Warning: Spoilers throughout for the new Netflix series Girlboss.
There’s a moment in the first episode of Girlboss, the new Netflix show based very loosely on the life story of Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso and her memoir of the same (albeit hashtagged) name, that tells you everything you need to know about its protagonist, Sophia Marlowe. Her car has stalled while climbing one of San Francisco’s notoriously steep hills. Not the most original gag—you probably remember that Mia’s old Mustang quits the very same hills several times over the course of The Princess Diaries—but it’s an effective metaphor for where Sophia is: on her way up, but very, very precariously. Thing is, she’s stopped on top of cable car tracks, and a trolley is making its way up the hill behind her. She motions for it to “go around” like you might to a cyclist, but it can’t; it’s on tracks. When the trolley conductor makes “outta my way!”-type noises, she gets mad. She doesn’t realize, or maybe she just doesn’t care, that her inaction under admittedly difficult circumstances has made an even bigger issue for someone else. She doesn’t think about the fact that the people around her have jobs to do, and that she’s created—if inadvertently—a huge problem for them. She’s just like, “Go around!” She’s caught up in her own drama, and it doesn’t come off as anything but bratty. That’s Sophia.
Girlboss, the show, was created by Kay Cannon, writer of the Pitch Perfect series and one of the main producers on 30 Rock. The first season takes place, roughly, from 2005 to 2007, and from a glimpse of the character Sophia’s mail we know that her apartment is located in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Which is all to say that Girlboss, to the extent that its events really happened, is set a block away from my high school, around the time of my freshman year. And though Sophia is canonically in her very early twenties (she’s a college dropout), she behaves much the way I did at that time: like she’s 14.
Sophia’s unable to think through a single plan or idea, like, at all. She gets herself fired from her (very easy) job in retail because she’s a huge jerk to her boss, eats her boss’s sandwich, and is rude to customers. She shoplifts constantly and never with any sort of subtlety, then acts quite put-upon when a security guard tries to get the nicked merchandise back from her. But there’s humor in watching assholes screw up their own lives. When Girlboss hops onto the wrong side of annoying is when Sophia is a jerk to others…for absolutely no reason.
When a (possibly, presumably) homeless woman confronts her on the street, she shoves a burrito in her face. While showing her date the historic Castro Theatre, she declares that since they’ve purchased tickets but aren’t staying to watch the movie, they are entitled to just steal beer. Later Sophia and her date go to get their fortunes read but end up witnessing a drug bust. Because they are young and white and, while broke, not actually poor, an encounter with the SFPD is hilarious to them. They run away declaring “That was close!” and “That was crazy!” To them, sure, but in the grand scheme, it was neither close nor crazy.
In one episode Sophia promises a bride that she will bring her a wedding gown by an appointed time the morning of the wedding…but is of course immediately beset on all sides by misfortune. The dry cleaner messes up the beading! Sophia’s car runs out of gas! Sophia misses her messenger appointment! But wait, she missed that messenger appointment because she got drunk at her friend’s house and passed out on his couch. Sophia nearly ruins this poor woman’s wedding with her irresponsibility but, because she comes through in the nick of time, receives a positive notice on her eBay page from the bride. Watching it all go down, I got the feeling that hungover Sophia might not have bothered to transport the dress at all were she not concerned for her ratings. It’s obvious that she cares, truly, about her business and the clothes she sells through it. It’s never entirely clear whether she gives a damn about other people. She’s either working on her site, getting her friends to help her, or shopping for things she likes. In one way or another, she’s always looking in the mirror.
There’s insecurity there, a complicated backstory the show fleshes out as it goes on but which does not diminish the pervasive jerkness of the character. And she doesn’t, by the way, come off as particularly “nasty” or revolutionary. Sophia likes monogamous heterosexual sex, making money, drinking, dancing, watching television, music…she’s totally real and she’s really normal. Every time someone actually different or unique drifts into her orbit, like her performance-artist friend played by Cole Escola (at whose piece Sophia rolls her eyes) or the eccentric model Bettina she hires to showcase clothes for her site (whom Sophia calls an alien for being pretty), she has no interest.
So there’s no question: You don’t want to hang out with Ms. Marlowe for real. She’s not “likable.” But…who cares? So she’s not a role model or a badass; she can still be an interesting protagonist. It doesn’t matter if I want to hang out with her in the world as long as I want to spend time with her virtually, safely ensconced behind my screen. Put to that test, I’d still recommend watching Girlboss.
The rise and fall of her relationship? Compelling as hell! Her taste in vintage clothes and her inventiveness in acquiring them? Totally cool! Watching her make a gross, unnecessary joke about eating ass to a woman working at the airport who dared ask Sophia a question? Oh my God, stop it. Why are you the worst?
(Before you claim that I am applying a sexist double standard, let me acknowledge that unrepentant jerks, when they are old white men, are frequently considered “comic geniuses” and that other kinds of people aren’t. For instance, Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I totally understand that this double standard exists. However, you are going to have to trust that I am not being sexist here. I don’t like Curb Your Enthusiasm either. My distaste for unrepentant jerks is gender neutral.)
Outside of the Sophia of it all, the show does have moments of brilliance. It gets a lot of mileage out of the early aughts without making it a gimmick or a crutch (e.g., the “look how big my cell phone is!” jokes in so many lesser scripts). There’s an extended riff on Marissa dying on The O.C. and an episode that revolves around Sophia’s MySpace Top 8. In one scene, seemingly out of nowhere, Sophia’s BFF Annie utters a line so perfect I had to hit pause so I could laugh out loud: “Have you seen Failure to Launch? It’s an OK movie, but then they go play paintball and it goes on for, no joke, like two and a half hours.”
There is a framing device, in the back half of the run, that sets up a sort of personified cyberspace, an IRL chatroom. Characters ping! and boop! in and out of their chairs as users log on and off, speaking in near-monotone about whether or not it’s OK to spam the conversation with links and pictures. It’s funny, it’s of the time, it showcases the actors, and it doesn’t look like everything else on television. It’s the best moment of the show, almost worth the price of admission.
Around episode 11 (of a 13-episode season), Sophia declares her intention to not be a “garbage person” anymore; by the finale she’s made definite progress. Her spirit is dampened by a breakup, and she’s something akin to humbled by her success. At the launch party for Nasty Gal’s site, Sophia is a character I’d be interested in seeing more of if Girlboss gets a season two. Someone who doesn’t expect others to accommodate her all the time. Someone who gets her car up the damn hill.
All episodes of Girlboss are currently streaming on Netflix.