In the opening episode of Girlboss, the new Netflix series that premieres today, Sophia Armoruso’s car breaks down. She’s forced to push it uphill, alone, while a tram driver screams behind her. “Go around!” she yells, in skyscraper heels. “I’m on a track! It’s a tram!” She responds by sticking her middle finger in the air, and continues to push. And push. And push.
Everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers did backwards, and in heels. Watching Girlboss, the “real loose” chronicling of Sophia Armoruso’s rise to prominence with her vintage clothes e-store Nasty Gal, you can’t help but think of Ginger: everything Sophia does, she does backwards, and in heels. She’s prone to lightbulb moments of inspiration, and surges ahead telling everyone how her ability to sell clothes online will make her a millionaire. Then, she’s forced to backtrack: how do you run a business? How do you find good quality clothes, for cheap? How do you make something out of nothing?
The bright-young-thing story is one that we’re used to, and in an age dominated by tech advancements, they’re popping up with increasing regularity. The Social Network gave us Jesse Eisenberg’s boy-genius Mark Zuckerberg, mooching around Harvard campuses in a grey hoodie. Mike Judge’s brilliant Silicon Valley exposes the hyper-masculinity of the tech world, and reminds us that genius rarely goes hand-in-hand with business acumen. Every other weekend there’s a new Steve Jobs or Julian Assange biopic, portraying them as tough, outside-the-box mavericks.
In waltzes Girlboss: the true-ish story of Sophia Armoruso. This Sophia is the first cultural work heroine for women who grew up with the internet, and begins her story every bit as repugnant as Mark Zuckerberg was in the opening minutes of The Social Network. Her version of the smarmy hot-or-not photo rating website is a leather jacket, purchased at a thrift store for $9 and sold for $600. From there, Sophia combines her knowledge of the online marketplace (“of course no-one’s bidding on it! It’s on a hanger!”) with her years-of-being-broke skills (she scans the PennySaver for estate sales of rich people, then clears out their closets) to create Nasty Gal, and becomes one of the most famous women to make their fortune from the internet.
Girlboss cannonballs into 2017 with a new kind of credo for the woman-at-work story: that being a woman – a sexy, fashion-obsessed, loud woman – isn’t a liability in business
Perhaps it’s wrong to make so much of Sophia’s gender – anyone can have a rags to riches story, after all – but in Girlboss’s case, it feels important. As difficult as Sophia’s character can be to like at times, it’s thrilling to watch someone become an internet wunderkind and for them not to be a boy in a hoodie, perpetually on his laptop or on a college campus. The show itself is crammed with female creators, and it shows in every pore: from the bright colours, to the jokes (“Vodka cranberry please, to promote urinary tract health”) to the way in which it uses clothes to tell a story. Sophia is sexy, bolshy and broke. Her road to success is a uniquely female one, reminiscent of other great women-at-work films. “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you're trying to get there,” said Tess McGill, Sophia’s 1980s counterpart, in Working Girl. “And if you're someone like me, you can't get there without bending the rules.” And while Tess’s road to success was paved with lies and mistaken identity, Sophia’s is lined with stolen goods, shady internet behaviour, and pissing one-too-many people off. But she keeps pushing. And pushing. And pushing.
Neither this Sophia nor the real Sophia Armoruso – who’s company Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy last year – are golden girls, or perfect role models. But what they – both “Sophias” – and Tess have in common is that they are visionaries. Girlboss takes place in the early noughties, an odd time when everybody had an email address but few people really understood how the internet could work for them. “The internet’s only good for forwarding chain emails and making jokes about the Clintons” quips one character. And while 2017 is a great time for shows starring gutsy women, so far, it’s been pretty poor on stories about those women at work. We have failed journalist, Rory Gilmore. We have improbable academic, Hannah Horvath. Catastrophe’s Sharon briefly entertains the thought of being Minister for Education, and promptly bins it when she can’t pull off organising a school assembly. Procedurals like Line of Duty fair much better, but isn’t that sort of the point of police procedurals? To show people being good at their jobs? Girl Boss, while imperfect, gets points for not being yet another sitcom that shows women “learning” about things: it’s a woman actually doing something. And being good at it.
No matter what year it’s made in, anything that focuses on women at work immediately becomes a time capsule for how women are dealing with the professional world. The 1940s gave us Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, a quippy journo who might begrudge her male better, but always comes around to his way in the end. A few years later, we had Mildred Pierce, a career woman in a time when it was so unnatural to want a career that she was depicted as vaguely unnatural. In the 1980s, Tess McGill’s shoulder pads and sleek bob was a sign that she could be as successful as a man by being like a man. Girlboss cannonballs into 2017 with a new kind of credo for the woman-at-work story: that being a woman – a sexy, fashion-obsessed, loud woman – isn’t a liability in business. In fact, it might be your key to success.