasty Gal.
As a TV show, Girlboss has its own problems character, story, and all that. But it’s also arriving at the absolute worst time.
Nasty Gal, launched in 2006 as Amoruso’s vintage eBay store that grew into an ecommerce success story with $300 million in sales, filed for bankruptcy in November. Before that, the company had two rounds of layoffs and was hit with a lawsuit alleging the site fired women when they got pregnant. On the fashion side of things, the once edgy site faced a slew of more affordable, teen-friendly competitors like Tobi and Missguided.
Weeks before the show debuted, the similarly buzzy (albeit style-wise, very different) ModCloth was bought by the less-than-feminist Walmart. Before that, Thinx founder Miki Agrawal stepped down from her prominent role as the period underwear startup’s CEO, kicking off a barrage of stories about her company’s inappropriate work environment and a sexual harassment complaint from a former employee.
Not to mention, our president is Donald Trump, a result that has inspired a re-evaluation of feminism’s aims as a political movement and whether a version of feminism that centers its praise on individual women who make the Forbes list has any use anymore (or ever did).
If Amoruso’s #Girlboss (the book) were just a memoir, its television adaptation might be able to skate by as a period piece, capturing a particular mid-2000s moment in fashion and Silicon Valley. But #Girlboss was also a manifesto about how to be a feminist success, just like Amoruso. Since stepping down as Nasty Gal’s CEO in 2015, Amoruso has leaned into her #Girlboss brand. She published a second book, the “lushly illustrated embodiment of the collective spirit of the Nasty Gal brand, Sophias own personal brand, and girlbosses everywhere” Nasty Galaxy, in 2016.
Even with the disclaimer that appears before every episode of the Netflix show “what follows is a loose telling of true events… real loose” something about the show just doesn’t sit right. A story that glorifies startup success found through a particular kind of male-inspired determination, with a title that’s always been connected to some sort of feminism, is unsettling in 2017. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Rachel Bloom released a music video at a Vanity Fair conference on women entrepreneurs gently mocking the many flaws in the “Girlboss” idea. That just so happened to take place the day before the Netflix show’s debut.
This all isn’t entirely Girlboss‘s fault. The show’s creators, who have emphasized that the show is fictional, couldn’t have known that their project would arrive in this political moment, or after a rush of feminist startup failures. In the alternate timeline where Hillary Clinton won (maybe helped by Nasty Gal’s “Nasty Woman” t-shirts), the show would probably feel fine, I guess, even if Nasty Gal were still bankrupt.
The issue isn’t that the protagonist is unlikeable although she is, which is kind of the point. That’s fine! It’s just that for anyone who has any idea about Girlboss‘s real-world origins, it’s impossible to watch the show without remembering that origin story and its eventual disappointments.
Girlboss ends with Sophia launching the real, independent Nasty Gal. Maybe by season two, we’ll all be able to separate the show’s narrative from where its inspiration ended up.