ambition

Who Is the Girlboss Now?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

On TikTok, #girlboss has over 4.8 billion views. The mass of content includes happy young women celebrating successes, suspect “business opportunities” that look a lot like multilevel-marketing schemes, and, most important, hordes of memes. This endless scroll doesn’t tell a specific or cohesive story of who the girlboss was or what she has become: only that she was and that Gen Z is trying to figure out what to do with her.

On TikTok, the incandescent girlboss that millennials indentified with is now a ghost, the poster child of a bygone era of pop feminism. Her fraught memory lives on in memes: The few girlboss-related TikToks to recently go viral are all memes criticizing, parodying, or making some kind of fun of the #girlboss.

“I think our age group pokes fun at the idea of the girlboss,” says Caroline Timoney, a junior majoring in government at Georgetown University, noting that she and her friends would never use the term in earnest. “A serious use of the word girlboss is dated.” Timoney created a viral TikTok meme when she recorded herself saying, “I fear I may have girlbossed a little too close to the sun,” as she feigns suspicion of her surroundings from her college dorm room.

Timoney’s “too close to the sun” audio started to be used to describe any kind of excess: too much filler, too much alcohol, too many unintended consequences.

Timoney first heard the word girlboss in high school. It was around the time of the Netflix adaptation of Sophia Amoruso’s book, #Girlboss, and Caroline’s all-girl’s school was high on the concept — the business club became “girlboss club” and visiting alumni were called “girlbosses in the real world.” She was sort of into the idea of being the boss, but she was too young to see herself in the girlboss. By the time she was old enough to truly understand what the term meant, it had become an insult.

When reviewing what went wrong in the rise of the archetype, some critics attribute a lot of the hubris, stupidity, and recklessness to the “girl” in girlboss. But on TikTok, the “girl” is redeemed. The app is seeing a groundswell of memes elevating the fraught beauty of being a girl. (An example: “The girls that girl, girl. The girls who girln’t, gorn’t.”) This gives the girlboss a second chance at relevance: Girlbosses can be anti-heroines who give in to the feminine urge to dream too big, to believe in fairy tales, to crave so much of the world it overwhelms you. What little appeal the girlboss has left is thanks to how glamorous and spectacular a failure she was — Anna Delvey fell flat on her face, but she scammed the hell out of all of those hotels.

The other popular meme that dominates TikTok’s #girlboss is “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss.” You can use this meme to describe characters in a TV show or the various members of your friend group. It can also be used to punctuate sentences, like an ironic use of “slay” or “yas queen.” Like “girlbossing too close to the sun,” Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss also flirts with the destructive side of girlbossing.

Laurel Lakoundji’s TikTok is an audio gold mine for abject anti-girlbosses. Her bio reads “head empty,” and she famously claimed she only has “one more year of capitalism” left in her. She’s 24. “I heard of them in their downfall,” she says of her early girlboss memories, admitting that she is a sucker for white-collar crimes and girlboss voyeurism.

Lakoundji and I wondered what kind of circumstances would tempt someone to girlboss toward the sun: “It feels like such an available blueprint,” she says. For a while, the girlboss offered (mostly white) women a path to success, so what if it required a little gaslighting and gatekeeping. Laurel calls this temptation “a call to the void,” when we consider giving ourselves over to absolute greed, if only to escape the drudgery of having to work to live.

Despite the minor appeal, Lakoundji doesn’t think anybody on her side of TikTok wants to be seen as a girlboss. “It’s a character assassination, completely,” she says. Girlbossing and capitalism share the same ick. Lakoundji says her TikTok FYP sees young people pursuing different ambitions, ones that reject the capitalist rat race in favor of building families and nurturing their communities instead. “There are so many other things people can desire,” she says.

Timoney says she and her classmates use the term “girlboss” so liberally it’s hard to nail down its meaning: If they have a lot of work, they’ll say, “Oh gosh, I really have to girlboss today.” If they party too hard, they “girlbossed a bit too close to the sun on that.” Their conversational use of the word is parallel to how the word is employed across much of TikTok, yet the sarcasm belies a deeper conflict.

It’s not cool to say you idealize money, profit, conventional success, and other kinds of conformity (see the creators showcasing their leftist politics by dunking on self-identifying girlbosses). But just because it’s not cool doesn’t mean these anti-girlbosses aren’t as driven as anyone else. “I think women sometimes mask ambition ironically or a little as a joke” by using the word, Lakoundji points out.

Despite knocking girlbosses, Timoney and her friends are very ambitious. They want to be successful, but they’re also scared and wonder how far they might have to go and if they’d ever go too far. “I don’t want to step on anyone else while getting ahead,” she says. “It’s interesting to have the joke of girlbossing happening at the same time as we’re figuring out how to get in the workplace.”

When I asked her about a pink poster hanging on the dorm wall behind her that reads “Mom, I am a rich man,” a quote from Cher, she did a double take. “I feel like that’s a good example of girlbossing” she says, admitting that she didn’t hang it up as a joke. She then went silent for a moment and seemed shocked that somehow some earnest girlbossery had slipped into her world. “I have a lot more to think about in terms of my relationship to girlboss.”

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Who Is the Girlboss Now?