There are still many stories from the birth of the internet as we know it that have yet to play out on screen. We’ve seen The Social Network present Mark Zuckerberg as a villain in fuck-you flip-flops, and now in marches Girlboss in platform heels to tell a tale of e-commerce and feminism. Netflix’s new comedy is a messy venture about a young woman (Britt Robertson) who finds her calling by selling vintage clothes on eBay and parlays that into a lucrative business. It’s about finding your passion, following your heart, and making a shit-ton of money.
Girlboss is bizarrely hampered, in some ways, by its relationship to its source material. It’s based on #Girlboss, a memoir by Sophia Amoruso, who founded Nasty Gal, the site that is fictionalized for the purpose of streaming television. #Girlboss is alternately a self-help text that gives aspiring female entrepreneurs advice on how to write a cover letter and the story of how Amoruso bucked convention to go from anarchist thief to CEO. It advocates for maintaining a fuck-the-man spirit and playing by a set of rules Amoruso defines. But over the years, Amoruso’s personal relationship to the #Girlboss gospel has come under question thanks to accusations that Nasty Gal repeatedly stole designs and a lawsuit alleging that the company fired multiple pregnant women. The environment at Nasty Gal has been described as “toxic,” and Amoruso herself has been called “vengeful.” She stepped down as CEO in 2015; Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy the next year and would ultimately be purchased for a relatively paltry fee by Boohoo. BuzzFeed recently published a piece titled “Feminist Hypocrisy Is The New Trend In Startup Narratives” in which Amoruso was used as a prominent example. But she is still peddling the #Girlboss mantra with a foundation and website, and, at least on the surface, the show is a part of that. Not only is Amoruso an executive producer, but the series is also being advertised heavily on Girlboss.com to the extent that it’s featured on its “about” page.
So is Girlboss simply a sugar-coated, millennial-pink-bathed outgrowth of the “Girlboss” movement? Not quite. While Amoruso would likely be ripe for a Social Network-type treatment, this is not that. Nor should it necessarily be—especially given that it’s, for now, only documenting Nasty Gal’s inception. (And, for that matter, it never promises to precisely dramatize real-life events.) Still, although Kay Cannon’s project has an interest in presenting a not-entirely-flattering portrait of a complicated and contradictory woman, it’s also part of a brand, and that conundrum is one it can’t quite overcome. This is most evident in the fact that the show doesn’t seem to know what to make of its heroine, named Sophia Marlowe. It’s up-front about her flaws—in the pilot, she asks why she’s such an “asshole”—but her casual delinquency and rudeness are played off as quirks. Girlboss is never fully comfortable making her a true antihero even when she emotionally abuses the people around her, including her best friend. Any conflict is resolved quickly, with Sophia learning lessons from her selfishness and maintaining her badass-bitch status. Girlboss is on her side.
Robertson gives a tenacious performance that nonetheless suffers thanks to this unevenness. Coming off a couple of cinematic duds—including the treacly duo of Mother’s Day and A Dog’s Purpose—she apparently relishes the opportunity to play someone with an edge. She masters Sophia’s confident swagger that mixes fashion-world posturing with delusional rebellion more fit for a teenager than a twentysomething. As Sophia’s best friend, Annie, Ellie Reed is bubbly and goofy in a way that grows more appealing when she gets to move out of sidekick territory. Their love interests are less compellingly portrayed. It’s the talented supporting cast, however, that provides the most joy over the course of the 13 episodes. It’s always a pleasure when RuPaul pops up as Sophia’s neighbor; Norm Macdonald mixes daffy-sweet and just a little creepy to play her boss at an art school where she checks IDs; Cole Escola is a gregarious student there; and Alice Ripley lends weight to a one-episode stint when Sophia goes to visit her absent mother. Best among them is Melanie Lynskey as a rival eBay seller who weaves elaborate fantasies about 1940s garments and can be vindictive as hell.
Like most Netflix shows, Girlboss suffers from pacing problems, though thankfully the episodes are kept under 30 minutes. It gains steam in its latter half, but drags its feet on the way there, failing to find drama in desperate thrift-store searches. An installment that relies on flashbacks is a ham-fisted way to bring nuance to Reed’s character, and it doesn’t help that it is framed around a conflict that breaks out because Sophia refuses to put Annie in her Myspace top eight. Indeed, Girlboss struggles with finding a way to naturally reference the mid-’00s era in which it is set without coming off like a hokey nostalgic listicle asking, “Remember when?” Similarly, a parody of Marissa’s death on The O.C.—complete with the use of Imogen Heap’s “Hallelujah”—lands with a thud. (Honest question: Who is that for?) At least Cannon and her writers found a way to stage a fight over an internet forum in a manner that’s entertaining, if gimmicky.
Cannon, a 30 Rock veteran, is best known for scripting Pitch Perfect and its sequel, both of which are only loosely tethered to reality. Girlboss sometimes also operates on a heightened plane and is constantly reminding the viewer that it’s only “loosely” based on real-life events. It might be served by a bit more stylization. Instead, it feels like it’s struggling to find its voice. Sophia—Marlowe, at least, for whom originality is key—would consider that the greatest insult.