REVIEW: #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso
I admire the heck out of #GIRLBOSS author Sophia Amoruso, who is also (as if I need to explain this to you) the founder of Nasty Gal, an online retailer that she grew from a $50 investment in a couple of vintage pieces and an ebay account to $250 million in under a decade. She’s smart, focused, strong, stylish, fearless, beautiful, and, if her public persona is to be believed, someone you’d want to be BFFs with - or even just snap a selfie with. Which is why I’m going to write this review as a “compliment sandwich” of sorts - you know, start with something nice, layer in some honest critique, and then finish with a compliment. Just like a sandwich, but one with a lot of meat and extra sauce in the middle.
I'm not in the business of cutting down other women, especially women who are as incredibly smart and accomplished as Amoruso; I do however promise to always give honest reviews, even if it's not a glowing one.
While #GIRLBOSS is a great, compelling, kinda enjoyable read, it, like the television show Friends or Dunkin Donuts coffee, isn’t actually very good, when you really think about it.
Don't get me wrong. #GIRLBOSS is a New York Times bestseller for a reason. That reason, however, probably isn’t because it offers any kind of blueprint for unlocking boss status, landing a job in fashion, landing a job at all, or starting a business, let alone a multi-million dollar business. Rather, it is, essentially, the musings of one woman who achieved all of those things, beating a couple odds along the way. (Not having any qualifications, not having gone to college, being a woman are chief among those odds.)
What Amoruso problematically never once acknowledges, however, is how she unwittingly used to her advantage the few privileges of being a white woman in America, growing up middle class, and therefore, in a more abstract sense, having the freedom to be a complete brat as a kid with few consequences other than the notion that somehow by staying true to herself (read: being a complete brat) and refusing to stop being “a freak” as she repeatedly calls herself, she got ahead, and all of us #GIRLBOSS readers can too!
Throughout the book, she proudly brags about being difficult and headstrong, a square peg in a world of round holes. She'd rather rock a band tee-shirt instead of a button-up oxford blouse. (Who wouldn't, TBH.) She questioned authority as a teen. She thinks fart jokes are hysterical. All of these little snapshots are designed to make you clutch your pearls but then sigh in relief to see that she has somehow outpaced the “normal” working stiffs that did, unlike her, play by the rules.
The major takeaway point, which she repeated several times in a variety of ways is this: Be a freak, question authority, do what you want to do but give it 100%, and watch the money pile up. But in her chapter “On Hiring, Staying Employed, and Firing,” I get the impression that she would never have hired anyone like herself.
In fact, the more I got to understand Amoruso’s point of view, the more I realized that it’s mutually exclusive with taking any of the advice in this book. She plays up the “victim of society” role so heavily, wherein she’s misunderstood and misdiagnosed; according to her, her strengths are undervalued and her weaknesses are overblown by nearly all the teachers, parents and bosses she encountered prior to starting her own business.
This is in stark contrast to the title of a section towards the end of the book: “You Are Not a Special Snowflake.”
Amoruso seems to take great pride in the fact that she had a stank attitude towards working and corporate structure in general, changing jobs frequently, not caring about the companies and people that employed her and feeling even more dispassionately about the work itself, including making sandwiches at Subway and selling Dries Von Noten shoes to rich San Francisco ladies. Young people who hate their jobs and think they can do better are a dime a dozen. Thinking that capitalism is evil and that working stiffs are sheeple is pretty much the status quo for our generation, especially around the age Amoruso was when she found herself restless and in need of a job with health insurance despite hating the mind-numbing work. Any of those sentiments – restlessness, ennui, pseudo-activism – are hardly counter-culture for a young person of our generation, and it does not a special snowflake make.
Speaking of clichés : For someone who expressed such distaste at the overuse of the phrase “passion for fashion" on resumes, there are plenty of clichés throughout the book, including “everyone makes mistakes at some point.” Amoruso also quotes her father quoting that over-quoted Albert Einstein quote about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.
In fact, the cliches start in the first chapter, where Amoruso sets out to define #GIRLBOSS:
A #GIRLBOSS is someone who’s in charge of her own life. She gets what she wants because she works for it. As a #GIRLBOSS, you take control and accept responsibility. You’re a fighter. You know when to throw punches and when to roll with them. Sometimes you break the rules, sometimes you follow them, but always on your own terms.
And so on. Ending with “You’re a badass.”
Perhaps the world is moving so quickly that, although written in 2014, the notions of Girl Power in #GIRLBOSS already feel dated. Perhaps we’re all weary after the shitshow of the 2016 elections, during which millions and millions of women revealed their inner #GIRLBOSS, bad-ass, warrior, and more on a daily basis while simultaneously being disparaged and shot down by the “President” and his pussy-hating posse. In either case, the things that Amoruso outlined as the definition of an empowered woman seem so staid.
Also, I’m pretty sure I learned all those things from the movie Spice World.
There is also the problem of hidden sexism that even Amoruso isn’t innocent of committing, unwittingly or not. To begin with, she uses “#GIRLBOSS” instead of "#WOMENBOSS" or "#WOMANONTOP" or something else of the sort. She refers to some of her employees as “girls," as in "the girls from the buying team” (page 161) and while outlining some major “Don’ts” for job interviews, she states, in no uncertain terms, that showing up for an interview without a bra on is a deal-breaker (page 160).
Another major thing she doesn’t address in the book, which is particularly alarming for someone who talks about the early influences of anarchism and social activism as a teen (she quotes Emma Goldman in Chapter 4), are the factory conditions where some of Nasty Gal’s private label dresses, separates, and accessories are produced, or the decision-making process behind where and how she decided to have garments made. She literally never mentions it once in the book, and Nasty Gals production processes have famously been a tightly held secret, although there has been speculation that Nasty Gal's factory conditions, well, ain't good. And honestly, how could they be? Prices for Nasty Gal's private label clothing, as well as many other labels the site stocks, are crazy low. In an article about Nasty Gal's downfall on Business of Fashion, writer Lauren Sherman thinks poor quality was one of the factors leading up to the company's recent Chaper 11 filing. "For many years, Nasty Gal had no trouble getting a customer to convert once," writes Sherman. "But the perceived low quality and value of the product made it hard to get her to return."
True story: I bought a dress on the site once. Loved it. Super cute. But it was cheaply made and quickly lost its luster. and novelty (it was a magenta, ruffled party frock) after a couple wears. No big deal to me at the time, since it was something like $30, but we all know now that fashion that is that disposable simply is not - cannot be - sustainable, environmentally friendly, or factory-worker friendly.
Also crazy low? The company's rating on Glassdoor. For a book that spends a decent amount of time explaining how to fire someone, there is hardly any time spent discussing the proper way to treat an employee, how to nurture staff, or how to allow them to flourish, grow, and get promoted. While I tend to view Glassdoor reviews with the proper amount of skepticism (after all, many of them are written by former employees) the fact that Amoruso doesn't talk about that aspect of leadership leads me to believe that perhaps being kind to her employees was not, as many Glassdoor reviewers claim, a priority.
Finishing the book is not unlike ending a dead-end friendship with someone because you realize the relationship is a one-way street of worship and adoration without intimacy. By the time I closed the book, I realized I hadn’t learned anything in its 238 pages (paperback version) that I didn’t learn from skimming the back of the book or the four-page “Introduction: The Chronology of a #GIRLBOSS” in which Amoruso starts with her birth on, get this, 4/20 (this is me clutching my pearls again in pseudo-shock!) and ends in 2014 as the CEO of a $100 million company. I don’t think Amoruso herself would get anything of substance out of reading #GIRLBOSS; she’d probably toss it aside with an eyeroll and a sassy denunciation.
Despite all these, there were some genuine moments in the book where Amoruso does earn her role-model status. She does her due diligence to shatter the glamorous mythos of the fashion industry, which most people – especially the young, entry-level hopefuls for whom this book might actually mean the most - see only for its shiny veneer and not for its vigorous underbelly. She talks a lot about having to roll up her sleeves and take on decidedly un-chic tasks like covering shifts in the warehouse when a supervisor quit just before Black Friday, schlepping back and forth to LA to buy merchandise and having to convince vendors like Jeffrey Campbell to work with her.
She also continuously refers to readers' hypothetical bosses as “she” and “her” throughout #GIRLBOSS, and she also openly mentions crying on several occasions, which is really important, even though women in business are often ridiculed for crying at best and passed over for promotions and increased visibility and responsibility at worst. I really appreciate that Amoruso is normalizing an emotion and reaction such as crying, and I hope women and men in the workforce and in relationships, friendships and elsewhere can find inspiration and hope in the humanity of that.
WRITING STYLE: Confessional from your BFF. If your BFF is a marketing and PR expert.
READABILITY: Beach read.
QUALITY OF WRITING: Not unlike a transcript from a TED Talk. Straightforward, chatty, lighthearted, peppered with jokes and commentary.
FINAL WORD: A how-to guide for Basic B****es. A tutorial for hovering unremarkably near the middle. And, for a woman who supposedly “lets her freak flag fly,” by the end, you realize you still don’t know anything about her that you didn’t already learn from the book jacket.
Want to actually learn something about the fashion industry, starting a business, or being in business? Try these three books:
Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara by Mark Tungate; The Fashion Designer Survival Guide by Mary Gehlhar; To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle.