Scrappy Ambition: Critics Don’t Want “Girlboss” To Be Great

“Those shoes are ridiculous.”

“Yep. It’s either wear these or get that surgery that makes your legs longer. You know, the one that Gwyneth Paltrow had.”

Watching Britt Robertson, who portrays real-life self-made millionaire Sophia Amoruso as Sophia Marlowe in the Netflix series Girlboss, say those lines as she laced up a pair of Jeffrey Campbell Lita platform shoes, made me want to give the show the warmest hug ever. Sophia had already annoyed me the first eleven minutes of the first episode. And despite being aware of Amoruso’s story, I was not privy to how Girlboss would project the beginning of her rags to riches story. Upstaging my chagrin, I was delighted to witness that the script had already generously sprinkled colorful nods to 2000s fashion and popular culture with such accuracy. (Girlboss begins 2006)

Like most viewers and journalistic critics, I found the protagonist and representation of Girlboss absolutely abhorrent in the trailer, released early April. The fast-talking, apparent disregard for grace Sophia was a case study in “Say something nice about this person.” This was most obvious when swaying her arms up and down in excited motion, and with fingers snapping, exclaimed: “Dolla, dolla, bills, y’all!” (Though Robertson herself, as an actress, has an infectious presence. Go figure in order to play this caricature of the Californian).

Nonetheless irked, I completely binge-watched season one between Saturday night and Sunday morning. My curiosity needed fulfillment to how the Nasty Gal empire was captured. Nasty Gal (named after a Betty Davis song) famously began when Amoruso sold random vintage pieces on eBay and through the hobby sparked within herself an impressive understanding of business acumen and utilized her whip-smart tactics such as alternating her pieces a bit and “flipping” the clothes she bought, from local San Francisco consignment shops, for sometimes triple the prize.

I am extremely familiar with Amoruso’s story as I was of the crop, or at least worked amongst and was even friends with the girls, that adored Nasty Gal. The girls I am referring to were my co-workers at Topshop in Manhattan’s Soho, the high street brand from England that at the time was the only location in America. Topshop held a similar aesthetic, but while Sir Phillip Green and co. slyly ripped off Chanel and whatever cool label Saks or Bergdorf’s recently approved, Nasty Gal was unmistakenly funkier. These born and bred New York girls all embodied a scrappy, downtown sense of style and Nasty Gal was their visual bible. I recall one of them excitedly bringing her just delivered package to work, ready to rip at it at lunch time. It was the first time I had seen Nasty Gal live. The package was white and shaped like an average-sized pillow.

When Amoruso released her confluence of an autobiography and self-help book titled #GIRLBOSS, her disciples rejoiced. My New York girls weren’t alone here. Nationwide, Amoruso was the fashion industry’s most tangible version of a Rihanna. Her slightly, easy to detect IDGAF attitude was cool and chill and she could do no wrong. And seemingly, maybe utterly unintentionally, she introduced a new word into the American lexicon. The ’70s had “women’s lib.” The 80s’: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” The ’90s: “girl power.” Post “the 99 and the 2000”? “GIRLBOSS.”

 

It could be for these very reasons, and the inevitable but so spot-on detailing of the 2000s (Is that The Black Kids“I’m Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” I’m hearing? Sweet Jesus, my heart), why I wasn’t so hard on Girlboss as almost every online critic was. Collectively, they found the show, from its lead to the dialogue, too slapstick, juvenile, and frankly, un-feminist. I read a handful of them and while valid points were made, my bones still clashed with theirs on how they missed exhuming the point of Amoruso’s story, even if presented in a cartoonish manner and the largely reported fact that Nasty Gal filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 2016. Nasty Gal and Amoruso went from being crowned the determined, freak kid engines of fashion to examples of “getting too big for your britches” in eight years. This was (no) thanks to constant exposes on sites like Jezebel on the workplace environment and somewhat confirmed rumors of employee maltreatment. Amoruso stepped down as CEO in 2015 and in February 2017, Boohoo.com bought Nasty Gal’s intellectual property for $20 million, as papers from the WSJ to the L.A. Times eagerly ran breakdowns of what happened. The Nasty Gal of my New York days was over. (Pour one out, but just not on my spiked heel Litas please. Litas, for a long time, were a best-seller in Nasty’s prime).

As a show, Girlboss never touted itself as a feminist manifesto. The 2014 book edition (why does it feel like it was published later?) had that aura about it. The show, from what I’ve understood, is meant to be a behind the scenes, uncloaking, wiping away the gossamer of the book that was inadvertently hailed as the how-to make it big guide “like a girl.” During its thirteen, half-hour, episodes, Kay Cannon, who created Girlboss for Netflix, showed the dirty, unglamorous road to success. Including all the bumps and uncomfortable conversations, really stupid decisions, and a-ha moments, intermingled with everyday life. Sophia’s journey is pretty common. Her story stands out, aside from its known heydays, is that Sophia, in fiction and real-life, kept going. She had her setbacks and some really shitty ones, but she couldn’t let go of the dream, the signs that Nasty Gal Vintage cum Nasty Gal would be worth the agony and her far too long unused smarts.

At The New York Post, Jennifer Wright called the show a “feminist fraud” because: “It’s cool that the main character is making money. Good for her! But being rich isn’t necessarily a feminist act. Marie Antoinette, Leona Helmsley and Imelda Marcos aren’t remembered as great feminist icons. If that wealth isn’t used to advance other women’s lives, then it’s just . . . a nice situation for the person who is rich.” Point very much taken, but I wonder if Wright is always this judgmental towards female entrepreneurs? Girlboss is a “loose” reflection of Amoruso’s start, as is stated at the commencement of every episode, not her life in 2012 when the Nasty Gal’s revenue reached $100 million. Yes, the character is annoying and selfish, but was Wright really expecting her to save the world and launch Nasty Gal in thirteen episodes?

Wright was judging Girlboss through the lenses of a woman that watched the Women’s March back in January, reports of Thinx menstrual-proof underwear founder Miki Agrawal and bizarre cases of sexual harassment at Thinx headquarters, and the devastating loss of Hillary Clinton not crowned as the President-elect in 2016. That seemed to be the case for much of the critics from Vanity Fair to Variety that pelted tomatoes at Girlboss.

So despite the trailer, I liked Girlboss. I recognized the flaws and once I did, couldn’t ignore them. But they paled in comparison to how the season made me feel. I appreciated the honesty of how agitating Sophia was, even though she meant well but immured it with over the top arrogance. She had great ideas and even when she didn’t know what she was doing, forged ahead and executed the best way she knew how. She was a lazy entrepreneur and then became empowered. Can’t we celebrate that? And her street smarts (though I’m not including when she stole a rug and didn’t get in trouble for it) are called survival skills, a feature the aforementioned critics conveniently looked over.

Also, the show had its strong point in painting the early years of how influential the Internet was becoming. Fast Company was highly fond of the episode “Vintage Fashion Forum” where the script brought to life how a chat room would like if the voices participating were actually in a room at a round table, bouncing off of each other in real-time in real life, not virtual reality. It was pretty fantastic and completely evocative of those America Online Messager (for those that used it, AIM) days. The service is no longer available, but just like MySpace, which inspired an entire episode surrounding Sophia’s friendship with her bestie Annie, showed the infantry of how so many us attempted to express ourselves beyond the cordless phone and flip cell phones. The episode wraps with Annie and Sophia disagreeing over an issue involving Nasty Gal and the way they spar with each other only through AIM, in which emotions are heightened whether high or low, felt very emotional and again, as someone from the era, a real interpretation that I must give credit to. As awesome as AIM and MySpace, and Facebook, were, these early social media platforms proved how effective they were in causing ripples in friendships and cordiality.

Concerning angels amongst us like human rights activists Malala, it can be challenging to allow scrappy heroines like Sophia (Amoruso or Marlowe) unto the legacy train of women and their iconic or amazing achievements. Feminism has many shades of success and presence. Individuals like Malala and Amoruso are both strong-minded and women, regardless of age and culture, deserve to see the spectrum for we are not monolithic, just like our dreams and paths to greatness are not as well.

Today, Amoruso has moved on from Nasty Gal and is now spearheading GIRLBOSS as an online collective and space that encourages and elevates everyday women to follow their passion and inspire each other. Sounds pretty hunky-dory, but as their Instagram page shows is as feisty and determined as Nasty Gal became known for. Don’t let the “demise” of Nasty Gal or the sometimes irritable fictional Sophia to derail from the point of Girlboss. The premise is as old as time. To quote Maya Angelou, an amazing icon that most women and self-proclaimed feminist adore: “Nothing will work unless you do.” Amoruso did the work and that is why she became iconic to her legion. That and the fact that Nasty Gal was Lita heaven for Generation Y.

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