In the fourth episode of Netflix’s Girlboss — the new series based on the life of Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso — Sophia (Britt Robertson) and her friends gather around the TV, watching as Ryan Atwood pulls Marissa Cooper’s listless body from a burning SUV. Marissa isn’t looking too hot, but Sophia tries to remain hopeful. “He’s got her out of the car, they’ll kiss, she’ll smile, we’ll check in with Seth and Summer because they’re way more interesting, and then they’ll head home and get a great big hug from Peter eyebrows,” Sophia says optimistically. Just then, her BlackBerry buzzes — it’s a client from her thriving new eBay store, Nasty Gal — and she leaps up to take the call. When she returns to the TV, the unthinkable has happened. Marissa has gone limp. Ryan is stricken. “Hallelujah” plays softly as flames lick in the background. Sophia looks at the screen in horror. “I cannot believe I had a work call during the most significant TV event of our lifetime.”
Do you remember where you were when Marissa died on The O.C.? I do, or at least, I can imagine it. And much as Mad Men’s depiction of the ‘50s and ‘60s functioned for an older generation of viewers, Girlboss gave me the uncanny experience of seeing my youth — the era of Seth and Summer, Britney and K-Fed — reimagined as a period piece. These throwbacks probably explain why I got such a kick out of the show, targeted as it is toward my particular set of nostalgic pleasure centers. For the first time, I got a glimpse of how the mid-aughts of my teenage years might be immortalized in theme parties of the future: with Modest Mouse songs, peasant blouses, and liberal usage of the word “totes.” Writer and EP Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect) explains that she and the writers made a kind of “bible” of everything in the culture that was happening ten years ago, and the show really does a good job of teasing out the ephemera of mid-aughts life. “I wanted to make sure their world felt how it really feels,” explained Cannon when I spoke to her on the phone.
Girlboss tells a loosely fictionalized version of Amoruso’s rags-to-riches journey from dumpster-diving shoplifter to corporate CEO, depicting how she turned her eBay business reselling vintage clothes into a multi-million-dollar e-commerce platform. One of the first fashion start-ups to leverage social networking into business success, Nasty Gal is very much a product of a simpler online era: Amoruso started out on eBay, built up her client base through MySpace, and did it all (at least on the show) on a candy-colored iBook. Some of the show’s most delightful moments come from watching that bygone digital world come alive. In one episode, Sophia and her friend Annie (Ellie Reed) get in a fight when Sophia removes her from her Myspace “top eight” (“Sophia, putting people in your top eight is the only public way to show someone matters to you,” Annie pleads). Clippy the paperclip makes an appearance, as do Daily Candy and the Sims, while the constant low-grade hum of familiar digital sounds — the “ding” of AOL instant messenger, the soft click of the BlackBerry rollerball — is its own special kind of millennial ASMR.
Yet the show also feels retro in other, less endearing ways. As many have pointed out, Amoruso’s legacy looks very different today than it did when the show was put into production. In 2015, Amoruso left Nasty Gal, dogged by allegations of a toxic workplace culture and a lawsuit alleging that the company fired pregnant women. On November 9, 2016, the day after fellow “nasty” woman Hillary Clinton failed to ascend to the country’s highest public office, Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy.
By that time, though, Amoruso’s focus was shifting. In 2014, she’d published the manifesto-slash-memoir #Girlboss — a sort of millennial Lean In, heralded as a “movement” by friend Lena Dunham — which gave her a platform for marketing female empowerment just as cannily as she did repurposed denim. But that enterprise doesn’t look quite so compelling in the harsh light of 2017, either. Writers like Jessa Crispin and Andi Zeisler have recently offered forceful — and widely discussed — criticism of the sort of mainstream corporate feminism that emphasizes individual achievement over collective solidarity. In a recent piece for BuzzFeed, Doree Shafrir grouped Amoruso in with other female founders and CEOs, like Arianna Huffington, Miki Agrawal, and Ivanka Trump, “whose business practices don’t entirely match the narrative of empowerment (or ‘fempowerment’) that they put forth publicly.” Why is it, Shafrir wonders, that we’re so determined to make feminist heroines out of these avatars of capitalist success? “And why are we still so surprised when these women — who have built brands on saying the things we want to hear — turn out to be just as flawed as their male peers?”
When I brought some of these criticisms to Kay Cannon, she seemed frustrated by the level of gleeful attention being devoted to Nasty Gal’s bankruptcy. “Of course [capitalism and feminism] can co-exist,” she tells me. “Society has this deep-rooted love of watching women fail. It’s really unfair, the double standard between women and men. And there’s been a lot of talk about Nasty Gal going bankrupt and ‘ha ha ha, look at her she has hubris, how dare she?’ But to think about all the failed businesses of men, the tech businesses — they play with fake money, they lose their businesses all the time, then they create another business and do it again.”
It’s true: We as a society do have the tendency to flatten women into symbols, to see any single failed act as some sweeping statement about our entire gender (“This company failed, so women shouldn’t run companies!”). But it goes both ways. Amoruso has worked to position herself as a feminist role model who others can learn from. She’s also an EP on the show, and she has been active in marketing and doing press for it, giving the Girlboss trailer prominent placement on her website below links to her rally and foundation. No matter how much nuance the show attempts to tease out, the show can’t quite escape feeling a bit like a savvy brand extension, another pillar of the #GIRLBOSS empire. “Sophia Amoruso is for good, she’s not for evil, she’s about trying to empower other women,” Cannon tells me. “She’s flawed. We’re not trying to tell a fairy tale. We’re saying it’s okay to go out there and try, and you might fail, and you might fail huge, but at least you went out there and you’re in the game.”
I suspect this is what makes the show’s tone so difficult to pin down. As much as the show wants Sophia to be flawed and complicated and difficult and dark and unlikable, it also wants her to be a role model, and her portrayal is undergirded by a certain reverence for the brand of business-lady girl-power Amoruso represents. She’s simultaneously an avatar of narcissistic millennial entitlement (“Adulthood is where dreams go to die!” she sulks) and a beacon of scrappy millennial ingenuity (“Know what your shit’s worth, ’cause you just got played,” she declares triumphantly after conning a store owner out of a valuable vintage jacket) and it’s hard to have it both ways. In a TV era that has given us much more nuanced and specific portrayals of “unlikable” women — from Girls to Fleabag to You’re the Worst -- it feels like Girlboss could do more if it positioned Sophia as a truly problematic figure instead of ultimately buying into the heroic mythology she created for herself. Then again, as Cannon points out, the first season only deals with the early days of Nasty Gal, and none of the real obstacles have arisen yet. “We haven’t even explored her not being a great boss of people, all those problems she has, the meteoric rise,” says Cannon. “If we were to get a second season or a third, we would continue to show this up and down.” Perhaps the show will find its voice going forward, and we’ll learn that the #GIRLBOSS story is actually much more profound and interesting as a story about failure than one about success.
Still, with Amoruso at the helm, the show isn’t just telling a story, it’s also selling a message, one hasn’t really changed since the book came out in 2014: “Sure, Trump may have won the White House and Nasty Gal may be bankrupt, but you can totes still be a #GIRLBOSS if you just have enough chutzpah to chase your dreams.” I wish I could share this optimistic worldview. Also, I wish I could believe that Marissa would wake up from that flaming wreck, dust herself off, and walk on down to the Pier Diner to enjoy a plate of pancakes with Seth and Summer. Unfortunately, it’s that much harder when you’re reliving the collision for a second time.
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