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John Doyle: Netflix’s Girlboss is just millennial bait about a business badass

Netflix's ambition and drive to fill the streaming service with a constant torrent of original content has helped make this era an extraordinary time for television. There are so many series, documentaries and one-off specials, the choices are bewildering.

Mind you, Netflix is really in the business of keeping subscribers, not making masterpieces. It's become clear that for every Master of None (it returns in May), there is a Santa Clarita Diet, a misfire with brilliant flashes of absurd humour and a lot of juvenile grossness.

Girlboss (streaming on Netflix starting Friday) is in the misfire category, but Netflix won't care about critical reviews. A lot of its content is aimed at twentysomethings who want to see their lives and their generation glowingly portrayed in new and original content, all the time.

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The 13-episode series was inspired by #Girlboss, Sophia Amoruso's bestselling autobiography about how she created Nasty Gal, a multimillion-dollar clothing brand – from scratch – and did it more with gusto than business savvy. Amoruso's story is now legendary – she began selling vintage clothes on eBay and then, sensing the heft of e-commerce, created her own fashion empire.

It's a fascinating, uncomplicated business success story. Amoruso was 23 years old and drifting through life in San Francisco. She had no job and crashed in friends' apartments. One thing she had a gift for was spotting valuable clothing in vintage stores. She could spot a rare or beautiful item. After she found one jacket for $9 that sold on eBay for hundreds more, she saw her path in life and followed it.

A great feel-good story then, and a rare example of a self-made woman going literally from rags to riches. But the real story is actually a cautionary tale. In 2015, Nasty Gal had $300-million (U.S.) in revenue and Amoruso was being hailed as a young go-getter genius. A year later, Nasty Gal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following a period of turmoil in management. It was recently acquired by a British fashion website for $20-million.

Girlboss is not about what happened in the last two years. It's about being a girl, being the boss of your own destiny and telling older people to get lost. It's millennial bait.

When we meet Sophia Amoruso (played by Britt Robertson), she's 23, pushing her stalled, junky car down a street in San Francisco and swearing. She swears a lot. A lot. And her every move seems to be accompanied by a very loud faux-punk music soundtrack. She's abrasive, rude and self-absorbed. She gets fired from her job at a shoe store, she walks out of a dinner with her dad, she goes dumpster-diving.

Every scene is carefully set up to emphasize that Sophia is young, angry and ready at any moment to tell anyone older than her that they're dumb, boring and stupid. Dramatically, this amounts to a series of repetitive speeches. Everybody goes quiet while Sophia says something like "society would just like to put everyone in a box. Well, guess what – there's no box for me!" When Sophia finally gets a grip on how she can support herself selling clothes on eBay – she steals a book about e-commerce from a bookstore to get some tips – she declares, "It's a lifestyle, not a business."

And she means it too. She doesn't want to go to an office or work regular hours. She wants to make money from hanging around vintage stores and selling stuff from her laptop in her apartment. That's it, that's the entire entrepreneurship model being sold here. It will be enormously appealing to twentysomethings. The series offers a sunny hipster heaven of bars, bands and vintage clothes, and at the same time it's a Cinderella story.

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As such, Girlboss is pretty much review-proof. While it's based on a true story, it is so stylized and outrageously preachy and indulgent that it could not possibly be anything but exaggeration and embellishment.

The marketing message behind Girlboss will tell you it's an important show. It's made by women (Charlize Theron is a producer) about a young woman's success story and, yes, it's about a woman who is flawed. This, the marketing message says, makes it special and daring.

In truth, it's a mess. The half-hour episodes fly by without much happening apart from Sophia being rude to someone and asserting her independence. There is almost no character development because the point is to have the viewer adore the main character as she is – immature, reckless, selfish, arrogant and incapable of empathy. But a business success story.

In the context of Netflix, none of this matters. Some millennials will take the bait and watch admiringly as Sophia rides her rudeness and arrogance to success. Netflix isn't in the business of making masterpieces. It's in the business of keeping subscribers with more new content every month. Sometimes the content is great and sometimes it's just bait.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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