SMDS Book Review: #GirlBoss by Sophia Amoruso

Standard disclaimer: I downloaded an audio version of this book. Sometimes audio performance impacts the way one perceives a book, so I’ll always try to let you know the medium by which I absorbed a text. Realistically, I try to reserve my reading time for scholarly texts, so if it’s not a history book, it’s probably something I downloaded off of Audible.com.

I’ve been trying to use my down time as efficiently as possible, especially these days, when pain dictates I need more of it. Audio books have been a blessing: they require less concentration than a regular book, are multi-tasker friendly, and if you happen to fall asleep listening to them, no worries!

I’ve also been trying to mine both the motivational and self-help genres for life hacks. Like many people, I’m quick to cast some serious side eye on that section of the bookstore, but I’ve done a fairly decent job breaking myself of the habit. There’s nothing intrinsically different about self-improvement books: some are good, and some aren’t. In devoting a little time to learning about the self-help industry, I’m getting better at separating the wheat from the chaff, and distinguishing between the books that innovate and those that replicate.

#GirlBoss replicates. With the notable exception of author Sophia Amoruso’s autobiography (which is truly unique and makes for fantastic reading) the book doesn’t really make a unique contribution. Amoruso instrumentalizes her bootstrap story into a brand—the “Girl Boss”—and uses that brand to sell a lot of the same platitudes and business tips that you’d read elsewhere. Reading the dust jacket might help you see what I mean:

“A #GIRLBOSS is in charge of her own life. She gets what she wants because she works for it.”

The first thing Sophia Amoruso sold online wasn’t fashion—it was a stolen book. She spent her teens hitchhiking, committing petty theft, and dumpster diving. By twenty-two, she had resigned herself to employment, but was still broke, directionless, and working a mediocre day job she’d taken for the health insurance.

It was there that Sophia decided to start selling vintage clothes on eBay. Eight years later, she is the founder, CEO, and creative director of Nasty Gal, a $100 million plus online fashion retailer with more than 350 employees. Sophia’s never been a typical CEO, or a typical anything, and she’s written #GIRLBOSS for outsiders (and insiders) seeking a unique path to success, even when that path is winding as all hell and lined with naysayers.

#GIRLBOSS includes Sophia’s story, yet is infinitely bigger than Sophia. It’s deeply personal yet universal. Filled with brazen wake-up calls (“You are not a special snowflake”), cunning and frank observations (“Failure is your invention”), and behind-the-scenes stories from Nasty Gal’s meteoric rise, #GIRLBOSS covers a lot of ground. It proves that being successful isn’t about how popular you were in high school or where you went to college (if you went to college). Rather, success is about trusting your instincts and following your gut, knowing which rules to follow and which to break.

A #GIRLBOSS takes her life seriously without taking herself too seriously. She takes chances and takes responsibility on her own terms. . She knows when to throw punches and when to roll with them. When to button up and when to let her freak flag fly.

As Sophia writes, “I have three pieces of advice I want you to remember: Don’t ever grow up. Don’t become a bore. Don’t let The Man get to you. OK? Cool.  Then let’s do this.”

I believe in playing fair. If I'm going to critique #GirlBoss, the least I can do is include a fierce looking link to the website. Click here to go shopping.

I believe in playing fair. If I’m going to critique #GirlBoss, the least I can do is include a fierce looking link to the website. Click here to go shopping.

While it may sound like I’m Amoruso-bashing, I’m really not… this woman is going to make A LOT of money with this largely derivative book, because she’s smart enough to leverage her decidedly unconventional success story. If I were a multi-millionaire, you better believe I’d do the exact same thing.

#GirlBoss is in many ways a great example of how to leverage success into still more success, and that alone made it worth my time. That said, I struggled with the text at numerous points. Feminist academics beware: every once in a while, Amoruso is going to tick you off.

And no… I’m not just talking about the title. True, I’d rather be a “Boss,” or even a “Boss Lady,” than a “Girl Boss,” but your feminism need not be my feminism to be valid. “Girl power,” and all that jazz.

Beyonce: NOT a “Girl Boss.”

No, my concern is with Amoruso’s belief that her gender has—at no point in her life—been an impediment. Sheryl Sandberg (rightfully) gets a lot of criticism for short sightedness in Lean In, but at least she has some basic recognition that sexism is a serious problem in the business world. I found myself cringing at times listening to Amoruso’s backstory, wondering “how does she not get that this wouldn’t have happened to a man?” Maybe it’s not that she doesn’t see it, and more that she simply doesn’t want to. The self-image she’s cultivated for herself is one that nods to feminism, but doesn’t pay much attention to the structural inequalities that make feminism necessary.

I’ll illustrate my point with what, personally, I found to be the most offensive moment in the text. Apparently Amoruso thinks that having a gender queer friend—who, she imparts to her shocked reader, asked to be referred to by the pronoun “ze”—is a sign that she lived a wild past. If the book were even ten years older this might be forgivable, but her (seemingly continued) amazement that there are people in the world who identify as neither male nor female… it’s disturbing. More disturbing still is the idea that her friend’s gender identity is insignificant enough to constitute a derisive aside in her autobiographical book. Maybe it’s time to stop by the Nasty Gal HR department and learn about gender diversity? #GirlBoss is ostensibly about fighting “the man,” but Amoruso doesn’t always see “the man” clearly. Indeed, sometimes, Amoruso is the very man she tells her readers to challenge.

This lack of reflexivity also exists in some of the most important parts of #GirlBoss. If I were to hand this book to a young woman, it would be because Amoruso uses her example to demonstrate the value of the road less traveled. It’s a hugely important message, but also a somewhat incomplete one.

For example, Amoruso tells her reader that one need not go to college to be successful. This is definitely true, however, it’s really important to differentiate between “schooling” and “learning.” I absolutely agree with Amoruso that school is not for everybody. I do not, however, think that one can succeed—in business or anywhere else—without a willingness to learn. Whether it’s learning how to bake the perfect cookie or learning how to write a book, both require curiosity and a willingness to take risks. This is not to suggest that Amoruso is unaware of the difference. I am suggesting, however, that the lack of nuance in this section of the book is problematic, especially—yet again—because of the incredible importance of learning in Amoruso’s  narrative.

During her high school years, the author was a member of a Marxist book club in which every other member was at least twice her age, and that she ate lunch with her history teacher because she didn’t fit in with the rest of the kids. The message as written by Amoruso: “You don’t need to be cool to be a Girl Boss.” Sure, granted, but there’s simply more to the story. Okay, Amoruso was an outcast, but she was also pretty clearly exceptional. When I listened to these passages, I heard the story of a student who learned how to read, how to write, and how to think critically, at a very early age. I hear the story of an autodidact who didn’t confine herself to the library, and who lived life with a measure of intention rarely seen in high school students. So no, a formal education is not a prerequisite for “Girl Bossdom,” but some of the intangibles required to do what Amoruso did may be even less attainable. That she doesn’t see this—or rather, outwardly state—this, is a problem.

So there you go, a decidedly nasty review of a book written by the CEO of Nasty Gal. Fitting, no? It’s nasty, but I really do think it’s fair. Remember, I’m not saying this is a bad book. #GirlBoss is a book worth listening to if you aspire to start your own business, need motivation, or want to read about an entrepreneurial rebel who isn’t Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. I would also recommend this book for a book club or similarly critical space; this is a book with a lot to offer, but it also has to be scrutinized carefully to really be worth reading.

I somehow doubt Amoruso would be thrilled reading this review, but I also imagine she’d see it for what it is. Like it or not, Amoruso is no longer the outsider looking in, she’s the boss. She brings great voice, personality, and anti-establishment flair to her topic, but with over $100 million to her name and a book with a hashtag in the title, she’s about as establishment as it gets. She’s the Girl Boss, and she’s not apologizing for it. I’m the nasty gal stealing all the sugar packets from the breakroom, and I’m not apologizing for it either, because damn the man.

 “The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

 

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