Netflix’s TV adaptation of former CEO Sophia Amoruso’s success story gets off to a rocky start, with more hypocrisies and flawed pseudo-feminism than actual business-savvy smarts.
“Conformity is prison,” says Sophia Amoruso (Britt Robertson), staring straight into the camera as if she is about to deliver a monologue on the world’s most fundamental truths. For a moment, I almost get caught up in my expectations. But the next thing she says is, “I just need to figure out a way to grow up without becoming a boring adult!” And with that, the illusion that Girlboss was getting off to a good start is completely thwarted. It should come as no surprise, either, that Sophia then gets point-blank slapped in the face by an old lady for her half-baked pseudo-philosophical ruminations. Despite all the progressive liberal values that Girlboss claims to promote, the sensation of watching that slap in the face was the only thing that stayed with me throughout my viewing of the first two episodes of the series. Girlboss has started off as a deeply faulty exercise in feminism – a story of real-life success that has been warped and twisted into a mangled, chaotic mess that fails to meet any of the standards it sets itself.
Girlboss is the loosely-retold story of Sophia Amoruso’s self-made success as CEO of Nasty Gal Vintage, a company that auctioned off vintage clothing on the internet until its bankruptcy proceedings began last year. Amoruso’s onscreen persona is twenty-three years old; a vagabond-like resident of California who lies, steals and loud-mouths her way through life. It’s not a flattering character description, and it isn’t meant to be. The representation of unconventional women in Girlboss is not empowering. It is simply an exhibition of a woman shouting, flipping the finger, and elbowing her way through life, that tries to come off as light-hearted and carefree but plays out in a manner far from enjoyable. Sophia is the very embodiment of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, amplified by a million, and spat out into the big bad world where “quirky” is no longer a synonym for “likeable”. In fact, Sophia is what you would get scraping the bottom of the metaphorical barrel filled with middle-class white girls begging mummy and daddy to let them take a gap year – “I’m pissed off, but I don’t know what I’m pissed off about yet! I just need to figure it out! Believe in me! Let me continue dumpster-diving, conning, and stealing my way through my youth, because adulthood is settling and settling is death!” It’s an awfully narrow way to look at life, and it definitely does not make me look forward to when the plot inevitably meanders its way to the point where Sophia becomes the successful head of her vintage retail empire; offering her character a flimsy excuse for redemption from her character’s insufferable immaturity.
The whole show itself is deeply ironic, and not in a cheeky, metafictionally-aware kind of way
While Girlboss is one of the few series out there today with ample representation of ethnic minorities and, of course, women in leading roles; the show falls more than short of actually representing them well. Sophia’s best friend Annie (Ellie Reed) initially gave me hope that there would be more to the series than its already piss-poor depiction of “strong” women, but it turned out that her sole purpose in the show is to throw around gratuitous lewd jokes like they’re going out of fashion, and to give Girlboss the thin semblance of actually passing the Bechdel test. RuPaul (yes, of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame!) is surprisingly also in the show as Sophia’s neighbour, but insultingly enough, serves only as a token camp character to contrast Sophia’s own unneeded coarseness against a less “masculine” presence. The show’s start therefore proves to be a wholly disappointing introduction to a success story that should have been on the right side of representative, but ends up being on the wrong side of plain annoying. It almost makes me wonder why the series was commissioned in the first place – did someone on the Netflix team truly believe that a show whose main character does nothing but alternate between spouting annoying aphorisms about “solving life” and wallowing in self-pity would be enjoyable? Was this one last money-grab by the real Sophia Amoruso herself, who serves as producer on the series, and who has recently stepped down as CEO of Nasty Gal Vintage following its bankruptcy? Who can say? Who wants to say?
The whole show itself is deeply ironic, and not in a cheeky, metafictionally-aware kind of way. Plenty of allusions are made to the show’s ideological status in the first episode alone. Sophia’s antics are soundtracked by the blistering, guttural sounds of riot grrl icons like Suzi Quatro and Bikini Kill. A vintage clothing store owner describes himself as not pandering to consumerism, but simply as “a link in a chain of sustainable clothing use”. A band member interrupts a performance to briefly remind the audience that “the tenets of capitalism and democracy fundamentally oppose each other”, in the most forced display of unapologetic pretentiousness that I have seen in a TV show to date. And yet, for a show which puts up such an indignant non-conformist, anti-establishment front, Sophia’s ticket out of her current waifish lifestyle is through learning the ins and outs of, and subscribing completely to, the very doctrine of consumerist capitalism that the show’s character waste so many contrived lines on denouncing. The entire show reeks of sixth-form student philosophy and straw feminism; a venture in which Cannon and co. decided that ticking the boxes for an independent female protagonist and racial diversity amongst the cast would be enough to satisfy the audiences of “woke” millennials looking for satisfactory representation of women and minorities. On the outside, it succeeds. But the appeal of Girlboss in this respect is only skin deep, and no amount of punk rock or unconventional fashion choices will change the fact that it simply is not all that smart a show.
“Your generation is so fucked up,” remarks the old woman who slapped Sophia; a character who may have appeared onscreen for all of five minutes but has proven herself to be the most likeable character on the show through that act alone. Her statement is undoubtedly meant to have been made in a pique of millennial-hating rage that Cannon clearly hoped would convince the throngs of self-respecting millennial Netflix subscribers to cheer for her “edgy” female protagonist. However, I’m still inclined to agree with that nameless old lady instead. Girlboss is far from the feminist success story that we want or need. Its first two episodes substitute immaturity for innovation and cliché for representation. But if Cannon is right, and all it takes to win over the millennials is to tick a set of boxes which gives the mildest implication of social justice awareness, then boy, oh boy; our generation is fucked up, indeed.
Girlboss is released on Netflix on 21st April. This is a review of the first two episodes.
Image: Karen Ballard/Netflix