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Salvo 02.22.2022 12 minutes

Girlboss, Interrupted

Woman struggles to get ready for work

A generation grows tired of the tiresome

Girl, Interrupted, a film about a group of young women institutionalized in the 1960s for a wide range of mental illnesses, was released to mixed reviews in 1999. Twenty-some years later, the film is considered a cult classic. While the plot, characters, and structure are at times chaotic, the point seemingly unclear to the screenwriters themselves, what remains true and captivating across time is the underlying theme of the general story and of its individual characters: that participation in the then-emerging midcentury ideals of careerism and sexual licentiousness drives women crazy.

Women today can relate because in real life, these two forces remain crazy-making fixtures of modern society. The difference now is that these once basically distinct vanguard female archetypes of the midcentury (woman free to work on one hand, and woman free to fornicate on the other) at some point fused into one. Now, the pressure for women to become caricatures of a certain brand of masculine ambition and sexuality, is no longer an either/or proposition, and hasn’t been for a while, despite various niche attempts at religious revivals and purity culture that feminists often cite as indicative of “patriarchy.” 

This two-faced archetype has a name: girlboss. The girlboss is the face of liberal feminism: the centerpiece of limitless optionality. She’s the having-it-all, doing-it-all, knowing-it-all, leaning in, “well-behaved women rarely make history,” vocal feminist, part-time activist, full time company cheerleader. She is everything all the time: sexually uninhibited, politically correct, and professionally inspired. She accepts no boundaries to her ambitions, nor does she keep any of her own. An empty vessel both for corporate America and the American everyman: as inoffensive as the fifties housewife but with an ironic veneer of edgy righteousness. In accordance with this representation, generations of girls have been explicitly instructed to prioritize establishing the professional over the personal, freedom over family, independence over everything. You go, girl.

In demanding nothing but complete autonomy, the girlboss has required nothing of anyone else, least of all men, who now enjoy both the benefits of consequence-free sex and 50/50 financial arrangements with her. And women enjoy—what, exactly? Status? The feeling of acceptance that comes with doing what you’re told? Of course, no one is enjoying this charade. Women are as upset by life now as the girls at Claymoore Asylum, the setting of Girl, Interrupted. But their daily routine of uppers and downers was managed by a no-nonsense Irish nurse. We have an app for that.

You don’t need to do more than take a cursory glance at social media over the past few years to know that women are unsatisfied and exhausted by the ambivalence of the modern female experience, boiled down to endless swiping and striving. Even men, the superficial beneficiaries of the modern arrangement, have grown to resent both the career woman and the sexually uninhibited woman for the real competition and fear of inadequacy that those facts bring to the surface. In fact, these benefits are not only completely superficial, but enjoyed by fewer and fewer. For incels and feminists alike, pervasive lovelessness festers in the form of mutual resentment. Women begin to see misogyny everywhere, and men see misandry the same. Both, in their own ways, are right. Relations between the genders have never felt more tenuous.

But something happened more recently, more acutely, in 2020, when in many ways, coronavirus killed the girlboss. With the pandemic in full swing, all of a sudden, the millennials, the largest demographic cohort of women since their boomer mothers, as well as the most heavily indoctrinated in the cult of you-go-girl, found themselves without the real corresponding components of swiping and striving (the bar and the office). A few things became clear—and quickly. 

For single millennial women, first came dull and consuming loneliness. Publications were flooded with pieces by women suddenly overcome with anxiety about their lack of stable, non-superficial relationships. Alone in their apartments, they perceived a lack of love in their lives, and many became acutely aware of what two years of lockdown—precisely as they crested thirty years of age—might mean for their coupling prospects and fertility. All of a sudden, the difference between 28 and 30 felt more dramatic. This biological self-awareness brought several more questions to the surface. The anti-birth control movement found traction on TikTok and Instagram, as well as several more trends relating to slow living, femininity, anti-work, and anti-hookup culture.

For a significant though still minority chunk of millennials who have had children, a different story played out, but with a similar outcome. As of October of 2021, three million women had left their jobs for “pandemic-related reasons.” Put simply, working from home while also having kids home from school highlighted the tension between domestic and professional responsibility that would have once been relieved through outsourcing. Early pandemic quarantine protocol drew on and became what the narrative makers dubbed “the new normal”: an only slightly less tenuous situation where, yes, kids can go back to daycare and school, and yes, mommy can go back to work but either the slightest of sniffles from your kid or the whim of the wrong lawmaker could throw a family into chaos for weeks. Under these conditions, childcare became simultaneously too expensive and too unpredictable to justify a mother’s paycheck for many middle-class American families.  

So, moms quit. And they, too, went to TikTok to express their frustrations with being everything all the time, but nothing they actually enjoyed. 

Mainstream media headlines over the past few months describe a “dramatic reversal” in “women’s empowerment” in America. Journalists have picked up on the changing tides—they are finally beginning to acknowledge the grassroots rebellious energy. For these writers, the mass exodus of women from the workplace and a rising tide of sex negativity are both tragic causalities of simply misunderstanding the rules of the game. They are determined to remind us that resistance is a Very Bad Thing. To be fair, it must be, for them. Toeing the line of this particular brand of feminism is what gave them their careers.

But contrary to their protestations, it’s not simply that we haven’t girlbossed hard enough. It’s not just that real sex-positivity has never been tried. No, in reality, some significant subset of a generation of women raised according to this particular lifescript, a group who fully bought in, find themselves completely disenchanted with their own lives. Something is happening, something even bigger than the real and meaningful cost-benefit analysis related to the pandemic. 

Reappearing on various nominations lists this year is an indie international film directed by Norwegian Joachim Trier, entitled The Worst Person in the World. The film centers on a millennial named Julie, who bounces between lovers and occupations, succeeding quickly in a certain sense in everything, but never deciding to see anything through to the end—for fear of betraying some vague inner sense of authenticity or personal liberty.

Matthew Schmitz for The American Conservative wrote an insightful review that deserves repeating:

“Julie is a millennial woman in modern Oslo who slides toward her mid-thirties with no certainty about what she should do or whom she should love. Anything that gives a life lasting shape also limits its possibilities. Choosing one future requires rejecting countless others. Julie recoils from commitment, and so ends up alone… The Worst Person in the World explores a different sort of midlife crisis, one that many millennials will undergo. They will not face the classic realization that their children are growing up and they are growing old. They will instead confront the fact that they will never attain their image of adulthood. Death will come before they marry, have children, or buy a house … It seemed that we could do what we wanted, except form lasting relationships; go where we liked, unless it was home. For no other generation have the possibilities been so limitless and the reality so limited.”

The success of the film, together with the rising tide of grassroots countercultural movements on social media and the occasional and reluctant acknowledgment from the mainstream, signal that a broad awakening to the real limitations of girlbossism is underway. The long-standing ideological model set forth for women does not account for the limitations of time, for the world beyond the self, for love, and especially, at the intersection of all of the aforementioned, for women’s natural desire for children. For that reason, it has caused much pain. 

Chronic conditions often take a while to understand fully. As teenagers, millennials once related to the angst of the characters in Girl, Interrupted, but the root causes of their problems felt more ephemeral. Their subjugation felt more like an imposition than a choice. As adults, we may relate to Julie’s angst, but it has become uncomfortably clear that it is the result of Julie’s own slave-like devotion to the very ideologies which hurt in the first place. We’ve begun to realize our own role in our own misery. This is an important first step.

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