Feminist Scholar, Judith Butler, in her famous work Gender Trouble, questions what it means to be a woman, or for that matter, a man. Drawing on Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quote, ‘One is not born a woman, rather, one becomes a woman,’ she concludes that gender emerges out of a matrix of social, cultural, and economic construction, and becomes a practice, a performance performed by individuals regularly, till the activities become their gendered identity.
The gendered identity of a woman, that is, what we perceive to be the meaning of a woman, is not an essential characteristic of womenfolk in general, but a performance rehearsed by scores of women to the point of it becoming their identity and becoming synchronized with the meaning of ‘womanhood.’ Therefore, at a point in time when gender boundaries are being questioned, gender is being looked at as a social construct, what does it; what to have gendered terms like ‘girl boss?’ The term, popularized by Sophia Amoruso in her 2014 eponymous book, alludes to women who are breaking the glass ceiling in the corporate world. However, the term appears to do more harm than benefit the feminist movement, as I shall try to elucidate below.
The Linguistic Politics
In an experiment, a group of psychologists met with a 7–10-year-old and asked them to imagine pictures of farmers, fire personnel, and police personnel. They then asked the children what came to their minds the first time they saw the picture. The children unanimously thought of men doing those jobs. One might ask why the children thought of men. The answer lies in linguistic studies. If one picks up books from a few years ago, the pronoun considered to describe these jobs was by default ‘he.’ If one had to describe a doctor, politician, etc., they would describe them as ‘he.’ The suffix used with professions was normatively a ‘man’- policeman, chairman, etc.- which was another reason that the image attached with these professions to be those of men. Therefore, linguistics today are changing to include gender-neutral terms like ‘chairperson’, ‘them’, etc. In such a scenario, when gender binaries are being questioned, it makes little sense to have terms or notions that are overtly gendered.
The term ‘girl boss, ‘ therefore subconsciously tells you that while the term ‘boss’ remains a masculine term and job, you must specify the term ‘girl’ to know that it is a deviation from what the norm dictates, which is antithetical to the feminist movement, where the assimilation of women in workforce needs to be seamless, not a special occasion or a deviation from the norm. Secondly, the term ‘girl boss systematically erases non-binary individuals who might lie on a gender spectrum and do not necessarily identify themselves as men or women. Thus, when words become symbols of cultural norms, terms like ‘girl boss’ might cause more disruption than give the representation they aimed to provide.
The Aesthetics of Girl Boss
The aesthetics of power dressing emerged in the 1970s-80s, with women wearing shoulder pads, pantsuits, or jumpsuits in a bid to dress to take over the masculine corporate world. Decades later, power dressing is still in vogue, with influencers adorning pantsuits to look ‘powerful’ and like a ‘girl boss.’ A cultural and symbolic dissection of this culture, however, becomes essential. One might reflect that the trend of wearing shoulder pads masculinizes the female body structure, with the shoulders appearing to be broader and broader. Similarly, pantsuits, a traditionally men’s form of dressing, thus become women assimilating into the male culture, thinking of the masculine way of dressing to be the normative way of being about in a corporate environment.
Therefore, this subconsciously leads to women co-opting into the claim of patriarchal superiority of men, and a structural change eludes the corporate world. Do women need to look like men, talk like them, or be successful CEO? Why must feminine way of being, feminine way of dressing not be associated with ‘powerful?’ Is it an internalized misogyny that percolates into this world, rendering a change of corporate from masculine to a gender-neutral world impossible?
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir beautifully illustrated how women have always been considered as the ‘other,’ defined in relation to everything that men are not, and everything related to women has been ridiculed, given lesser importance, or considered frivolous. In a world that emphasizes that one must not ‘cry like a woman,’ the virtues and qualities of the feminine beings have become a punch down factor. If one also considers Judith Butler’s idea that gender is a performative construct, we, therefore, realize that the performativity assigned to become a woman is often ridiculed.
In times like this, the adulation of ideas like ‘girl boss’ holds up the ridicule meted out to the feminine values and traits. The expectation for women to conform to patriarchal standards of who gets to work where and how is antithetical to the feminist ideals that seek a complete transformation of the neo-liberal patriarchal forces. In a world where gender binaries are being questioned, gender conformity to become successful must be put under tight scrutiny.