Who’s To Blame For The Failure Of The Girlboss Dream?

(Photo: Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Penguin Random House)
(Photo: Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Penguin Random House)

There’s something rotten at The Wing, a once-vaunted feminist company that sought to offer women and non-binary people a safe alternative to bro-y coworking spaces. Founder Audrey Gelman stepped down as CEO recently after Black and brown employees went public with claims that the company was riddled with racism and mistreated employees of color.

And it’s not just bad there; it’s all the gleaming corporate feminist utopias we’ve imagined, each hiding an ugly, festering thing behind millennial-pink walls and marble accent tables. The promise of safety has been betrayed, a crime committed, a creeping bloodstain left to darken the bamboo floorboards. Someone must pay.

Just as a slew of supposedly feminist companies, from The Wing to Refinery29, have faced reckonings over abusive and racist office cultures, the girlbosses are toppling in fiction as well. Two scathing and propulsive 2020 novels — “Self Care,” out June 30, and “The Herd,” published in March — specifically take on those who founded companies meant to create space for women, only to somehow end up creating spaces no safer than the male-dominated ones they replaced. 

Leigh Stein’s darkly witty romp through corporate feminism, “Self Care,” is set in the office of a by-and-for-women social media startup called Richual. Andrea Bartz’s murder mystery, “The Herd,” plays out against the backdrop of a private women’s coworking space much like The Wing: glossy, exclusive, idealistic. Though Bartz’s is more explicitly a crime thriller, the two books are fueled by the same mystery: The fantasy feminist workplace, and product, is a lie. So who is to blame?

From my desk, I could see the entire floor of my small but dedicated kingdom, a dozen ladies wearing noise-canceling headphones, sitting at long marbled pink tables, or ruining their thoracic spines on jewel-toned velvet couches. Devin in “Self Care”

“Self Care” opens on Maren, the stressed-out co-founder of Richual, drinking her way through a dogpile. She’d tweeted something one night, a grim joke and possible death threat about Ivanka Trump, that had caught a wave of right-wing outrage and wound up on cable news shows. Her co-founder and best friend, Devin, finds her still at the office the next morning, lying on a lavender velvet chaise, wearing a BreastNest (“a spongy beige sack you can wear for support if even the idea of clasping a bra is too much”) and drowning in warm chardonnay. 

She’s hurting, but she’s also thrilled. “The worse it gets ― I mean the more women who are outraged and terrified and suffering ― the more our user base grows,” she tells Devin. At the minor cost of her own mental health, she’s rallying women to sign up for their wellness-focused app. 

This is Maren: a high-achieving ball of stress fueled by booze, carbs and her deep sense of martyrdom, throwing her body and brain into the meatgrinder of capitalism to ensure that Richual succeeds. Devin, the face of the company, exemplifies its wellness values: Her taut body is maintained with boutique fitness classes and green juices, calmed with hours of meditation at her desk, and clothed in Alice + Olivia shift dresses. 

In their different styles, Maren and Devin both epitomize the millennial corporate feminist: a performative workaholic and a wellness influencer, a mouthy barb-thrower and an affirmation-forward appeaser. Devin fervently believes in the power of self-care ― “Using a Groupon to get my pubes laser-removed back when it was still socially acceptable to use Groupon was an act of self-love,” she thinks as she dons a “porcelain Heart Opener Bodysuit from Lululemon” ― but her obsessive mindfulness, exercise, accessorizing, dieting and skin care read more as an unholy marriage of oppression and privilege. 

Maren and Devin created Richual as a “world without men — where women could actually take care of themselves,” a “digital sanctuary where you went to unload your pain.” Influencers in thong bodysuits post alongside political activists; they’re all hurting in some way. 

Men aren’t entirely absent. Their primary financial backer, Evan, is the consummate male ally: Independently wealthy, he rose to fame by eliminating himself from “The Bachelorette” while denouncing the show’s toxic masculinity, and then invested his money in this by-and-for-women startup. (He’s also, of course, hooking up with Devin.) 

The office is the very picture of a girlboss enterprise, Instagram-perfect and populated by women. Devin, who won Maren’s trust by advising her to redesign her nonprofit’s website (“so that it was more pink overall and the Donate Now button stood out in mint green, the color of money, not in an aggressive way but in a way that made you feel generous, like you were building Barbie’s Dreamhouse for women who were less fortunate than you”), believes in a feminism that is about making women feel beautiful and surrounded by beauty. The Richual office, seen through her eyes, is heaven: “From my desk, I could see the entire floor of my small but dedicated kingdom, a dozen ladies wearing noise-canceling headphones, sitting at long marbled pink tables, or ruining their thoracic spines on jewel-toned velvet couches. Emerald and sapphire, garnet and citrine.” The app and the office are both as soothing and easy on the eyes as a high-end spa.

The Wing in Washington, D.C., welcomed members to a soothing setting decorated with pastel couches and potted plants. (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Wing in Washington, D.C., welcomed members to a soothing setting decorated with pastel couches and potted plants. (Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Bartz’s thriller is also set in a feminist sanctuary, the Herd, a SoHo coworking space and social club clearly modeled on The Wing. The Herd has “the girly chicness of a magazine office, but without the clutter or bustle ― here everything is calm.” It’s tastefully decorated with blue velvet workstations and sassy wallpaper. When Katie Bradley, a freelance tech reporter, steps inside, the sheer preciousness of the interiors and the clusters of accomplished women in impossibly stylish outfits mingling inside instantly overwhelm her hardened journalistic skepticism. 

Katie has an in: Her older sister, Hana, does PR for the Herd. The founder, Eleanor, is one of Hana’s Harvard besties, and along with graphic designer Mikki, the college pals have remained close since graduation. Katie has recently spent a year home in Michigan and is back with a shiny book deal about a fake-news factory she reported on in the Midwest. She’s eager to be enfolded into the friend group, and into the Herd.

Like many such businesses, the Herd is framed as more than that by its creators. It’s “a community,” Eleanor says. “It’s a sacred space designed to make our members’ lives more balanced, beautiful, and connected.” She delivers the line semi-ironically to Katie, playing up the polish of her elevator pitch. “Hell of a line,” Katie replies. The message to possible members: paying hundreds of dollars a month to join is self-care, not to mention feminism (“Wonderful things happen when passionate women and marginalized genders come together,” Eleanor adds). The women who do join become fanatics, tweeting in its defense (“If you think it’s not for you bc it’s too bougie/white/annoying/whatever, please come be my plus-one and see for yourself how inclusive and supportive and wonderful it really is”). 

But even as Katie is swept off her feet, there are hints of something awry. The Herd’s makeup room is closed the day she arrives, thanks to an unknown vandal who spray-painted “UGLY CUNTS” on the wall; the Herd location in San Francisco and an under-construction one in Fort Greene have been tagged as well. Then Eleanor herself goes missing on the eve of the announcement of a major deal.

The concept of the feminist startup as primarily a luxury experience marketed to women of a certain class is, as both novels unpack, signaled by the branding of these businesses with a fairly uniform aesthetic somewhere between cute and elegant — succulents, marble and gold accents, pastel websites and jewel-toned upholstery. Eleanor keeps a jar of La Mer and a book by bell hooks by her bed. Richual has 10 commandments stenciled on its office wall in “fuchsia and sherbet,” a slew of clichéd and appropriated girl-power affirmations, somehow both contradictory and redundant: “Women are people. All people are human beings. Believe women. Do better. Self-care is not selfish. Don’t read the comments. You are more than a digital footprint. The political is personal. Stay woke. Calm the fuck down.” 

The Herd initially beckons as a cozy respite from male aggression and tasteless decor, but as the ominous events pile up, the velvet couches no longer seem quite so inviting. Like a baby doll with a demonic glare, the Herd is almost more unsettling for the cuteness it has spackled over the glimpses of cruelty. When Katie stays after closing time one day, she suddenly realizes “how expansive and eerie the Herd was at night.” A pothos plant sways disconcertingly in its stylish holder. The next time she stays after hours, this time with her buddies, they find a dead body.

What initially seems to be a relatively functional workplace quickly proves to ooze with repressed toxicity.

Like “The Herd,” which is narrated alternately by Katie and Hana, “Self Care” relies on multiple narrators to reframe each other’s perspectives ― to show how what one views as empowering, another views as selfish or even exploitative. No one woman can be in control of the narrative. 

“Self Care” is narrated in turn by Maren, Devin and Khadijah, their harassed senior vice president of editorial strategy. Where Maren is a brash, messy feminist and Devin a Gwyneth Paltrow-style self-care icon, Khadijah, who is Black, has room to be neither. Hired away from her BuzzFeed job in part because Maren didn’t want all the founding employees to be white, Khadijah is too busy creating and editing every scrap of editorial content on the site, handling scut work and being a visible emblem of Richual’s diversity to indulge in either sloppiness or hyper-grooming. She photoshops Devin’s jawline before posting pictures of her, does data analytics on headline options and checks email in the middle of the night. “I woke up like this, by the light of my screen, vibrating with adrenaline,” she puts it, as she lies in bed scrolling through Twitter and a jammed inbox. She hasn’t even had an opening to tell Maren that she’s pregnant. What initially seems to be a relatively functional workplace quickly proves to ooze with repressed toxicity. 

So does Richual the app, which despite being man-free and wellness-minded, only manages to target the weak points of its user base with more laser-like precision. “We earned revenue from the brands who offered solutions” to the pain their users share, Maren explains: “serums and creams, juices and dusts, clays and scrubs, drugs and masks, oils and enemas, scraping and purging, vaping and waxing, lifting and lengthening, straightening and defining, detox and retox, the cycle of life.” The platform partners with influencers to bring in revenue, sending them a gruesomely invasive survey Maren created about which traumatizing things they’ve experienced (Sexual abuse? Check here!) so that they can most effectively monetize their trauma in Richual posts. “Dead grandparents were boring, but I allowed one post a year,” Maren notes. “It was awesome if one of your parents died after you became a Richual member, because the first post announcing the death always got the most hearts.” 

Love HuffPost? Become a f
ounding member of HuffPost Plus today.

Everyone’s selling something, and often it turns out to be their fellow women.

In 2017, I wrote about four novels that took aim at tech startup culture, including Doree Shafrir’s “Startup” and Alissa Nutting’s “Made for Love,” and noted that more than one of them concluded on a note of girl-power triumphalism, with a new female CEO humanizing an evil corporation or a crew of women working together to take down a bad startup bro. “The problem is, putting a woman in charge doesn’t fix anything. We know that because we’ve seen it,” I wrote, citing the already checkered track record of girlboss-led companies (Thinx, Nasty Gal). Bartz and Stein speak to a culture that has lost every shred of its naive faith in female founders as healing forces.

Bartz transposes the rise and fall of the girlboss onto the whodunit narrative, establishing and then chipping away at the idea of the man-free sanctuary. The women at the heart of the Herd see the space as under siege by jealous, violent men. When Eleanor goes missing, the suspect list is tried and true: members of the Antiherd, an online forum full of misogynistic haters; Eleanor’s wholesome, forgettable husband; her high school sweetheart, whose life went off track after their breakup; and his brother, Eleanor’s classmate and close friend. 

But eventually, they must recognize that a cis-male-free zone can harbor violence within it, as well as threats from intruders. Bartz sprinkles in little betrayals and exploitations, clues that the sisterhood is not entirely safe. Katie wants to reconnect with the women she considered something between mentors and best friends, but also hopes to spin her access into a tell-all book about Eleanor to sell in place of the fake-news book she no longer feels she can write. Hana and Mikki freelance for the Herd, and both glamorous women act as brand-enhancing sidekicks for elegant Eleanor. Hana, Katie’s adoptive sister, can’t ignore that she’s the only brown person in their clique. She sometimes uneasily wonders “how convenient it was for Eleanor to have a non-white face in her inner circle,” like a human version of the bell hooks volume that takes the spoiled-rich-girl edge off her decadent jar of La Mer. Everyone’s selling something, and often it turns out to be their fellow women. 

The details of “The Herd” don’t always seem quite rightly observed. Eleanor’s bland corporatism strikes more of a Sheryl Sandberg note than an Audrey Gelman one, and the novel can at times read like a standard-issue thriller slotted into a Wing setting. But the mystery genre seems perfectly suited for The Wing and its ilk, and on a narrative level, Bartz makes able use of it to explore the sinister chasm between the promise of feminist companies and the actuality, the violence where only sweetness and light were supposed to be.

By the end of “The Herd,” with the mystery resolved and a chilling window opened into the villainous hearts of white lady entrepreneurs, the appeal of the Herd has evaporated. The women have to step away from it. After all, “there were other coworking spaces, other networking opportunities, other places where passionate women and marginalized genders could come together, and if there weren’t, maybe someday we’d make one.”

Or maybe not. If there’s a way to get to a utopia, “The Herd” dramatically suggests, it’s not by locking the men outside.

Of course, the women who are cared for, with table service and torrents of herb-infused water, are the same women who have always been cared for: the ones who can afford to pay for it.

“Self Care,” in true satirical form, is an inverted sort of a mystery: The villains are in plain sight to the reader, but their own culpability is invisible to them. Halfway through, Stein throws in a twist, a disturbing revelation about Evan that seems to set up him, the male funder, as the snake in the garden. But the abusive male ally is something of a red herring in “Self Care,” and sisterhood is not the answer. Stein’s interest and her most cunning scalpel cuts are applied to her well-meaning, long-suffering lady bosses, who go down searching for someone else to blame.

For Maren, self-destruction and performative sadness are her praxis, rather than lavender couches and Lululemon. “I’m depressed,” she moans to Devin at one point. “It doesn’t even seem to bother you… Every day another racist cop shoots an unarmed Black man or refugees drown in the ocean or a mother of four is murdered by her husband because she wants to leave―” 

“Babe,” Devin responds. “I know. Believe me. I get the Times alerts on my phone, too.” Devin’s glibness is infuriating, but the real target of the scene is Maren, who doesn’t realize that her vicarious suffering is just another way of making every form of oppression in the world all about her. She weeps for abused women and refugees and the victims of police brutality, then gives herself carpal tunnel syndrome logging long office hours in a mission to exploit people’s pain for ad dollars. Her wrist braces are evidence that she’s worthy: How could someone working so hard and inflicting so much harm on herself be a bad guy? 

Devin and, especially, Maren are convinced of their own suffering — in many ways, at each other’s hands. Neither of them can see how much shit they’re kicking downhill, particularly at Khadijah. On the contrary, Maren imagines herself quite the benefactor, providing a Black woman with such a sweet gig. “I envied Khadijah, for whom Richual was just a job, separate from her personal life,” Maren thinks. “How did she spend her evenings and weekends, all those hours of freedom from labor?”

Maren may not grasp her own monstrousness — the worse things get, the less capable she is of seeing herself a
s anything but the beleaguered protagonist of the Richual story — but she does know that being a victim can be a powerful shield against critique. When an influencer on Richual is subjected to a bout of shaming, Maren tells her she could either apologize and commit to change, or “she and I could go back to her questionnaire, find something from her past that showed she, too, had suffered, and with a single post we could turn the tides of sympathy in her direction.” Despite her ideals, Maren knows on which side her bread is buttered; her job is to protect the influencers, to placate but dismiss the social justice agitators, to extract as much trauma-related content from all of them as possible and to sell it. 

The sudden ascent of the girlboss, followed almost immediately by her downfall, has been capitalism’s own version of this ploy, a profusion of glass cliffs. Putting someone who can be framed as a victim in charge of corporations allows capital to deflect a little while, to stave off revolution by pretending to have suffered too. But it’s far too little and a bit too late. Richual and the Herd, like their nonfictional ilk, sell an idea of luxury as feminism, a space where women can finally be cared for as they deserve, to make their lives “balanced, beautiful, and connected.” But, of course, the women who are cared for, with table service and torrents of herb-infused water, are the same women who have always been cared for: the ones who can afford to pay for it. 

Who’s to blame for the cruelty inside these feminist capitalist utopias? It only makes sense, as “The Herd” and “Self Care” depict, that it would be the women who imagined utopia and came up with a space that looked like an Anthropologie home decor section and sustained itself on the labor of Black and brown women. 

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.