The air of the late 2010s was thick with platitudes for the ‘empowered’ woman. Hashtags were affixed before phrases like ‘girlboss’ and ‘bossbitch’, and bandied about equally–if not more–by women who had had enough of not being taken seriously. It was language employed specifically to help us rise in a universe where we had been routinely pushed down, meant to elevate us to the warrior status we felt we deserved handling all the things we did.
And it soon became exhausting.
To go into the sexism of a phrase like ‘girlboss’ is a train of thought for a different track. It is a qualifier that is as demeaning as the terms ‘actress’ or ‘comedienne’, but it is not what I’m going to talk about today. Today is reserved simply for this idea of the ‘superhuman’ woman that the media–both traditional and social–has created in its quest for empowerment. The woman from that Netflix series that makes men quake in their boots. That woman from new literature that has an unerring instinct, one no man can compare to. The woman from your Instagram feed who manages her self-owned business, two children and rock-hard abs with equal aplomb, and never fails to hashtag it in her Sunday selfies.
It was an idea that was created to exalt women, to give us respect that was centuries due. It was a crusade to highlight exactly how much we do–and how much we’re capable of it.
The idea of the ‘invulnerable’ woman, the woman who is a ‘boss’ at everything she does, was created to combat years of subtle (and often overt) media oppression–from the relegation of female leads in cinema to romantic interests, to sexist washing machines advertising, directed to women as a tool to make homemaking easier. From Arya Stark to Moana to Gadot’s Wonder Woman, characters were crafted as a response to the sexist perception of weakness. And, in doing so, made them infallible.
Don’t get me wrong; It’s intentions were as noble as any young man of breeding seated at the Downton Abbey dinner table. But, in its endeavour to do good, it created a monster. It created the idea of a woman that could always ‘get it’. She had every solution, every snappy comeback, every kind of confidence the universe had to offer. She could outwit the best of men, run a company at 23 with minimal training, or win in a physical fight through a combination of skill and dexterity. She was invincible, and you’d be sorry to fuck with her.
Which is great, sure, if you look at it as a counter to women having been portrayed as props. To having their lives and careers treated as tertiary to the men in their lives. It was a great counter to the patronising ‘pat-pat’ vibe that the 1960s and 70s cultivated whenever a woman had achievements outside of the kitchen area. It was a strong answer, a slap in the face to the patriarchal POV that had dictated women be treated as second best.
But its 2021. And it's not enough.
In an era that claims a higher degree of ‘wokeness’ than any of its predecessors, to try and push a view of women that ‘girlbossifies’ them is weak. Its a form of problematic that’s different from diminishing them, but it's problematic all the same. By venerating women to the point of superhero status sets up a mental health crisis of its own, just waiting to happen. It pushes an idea of women that can–and should be able to–do anything. It pushes an idea of women that always have the answer, the skills, the power and the will. It pushes the idea of women that can’t fuck up.
And that is just simply not fair.
We can fuck up. We do fuck up, and we should be able to fuck up. On some days, I will glide through the waters of life like a sailboat–doing at work, at the gym, at my relationship, at my writing. On those days, I’m a star. On others, though,I will be breathing dead weight, incapable of anything productive–or, rather, anything outside of Netflix binge of a show I’ve already seen too many times (I’m looking at you, Gilmore Girls). And on those days, nothing upsets me more than watching a woman on screen problem-solve with her left hand and while she slicks on a fabulous lipstick with her right.
When we ask for equality, we ask for it in real terms. You have men treated and portrayed as fantastic, flawed, successful, brilliant, failing–you have men treated as human. Capable of greatness, but also of weakness. And that equality is exactly what’s lacking.
In the elevation of women to this exemplar of ‘everything’ lies an act almost as patronising as reducing her to a sandwich-fixer... though perhaps with slightly better intent. Think of it as as the feminism equivalent of people who ‘Don’t See Colour’ or ‘Have Many Gay Friends’.
The valorization of the mother as the caregiver, as the selfless nurturer. The rah-rahing of every woman with a family and career as ‘the diva who does it all’. The idea of the power CEO who still makes time for philanthropy. It's a taxing ideal, one most men don’t have to contend with, because they only really need to be good at something, never at everything.
So if you want to be an ally who is actually validating, not patronising, retire this buzzworthy jargon, this idea of the woman who ‘kicks ass, no matter what.’ I can kick your ass, sure, but I can also be afraid, and tired, and nervous and strung out. I don’t want my human tendencies to be glossed over in favour of being this ne plus ultra of the ‘perfect 2021 woman’. I don’t want to be a ‘bossbitch’. I don’t want to be a ‘badass’. I just want to be a person.