Girlbossophobia: A Personal Reckoning
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The cafeteria at the Comcast Center is on the 43rd floor. You learn quickly that the simplest way to get there is to take the elevator on your floor down to the lobby and hop on an express elevator that jets you there so fast your ears pop (or, if you’re like me, your long-COVID vertigo flares up). Otherwise, it’s a lot of stops on the way to 43. And with all those emails, who has the time?
When I was a grant writer for a small private school in North Philly (so like, 3 months ago) we sometimes had the luxury of working from the Comcast Center in a conference room on the 43rd floor, adjacent to the cafeteria. (One of our board members is an executive. How do you think I got this job?) I’d watch everyone glide around in their stylish jeans-and-blazer ensembles, wondering how people got to dress like that here when I’m still sweating through Ann Taylor suits to earn $50k. Everyone was smiling like they knew something I didn’t. And when I tasted the fresh sushi and absorbed the panoramic city view, I started to figure it out.
My team and I would always come back from those workdays energized, renewed by secondhand fervor for a corporate life we didn’t know. If only I could get a foot in the door, I’d daydream. Manifestation was a dubious concept until the day I got the offer. Laughing in disbelief on the phone with the recruiter, I was taken right back to that conference room on the 43rd floor, a blurred image of impossibility suddenly crystalline. I couldn’t even bring myself to negotiate my salary because I was scared they’d rescind the offer. This was a full-circle moment I couldn’t risk slipping.
Some three months into my role as Digital Marketing Specialist (whatever that means), it’s hard for me to imagine life before this. I didn’t know what it was like to enjoy a job, and I’d figured I’d spend my whole life sucking it up. Do you know what it feels like to spend a long time tolerating dull misery? The kind that isn’t quite front of mind, but gives you stomach ulcers and insomnia that you chalk up to other causes because it couldn’t possibly be your job? Let’s just say you’ll remember your last day for the rest of your life. And every goodbye you bid your perfectly lovely coworkers will be laced with relief because despite their perfectly loveliness, they are part of an ecosystem that was slowly killing you.
What I’m saying is I’m happy. Even on the days I try to curb this happiness with some should-be narrative of a starving artist who goes broke writing and lives with my parents for The Good of the Craft, this happiness whispers “not today, bitch.” I go to work at 9. I finish at 5. And somewhere in between the American dream blooms like a lotus: a girl from a rural Pennsylvania town of less than 5,000 people, a first generation college grad, a flower born from mud. I should wear a tshirt that says these bootstraps are Céline (Phoebe Philo era).
It’s not really that deep, though. Nor is my story all that moving. People come from far worse upbringings than I did and accomplish far more than I have. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because despite a dream come true amid semi-unlikely circumstances, and despite the happiness that reaffirms itself daily, I feel fucking stupid about the whole thing.
Let’s go back to the cafeteria on the 43rd floor. I’m sitting there the other day, poking at some roasted beets over romaine, just glass between me and breathtaking Philadelphia. This might be the first time Philadelphia’s ever been described as “breathtaking” outside of Lincoln Financial Field, so remember this moment. The beets and the buildings and the baristas who sing and dance like Todd Carmichael’s non-binary troupe, I wish I could show you, I really do. Not to mention, the food and coffee have been free since early in the pandemic—a thank you to the employees who show up and keep the telecommunications world turning at #26 on the Fortune 500 list. I’ve made it, I think to myself. I’m even wearing the jeans-and-blazer ensemble.
And then my work phone buzzes. It’s nothing I have to cut my lunch short for, but it jars me out of my grateful stupor. I’m reminded of Jia Tolentino’s essay “Always Be Optimizing” from her book, Trick Mirror. She uses fast casual salad culture to explore the scope of advanced capitalism, and how individual self-optimization oils the machine. Tolentino writes:
“The ritualization and neatness of this process (and the fact that Sweetgreen is pretty good) obscure the intense, circular artifice that defines the type of life it’s meant to fit into. The ideal chopped-salad customer is himself efficient: he needs to eat his twelve-dollar salad in ten minutes because he needs the extra time to keep functioning within the job that allows him to afford a regular twelve-dollar salad in the first place.”
This is an essay I come back to often, usually when I’m confronted with the grotesque, consumerist self-optimization that exists in the wild—something I’d hitherto thought I’d (at least kind of) dodged. The quick salad, the inability to detach from my inbox, it felt cringe to smile, self-satisfied by some philosophical culmination of “lifestyle.” Had I really made it? Or am I naive to my own “intense, circular artifice,” hypnotized by the veneer of corporate prestige? The reported evils of large corporations used to make my stomach turn. Now I jump out of bed excited to work for one.
Am I becoming a girlboss?
That’s when I started to get angry. Here was Tolentino—a pioneer of girlboss criticism—a girlboss herself! A woman who worked very hard at very esteemed-yet-sinister institutions and made very impressive connections and stays up very late writing some of our generation’s most cited work for very important publications. Covert power loves to talk about conspicuous power like they don’t play for the same team.
…and to think this was all sparked by a salad.
Nonetheless, my vitriol was illuminating. I have girlbossophobia. And anything that exposes the parallels between me and them is helter-skelter. It’s made me feel bad about liking my job, about bouncing gleefully through breathless afternoons, relishing the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. This catapults me out of the present moment into a downward spiral of self-inquiry. What do you like about hard work? Are you subconsciously trying to get ahead? And what does getting ahead mean but more money, more power, more stuff?
When I first started finding my flow at work, I’d describe it to people as the perfect corporate job for someone who has worked in, and enjoyed, the service industry. My mom was a waitress and a bartender her entire life. Hustling with a ravenous smile is in my blood. When I’m shuffling between meetings, or firing emails off during calls while still, somehow, absorbing the voice in my headset, I can feel the same part of my brain light up that used to zip from one side of the bar to the other with a Yards PPA in each hand on Penn State football Saturdays. The comparison is true, but I think part of me was also trying to blue collarize my new white collar identity—to put it in familiar terms that read grittier, more virtuous. When you find yourself in a position of hypocrisy, you will go to strange lengths to rationalize it, even when it’s usually as simple as you’ve changed your mind. It’s been hard to admit I’m working for the man. It’s been harder to admit that I like it.
I took to Twitter when this shame first came into focus. It sparked generative banter with some friends. I said I was bitter about being labeled a girlboss for enjoying hard work (my own insecurity; no one ever actually said it). Erika replied, “The girlboss persona is a cope. It treats “hard work” as an immutable identity rather than a virtue to be practiced.” Erika’s someone who can really articulate the existential conundrum of loving your job and the cushy lifestyle it affords you, while still maintaining awareness of its peripheral role in societal erosion. (And she can distill it better in a single tweet than I can in a 2000-word essay, so there’s that.) My friend Joe added, “Also let’s not pretend girlboss attitude wasn’t ever cool before it was co-opted by rich white women who got bored and decided they wanted to shill MLM teas that make you shit your pants.” I’m mostly adding Joe’s tweet for color, but he has a point: the girlboss attitude was cool in the 2010s before we saw the monster behind the mask.
In Amanda Mull’s 2020 piece “The Girlboss Has Left the Building,” she writes:
“When a country is grappling with mass death, racist state violence, and the unemployment and potential homelessness of millions of people, it becomes inescapably clear that when women center their worldview around their own office hustle, it just re-creates the power structures built by men, but with women conveniently on top. In the void left after the end of the corporate feminist vision of the future, this reckoning opens space to imagine success that doesn’t involve acing performance reviews or getting the most out of your interns.”
Mull elucidates the issue of the girlboss’s “immutable identity” on a broad scale. We watched countless female founders and CEOs fall from grace in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the protests, and the overall shift in social climate. The collective realized there was nothing heroic about abusing employees, or running on three hours of sleep. And for ladder-climbing to maintain robust singularity in the face of national crises was especially egregious. The girlboss was a new class of privilege to dismantle, or to at least reimagine.
Leandra Medine, Sophia Amoruso, Yael Aflalo, these grand examples help contextualize my girlbossophobia, but they’re not quite causal. No, I fear the everyday ways the girlboss challenges my personal credence, looking like someone who’s prioritized spiritually bankrupt distractions over matters of the soul. My whole life, I’d been drawn to the bohemian. Derived meaning from art, connection, travel, and the like. So why, all of a sudden, am I so into work? And why am I happier? The image of myself taking this path of “corporate urbanite who buys a mediocre home with gray walls while climbing the ladder and instead of having children, collects handbags” bodes grim. And I’m scared that getting excited about click-to-open rates will doom me to that fate.
On a recent episode of Red Scare podcast, hosts Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova explored the prospective overturn of Roe v. Wade. They cackled at the irony of “childless girlbosses with email jobs” being the most vocal about the news. I just so happened to be cleaning my house while listening, performing a mechanized act of domesticity, forced to contemplate these two sides of myself that are slowly finding harmony: the tradwife, and the childless girlboss with an email job. Modernity depletes me in myriad ways. I’ve had dreams of myself pregnant, eating a bloody steak in an open field and I don’t think that’s for nothing. A lot of my girlboss ambition is with progeny in mind, i.e. I work hard so I can save enough to comfortably bring life into this world someday. I fear a version of myself who’s so wrapped up in material success that she forgets the bloody steak, the open field, the force of nature in her veins. And so I know that if I can keep a clear head and become just obsessed with work enough to still maintain my wild, I will become a mother, and I will teach my daughter the art of balance.
If the girlboss persona is, indeed, a cope, perhaps it’s a cope for attachment. Lady Gaga once cringeily said, “Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you anymore.” Getting attached to people (and even animals) requires vulnerability. Attachment means no more walls; one must welcome disappointment and heartbreak as willingly as ease and triumph. I often wonder if I’m subconsciously working hard so I have something that can’t be taken from me. I look at my partner and my dog and know my entire emotional life hinges upon their existence, their loyalty. Mousse bursts through the bathroom door while I’m peeing, and I hold his head in my hands knowing I’ll likely outlive this panting wellspring of unconditional love. It’s no wonder so many unmarried, childless girlbosses exist; it’s easier to just put your head down and work.
In 2022, as we confront both the empty promise of the girlboss and the limitations of the tradwife, the question, “Can women have it all?” is hardly anachronistic. So what does it mean as someone who identifies as artist first, and marketing professional like, 15th (or at least somewhere between “Sopranos fan” and “shoe lover”)? I think if I can free myself from shame, from the binary idea that I need to be one thing or another, I’ll realize that having a job that makes me happy is as simple as that. And I can sit in the cafeteria on the 43rd floor every Tuesday and Thursday and remind myself “I made it.”