Don't turn Hwang Dong-hyuk's success story into a capitalist parable
With every day that passes, the term "Girlboss" becomes more and more pejorative. Good.
The era of the millennial Girlboss is over, and her legacy sullied by the benefit of hindsight. While there were massive gains for women during this era — especially in terms of representation and movements like #MeToo — most of these gains were for upper/middle class white women.
The term Girlboss itself was popularized by Sophia Amoruso, founder of the brand Nasty Gal, in her memoir and business book titled "Girlboss." Her book became a sort of manifesto for women in business, who wanted to kick ass and wear lipstick while doing it. Seems progressive, right? Not anymore.
The luster has faded and in its wake, we see how shallow the gains were. The representation was limited, the numbers were low, and the patriarchy remains firmly intact.
Despite its purported message of empowerment, the Girlboss movement wasn't about shaking up the system and changing things for the marginalized and oppressed, but rather characterized by the hypervisibility of a few — again, usually already rich, white — women in high positions.
To make matters worse, the fallout from this era has revealed that so many of the women propped up within the system were not what they appeared. Complaints from within many of their empires revealed a trend of abusive power dynamics and untenable work environments. Obviously this isn't because women shouldn't aspire to be business owners, it's because the paradigms hadn't shifted and these supposed havens for women ended up looking like male-run companies — only with a greater sense of betrayal.
The fall of so many of this era's iconoclasts — Lena Dunham, Leandra Medine Cohen, even Ellen — proved that representation is not enough, and that, even with the best intentions, aspiring to succeed within the capitalist system can often lead to further exploitation of the people they claimed to represent.
As the curtains close on a bygone era, the term has become somewhat of a joke — and even part of a meme — on social media. Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are full of Gen Z jokes about the Girlboss archetype and other overused words, like "gatekeep" and "gaslight".
As the word gets used in different contexts, its meaning expands. Originally, its meaning was clear: a "Girlboss" was a boss who was a girl, comparable to the term "She-EO." But now, the term "Girlboss" encompasses an idea far beyond gender and corporate title. It's a feeling, one that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, and has more to do with capitalist pandering in general.
Anyone, therefore, can give a "Girlboss" vibe by trying to disguise their hierarchical, capitalist ambitions and values as progressive and even whimsical. Corporate Twitter and LinkedIn influencers are good examples — who amongst us hasn't watched these accounts try to convince us their corporate jargon and thinly veiled ambition is for the greater good?
The Girlboss may be dead, but her impact is indicative of how social media and corporate marketing has evolved to imitate values without actually practicing them. And this stench is now hovering over the legacy of the Netflix hit, Squid Game.
Over the past few weeks, Squid Game has made its way to the front of everyone's minds and is on its way to becoming one of Netflix's most watched shows of all time.
Squid Game | Official Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com
The smash Korean hit surpassed all expectations, recalling the iconic quote from director Bong Joon-ho's Parasite Oscar acceptance speech: "Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films."
Indeed, Squid Game is a testament to the diverse range of talent outside the bounds of Western cinema, but the narrative that's following its success has a hint of the Girlboss mentality.
As Squid Game became the talk of the internet, it came to light that Hwang Dong-hyuk, the show's creator, had been working on the masterpiece for a decade. After years of rejections, the show finally got picked up.
An anecdote about how, at one point, Hwang had to sell his computer for money has been especially potent, capturing the imagination of many — including the crowd which is addicted to hustle culture and the "Girlboss" mentality.
This anecdote has been paired with mantras that turn Hwang Dong-hyuk's story into a capitalist parable, one that glorifies fruitlessly grinding and working just for the sake of it. This is problematic because it ignores the context of Hwang Dong-hyuk's decade of work.
In an interview with The Korea Times, Hwang said the reason the show was never picked up before is that audiences weren't ready for it. "The world has changed," he said.
In part, he was referring to the cynical, unpredictable landscape we have found ourselves in where such a gruesome, twisted premise is not just welcomed, but glorified. The change also reflects the openness to diversity — but only when it stands to turn a profit.
Executives, now and in the peak of the Girlboss era, are willing to empower marginalized narratives when audiences demand it. June 2020 saw a flurry and scramble to diversify content, but Hwang's story proves that there have always been innovative narratives by diverse creatives — they're just too often turned away.
Much like the "Girlboss" mentality, the current glorification of Hwang's decade of work makes it seem like all anyone has to do to succeed is want it enough. But this isn't true when the playing field isn't even.
This narrative serves to keep oppressive hierarchies intact by holding up the success of figures like Hwang, while wagging a finger at anyone from marginalized groups asking for more opportunity and recognition.
The lesson we should take instead is this: the Hollywood excuse that there aren't enough good writers and interesting pitches by non-hegemonic creators is a lie. They just need to say yes.