Big Girlboss Energy: On the Commodification of Feminism

By Eda Gunaydin

I can’t seem to call myself a feminist anymore, although it used to be a hill I was willing to die on. But it is a hill.

Having failed to develop a political consciousness until I entered university, it seemed correct to organise around what I observed my peers organising around, which was gender. I had — for all my obliviousness then — managed to piece together that I was a woman, in a way I couldn’t piece together my race or class until later. I never thought about why people referred to my homes growing up as ramshackle or a shit hole, and in between growing up in Western Sydney and being schooled in what the Daily Telegraph would refer to as an ethnic enclave, I didn’t think about why kids exclaimed they could no longer touch objects that I had touched once they found out I was Muslim or made gobble-gobble sounds when they found out I was Turkish.

But misogyny was ubiquitous: a pall of it hung over the family tree, directly experienced by the generations before me in the form of beatings, sexual violence, abortions. All this was passed down to me in various forms: no sleepovers, no being alone with men (even relatives), no boyfriends. Beneath these messages was a general sense that I should watch my body, monitor it, because it was always going to be under siege. This guide to ‘how and who not to trust’ became transformed into molecular knowledge, a basic instinct encoded into my DNA. That’s one way of thinking about intergenerational trauma: as if it contains important information about survival. But it is a hill.

So I did the things that seemed to channel this chaotic rage against the men who had taken so much from me: I joined the Women’s Collective at university, attended conferences for women students, wrote for and helped put together the women’s edition of the student newspaper. I still have several copies of the issue which features photographic portraits of my sisters-in-arms’ genitalia on the cover. I scrolled Tumblr and tried to get myself to be into my anatomy; I was Tyra Banks handing out beacons of sex positivity: You get a dildo! And you get a dildo!

But it dawned on me that you can’t actually fuck the pain away. The collective turned out to be a front at that time designed to recruit me into student politics, a university subculture populated by the worst people you’ll ever meet. The conference became a shambles after a small group of women of colour pointed out the organisers’ racism. The women’s publication saw its own scandal after it unthinkingly published a racial slur. And I couldn’t seem to link my cunt up with the moon.

Perhaps there was a bad connection somewhere, frayed by the fact that to pursue this liberal way of being is to ignore the violence that was latent in the everyday. Within the walls of the elite university, I began to feel increasingly antagonised: by women whose greatest problems related to which graduate employment opportunity they should pursue, by women who asked me if I spoke English as a second language, by women who had never heard of Blacktown but they bet it was dangerous. I saw nothing in common between the concerns of my disabled mother—a former cleaner who once lived in poverty—and my peers who, in having women like her as part of their domestic staff, might love to be her boss.  

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Many writers before me have already noted the lack of a real class analysis inside of mainstream Western feminism. It is also criticised for the absence of an accounting for the distinct experiences of women who possess multiple marginalised social identities, such as disability or race in addition to gender. So my gripes are not new ones: Marxist feminists have already noted the side-lining of concerns about the material conditions of women, and black feminists and womanists have long articulated alternatives to the strain of feminism which traditionally centres white women.

Perhaps there was a bad connection somewhere, frayed by the fact that to pursue this liberal way of being is to ignore the violence that was latent in the everyday.

These are radical alternatives, not in the sense of how the mainstream frames radical feminism via its newer association with biological essentialism and exclusion of trans people. Rather, they are radical because they propose to overhaul and dismantle our current systems, taking as given that a certain level of conflict and antagonism is inevitable to achieve these goals. How, though, did these alternatives get side-lined in the popular consciousness? How did the tenets of liberal feminism co-opt and neutralise other more radical ones in the neoliberal era? And how is it that the version of feminism most readily at hand is this one, this shit hill?

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It is not a new or controversial thought: power circulates. But in an era where we have observed the mushrooming of a super-charged, hyper-capitalist version of women’s liberation, the particular circuits through which this power circulates merits consideration: how do these ideas spread and popularise? For me and my generation, I’d wager that the majority of us consolidate our understanding of politics via the internet. Many of us had or are gradually seeing our politics shaped online, a place where the circulation of content and media exchanges becomes the stuff of our political identities. Since the 2000s, mass communication has rapidly succeeded at proliferating (via memes) a popular construction of women’s liberation, which may be familiar:  

This version of women’s liberation is mired in liberal assumptions: which are that to fight patriarchy one must step into male-dominated spaces, for example through joining the apparatus of the state. This version of feminism also makes it such that equality looks like pursuing financial success, and that personal responsibility is the path to freedom.

How did the tenets of liberal feminism co-opt and neutralise other more radical ones in the neoliberal era? And how is it that the version of feminism most readily at hand is this one, this shit hill?

As such, these memes are converted into branding exercises: images to be taken up by a presidential candidate or a corporation, to make sales, or converted directly into cash through ad revenues via subscribers, likes, shares, and retweets. You can buy a t-shirt with the word FEMINIST on it, although the garment was made under sweatshop conditions. You can share the quote from Sophia Amoruso above, a fashion and communications CEO who spawned the term ‘girlboss’, without contemplating her treatment of her female employees. Or you can remix Julia Gillard’s speeches on TikTok, mouthing along to her words, unconscious that she gutted social welfare for poor women.

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The internet’s adeptness at commodifying politics is captured by what Jodi Dean calls ‘communicative capitalism’ — a phenomenon where the substantive is transformed into the symbolic. In other words, the democracy of online platforms is mistaken for real democracy, and reduced to the medium itself, while capital remains the true thing that is circulated through the system. To put it yet another way, feminism has risked becoming a thing reduced to its own appearance — a spectacle: capital convincing us we were doing feminism while we weren’t, in the same way that sometimes in dreams you turn off your alarm or pee, your brain trying to placate your body and convince you that you’d actually done it even though you hadn’t.

Of late, though, I see liberal feminism up in flames. The old girlboss can’t come to the phone right now. Why? She’s dead: not only have Amoruso — and her Netflix series before her — been marked as failures, but the Girlboss genre of memes has been re-imbued with the political. You may have observed that they have taken a darkly comic pivot, evoked now with an irony that I can attest was absent prior to 2019:

You can buy a t-shirt with the word FEMINIST on it, although the garment was made under sweatshop conditions. […] Or you can remix Julia Gillard’s speeches on TikTok, mouthing along to her words, unconscious that she gutted social welfare for poor women.

I suspect that what has changed in the intervening period is threefold. First, individuals are becoming conscious to the fact that the state is not a solution to, but rather a source of mass violence against, women — both men and women police officers, soldiers, and politicians hurt and harm many of us every day.


Second, social solidarity appears increasingly vivified: Girlboss rallies, designed as networking opportunities, have been replaced by mass protests led by women and which are powered by an ethic of collective responsibility. There is the burgeoning sense that self-improvement, self-care and wellness regimens — in short, activities designed to improve only our own lives — might no longer be enough in the absence of sustained societal improvement targeted at improving the lives of the majority. Furthermore, the nihilistic message that women don’t owe you anything has been replaced by the notion that perhaps we all owe at least some things to each other.

And finally, in an era of mass economic turmoil, I believe that millions are increasingly able to articulate, and listen more closely to those who have long been articulating, that capitalism is the source of — and not the solution to — these ills. The majority of the world’s working class are, in fact, women, and therefore the war on women is indeed also a class war. And it is a war: every day on this continent is marked by real, everyday antagonism and conflict. An example of this antagonism is the violence directed at, among other groups, women, particularly Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women.

Inside my own life, I have been participating more actively in campus organising around precarity, an issue which disproportionately affects women, who are more likely to be insecurely employed as casuals or as part-time staff. I have taken cues from my women and non-binary friends, who have worked to organise pandemic mutual aid donations funds, raising money alongside them. These are both feminist causes, and participating in them helps to nurture the optimism I am developing around the evolution not only of my own politics, but those of the online and offline spaces I frequent. In these spaces, we think actively about ways to generate a future in which there are no bosses (and no landlords, and no borders). You can’t fuck the pain away, but perhaps you can kill it.

Eda Gunaydin is a Turkish-Australian writer and researcher, whose writing explores class, class mobility and diaspora. You can find her work in Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin, The Lifted Browand others.

This essay was made possible through funds from the FWF community and our #PayTheWriters campaign.

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