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The Problem with “Girl Boss” Terminology

As part of Women's History Month

Written by Savanna Jones.

Another guest post from our sister-site Sex, Politics, and Social Justice.
Besure to check out the article on their site, and leave a comment!


I recently received a mass e-mail from Drew Barrymore on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign.  She declared the need for a Girl Boss.  I briefly read over the e-mail then deleted it.  But that phrase stuck with me.  I’ve heard it before, oftentimes from the mouth of one woman in praise of another, “You’re such a girl boss!”  When I searched the phrase online to see what showed up, Tina Fey’s book was all over the Internet.  I haven’t read it, but I respect Tina Fey’s comedic prowess and countless works of art.  Tina Fey is definitely a boss.

What I am wondering though, is why women are being called “girl bosses” instead of just bosses.  One idea would be that everyone has been socialized to immediately associate “boss” with “man.”  Surely, we understand that historically, this has been the case.  In the United States, only 104 seats (19.4 percent) of Congress are held by women.  There are no women of color in the Senate and a Native American woman has never been elected to serve in either branch of Congress, ever in our history.  It also could explain why we are compelled to identify the gender of a boss, doctor or representative, if they are not what we are socialized to believe is the norm (read: man).

Oftentimes, when we hear a word, we subconsciously pair it with another, even if we know consciously this pairing is not necessarily true. For example, it’s popular to associate Muslims with terrorism.  We assume one cannot exist without the other.  In order to understand that one characteristic may actually have nothing to do with another, we have to use an additional descriptive word: ahem, girl boss.  The phrase “girl boss” is explaining, or clarifying, that the pairing implied in the word “boss,” is different than the expectation (“I’m talking woman boss.”)  The term “girl boss” is specifically combating our automatic assumption that occurs in our mind when we hear a word.

Identifying gender, in some scenarios, is necessary and essential.  Gender is important, especially for those who have had to transcend it. It is hurtful to tell a transgender person that “gender doesn’t matter,” for many reasons, but notably because this is a cisgender privilege centered response: to simply write off that gender doesn’t matter, when a cis-person has never had to experience the challenge of living in a body that feels as though it is not yours, is deeply insensitive.

However, there are other scenarios when gender is unnecessary to highlight.  “Girl boss” may be one of them.  Yes, women have had to struggle for being women, and this struggle is uniquely woman-based.  But, in the case of “girl boss,” or “woman doctor,” gender appears before the title and the accomplishment.  Gender is a part of our story, our struggle, our triumph.  But when will women be appreciated for their abilities and feats, without the inclusion of for a woman?  It seems that placing girl in front of anything signals, “No need to take the following word seriously.”

Surely, this need to identify “girl boss” from boss, stems from (white, cisgender, heterosexual) men prevailing as the forceful norm of what society is built upon (hilarious).  White cis-het men have never struggled with representation in the U.S. Congress, climbing the corporate ladder to boss or CEO.  Can you imagine someone clarifying that the CEO of Facebook is a “boy boss”?  No.  Yet, Hillary Clinton (this statement is true whether you are liberal or conservative) is one of the most qualified people (or should I say, girl people?) in politics today to run for president, and she is even calling herself a “girl boss.”

My intention is not to take away from the experience of being a woman (trans, black, poor, rich, differently-abled or otherwise), but I want to engage the idea that women can just simply be bosses, without further explanation.  No disclaimer or warning needed.  We can honor ourselves without the warning label of BUT SHE’S A WOMAN.  Gender explained or included, in specification, falls on a spectrum of context, necessity and objective.  Using “girl boss” is not wrong or right, but rather it is the intention that should be evaluated.

In any case, we need to normalize the picture and the association of boss and woman.  Women need more representation, because when a young girl sees Viola Davis commanding a stage and speaking about the pain of invisibility, that young girl will know she can also be a boss, be seen as a boss and be respected as a boss.  If she wants to be, she can be a black girl boss, she can be a girl boss, or she can be a boss.

But it would be incredible to turn the tables and start assuming that the default, the norm, the status quo is not exclusively held for the benefit of white cis-het men.  How would our world view change if we assumed, and normalized, the word boss with transgender, homosexual, woman, differently-abled, person of color, etc.  Perhaps, it is not the phrase “girl boss” that is bothersome, but instead that our representation is so disproportionate to our population, our contribution and our history, that we even have to say it at all.  Our language is not always our own, and questioning the constraints of this language, who has “given” it to us and who benefits from it, could lead us to the answer of why “girl boss” exists.


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Written by Sex, Politics, and Social Justice

Sex, Politics, and Social Justice are a feminist friend of Fembot Magazine. Their site promotes strong proponents of intersectional and inclusive feminism, while acknowledging that they and we are white, middle-class women who have a privileged perspective. Even we’re tired of white liberal feminism, we get it. SPSJ are Savanna Jones and Sydney Scout, and they're here to ramble on about sex, politics, social justice, and how these issues intertwine. Savannah and Sydney created their site based on the belief (read: truth) that the personal is political.

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