Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Hollywood's Best Punchline Is the 'Girlboss'

Shows like Abbott Elementary and The Dropout center problematic, uncomfortably funny women leads—and reflect legitimate critiques of capitalist feminism.

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Photo: Getty Images, Hulu, Netflix

ABC’s Abbott Elementary became a smash hit overnight. Clips of Amanda Seyfried dancing to Lil Wayne as Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout have gone viral. And we’re collectively addicted to Anna Sorokin’s swindling in Inventing Anna. Indeed, the season of wildly problematic—and equally entertaining—women leads is upon us, and these shows are united in their vicious, hilarious mockery of the once-venerated “girlboss” figure.

Of these shows, only Abbott Elementary is technically a comedy, but each is undeniably, compulsively funny—thanks to the often twisted and cringe-inducing humor of the possibly psychopathic women at the hearts of these shows. As a school principal, billionaire CEO, and faux millionaire heiress respectively, Ava of Abbott Elementary, Holmes in The Dropout, and Anna Sorokin in Inventing Anna, are prototypical renderings of the girlboss: pioneering, at least semi-powerful women who have paved their own ways in a capitalist and patriarchal society. It once seemed unthinkable that a girlboss-like figure would be the punchline of a popular television series—especially not in an ostensibly liberal entertainment industry that’s constantly striving toward more feminist storytelling and representation. Recent cultural shifts in how we understand gender and power have ultimately opened the door to the brutal comedy of these shows, as well as their massive followings.

“It’s this failed promise of, ‘put these women in charge of companies and that will lead to the elevation of all people within a certain class or gender,’ and we’ve seen that’s not true,” Samhita Mukhopadhyay, author of the forthcoming book The Myth of Making It on workplace diversity and the rise and fall of the girlboss, told Jezebel. Mukhopadhyay, who is also the former executive editor of Teen Vogue, has written extensively on the political developments that precipitated societal disillusionment with the hollow rhetoric of female capitalists. “The reality of girlbosses, whether the CEO of a company or political leader, is her life is made possible because of an underclass of working-class women, whether it’s her kids’ nanny, her driver, or whoever that might be.”

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Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary reminiscent of The Office, set at an under-funded elementary school in Philly. Its premiere opens with its aspiring TikTok-influencer-principal Ava blowing much-needed funding on a mural of her face painted over the entrance of the titular Abbott Elementary. The mural is revealed shortly after she smiles at the cameras and sings, “I believe the children are the future.” Ava, portrayed by Janelle James, notably got the principal gig by blackmailing the superintendent after catching him cheating on his wife.

Netflix’s Inventing Anna is a fictionalized adaptation of the real-life story of Russian conwoman Anna Sorokin’s swindling of New York’s ultra-wealthy elites. It’s endlessly, comically quotable, as Julia Garner’s Sorokin makes Riker’s Island her very own “VIP” place while answering the probing questions of journalist Vivian Kent.

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And in Hulu’s The Dropout, we see a delightfully dramatized rendering of the rise and fall of fraudulent blood-testing startup Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. Between placing patients’ lives at risk and defrauding dozens of millionaire investors, Seyfried’s Holmes can oft be seen awkwardly dancing to varying pop hits of the 2000s and 2010s. We’re also treated to frequent cuts of Holmes rehearsing a deeper, masculine voice. Then, in the series finale, we watch her tell Theranos board members from the comfort of her corner office that her safety has been so jeopardized, she’s replaced her windows with bullet-proof glass “like the White House.”

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In today’s covid times, and amid an onslaught of devastating political realities, many have come to reject the idea of enacting change through white women capitalist saviors—girlbosses, if you will. The term was first popularized by Sophia Amoruso, founder of the clothing brand Nasty Gal. Amoruso was later called out by numerous employees who accused her and the brand of fostering a toxic work environment. “Girlboss” has more recently become synonymous with someone who weaponizes their gender to excuse or even righteously justify harming others, particularly women and marginalized employees with less power. And based on television’s latest offerings, it seems we’re past merely expressing our frustrations with these exploitative She-E-O’s. Between the prevalence of online “girlboss,gaslight,gatekeep” jokes and viral GIFs of Seyfried dancing in character as Holmes, we’re literally laughing at them.

“We can see the internet’s impact on showrunners, television writers—young people are so good at social media, but also taking this kind of critical understanding of the problems with late-stage capitalism, and applying it in a humorous way,” Mukhopadhyay told me. “This laughter feels like a sort of survival mechanism at everything we’re struggling with under capitalism.”

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Two years ago, author Leigh Stein, whose biting anti-girlboss satire novel Self Care came out in 2020, declared the “end of the girlboss” was nigh, and argued “mix[ing] capitalism with social justice” will never meaningfully change workplace cultures, or challenge patriarchal values. In other words, capitalism and feminism, which demands justice and dignity for those with the least power under patriarchy, are fundamentally incompatible. Stein is right—to see this, all you have to do is compare the seemingly feminist quotes that come forth from a girlboss’s mouth with her actions. 

Last month, Kim Kardashian tried to shut down undeniably sexist narratives that she owes her business success exclusively to her 2000s sex tape, by advising less privileged women in business to “get your ass up and work.” She further claimed “no one wants to work these days.” The sentiment embodied just how misaligned feminist empowerment is with capitalist values, and was met with reactions ranging from eye-rolls and righteously outraged thinkpieces, to hilarious, mocking TikTok dance remixes. Ironically enough, Kardashian is currently being sued by seven people who once worked for her for withholding pay and denying them overtime and legally required breaks. However depraved the actions of supposed feminist capitalists can be, there’s often an equally depraved degree of humor in how out-of-touch with reality they are.

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To Mukhopadhyay, stories and women characters like what we’ve seen in Abbott Elementary, The Dropout, and Inventing Anna speak volumes about where the feminist movement stands today. We can collectively laugh at neoliberal notions that one, individual female leader or industry pioneer was ever going to save us, or that female bosses are necessarily feminists. “The diversity of the types of characters we see women get to occupy has just changed so profoundly in the last 10 years, 20 years. And the more we have these imperfect women we can be critical of on television, the better, actually,” Mukhopadhyay said.

“Audiences are smart enough to understand, and see something like the Elizabeth Holmes story, and know the message isn’t women shouldn’t be leaders,” she added. “They’ll take away something deeper: how easy it is to manipulate these different, broken systems—whether you’re a man or a woman.”