The Age of Girl Boss Is Over

I am woman, hear me roar.

Or so says Emma Stone as Cruella De Vil in the new trailer for Disney’s Cruella, the origin story of 101 Dalmatians‘ infamous villian.

As evidenced in the trailer, de Vil is getting a makeover in the upcoming live action film. It appears Disney gained inspiration from the likes of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn to revamp the iconic character, who is opting for higher fashion and an even more chaotic persona in her prequel.

And apparently this time around, she’s a feminist.

The new trailer doesn’t reveal too much about Cruella‘s plot, only hinting that a young de Vil has some doubters in her early years and she goes a bit off her rocker proving them wrong. The feature overall looks vibrant and a little edgier than previous live action projects from Disney. I’m excited to see Emma Stone’s contribution to the classic story’s reimagining.

Yet that “I am woman…” line gave me a head scratch.

Because we’re talking about Cruella de Vil here. The Cruella de Vil that loves skinning puppies to bring her fashion designs to life. I’ll have to watch to be sure if doggie murder is a part of the new film, but I assume the Cruella advertised here ends up on the same path to villainhood eventually.

#GirlBoss as a title was first introduced in Sophia Amoruso’s 2014 autobiography of the same name, which detailed her rise to ownership of popular clothing brand Nasty Gal. Since then, the phrase “girl boss” has more or less been hailed in white or mainstream feminist circles as a specific brand of empowerment for young ladies seeking to make it in a man’s world (see also: boss babe, lady boss, She-EO). Enter women’s empowerment retreats, self-help guides, and graphic tees with pre-Lemonade Beyoncé lyrics: Who run the world? GIRLS!

“I am woman, hear me roar,” is also the sort of girlbossy catchphrase one could hear on a tampon commercial or see on a travel mug in the Target dollar section. Girlbossology is all about owning it! earning it! and generally succeeding in the pressure-cooker capitalist society we live in. This corporate variety of empowerment suits the often already successful woman as an ideology that confirms the intersection of confidence, femininity and dominance. Girl bosses are hustlers, bad asses and winners.

Girlbossology and feminism are often wrongly conflated, where subscribing to the former is like a cheeky bumper sticker endorsing the equality of the sexes. The commodified rise of the girlboss and her branding makes for an easier route to virtue signaling. Particularly in television and film, peppering in some undercooked themes or one-off lines about female empowerment is a means of checking off a box for modern mainstream audiences; saying the right thing while saying very little.

Now that the world is excited the new Cruella de Vil is a bonafide girl boss, it’s worth considering what the extra label does for an already well-established character. The OG Cruella de Vil was an animated fashion icon with such a divinely twisted way about her. She wore expensive furs and smoked in the house– of course she fit the mold of a strong woman!

But Cruella de Vil is iconically evil. I don’t look to the famous villain to spout inspiration about womanhood or feminist theory. Pumping such a classic antagonist with arbitrary convictions about boss-babery ultimately softens the sucker-punch that is Cruella de Vil. This reimagination gave many the impression that Disney may be applying an oversimplified view of feminism to make its latest project more appealing.

Netflix’s new film I Care A Lot (2020), starring Rosamund Pike, shows evidence of following the same trend.

Pike’s character Marla Grayson is a professional guardian, who abuses the elderly by gaining legal control of their lives and profiting off their placement into care homes. Considering the crimes of conservatorship abuse are entirely real, Marla Grayson’s character is clearly a greedy, scummy villain.

Yet the I Care A Lot script hits snags when Grayson is positioned a number of times as the moral high ground, often spouting corporate #GirlBoss rhetoric that wholly irrelevant. Throughout I Care A Lot, Pike’s character proudly hails herself as a *strong woman* to challengers of her actions. For example, after the son of one her victims accosts the professional scammer when a judge signs over his mother’s rights, she accuses him of misogyny. Where screenwriters may think this fits, it doesn’t.

Women are fully capable of gravitating toward bad ass female characters without being practically hit over the head with messaging. Spoon feeding female audiences with fleeting notions about bossing up just fills mainstream media with very shallow interpretations of feminism.

In our reality, females have been on the frontlines through the COVID-19 pandemic as healthcare workers and caretakers. As we have seen another economic downturn, women struggle to feed their families, maintain their underpaid jobs or keep up with disproportionate healthcare costs. Working their fingers to the bone, females now more than ever are making sure the world continues to turn. Girlboss philosophy doesn’t accept the hardships of capitalism and doesn’t make room for compassionate or nuanced feminism.

We won’t know how much of a She-EO the new Cruella de Vil will be until the film’s release in May. Maybe with some drastic reimagining, Disney will dismantle the western racist, capitalist patriarchy and leave dogs out of the equation. Probably not, so I’m just hoping to set corporate notions aside to watch what i signed up for: a villain who is strong and devilish in her own right, no boss strings attached.