Girlboss aggressively wants you to like it. Actually, to be more accurate, this Netflix series aggressively wants you to like its main character, precisely because she’s the kind of rebel who does not care if you like her.
A loose adaptation — “real loose” states the opening title card — of the actual experiences of Sophia Amoruso, founder of online fashion juggernaut Nasty Gal and author of the book #Girlboss, this half-hour dramedy focuses on the mid-aughts period when Nasty Gal was first born as a vintage-clothes-flipping eBay site. As played by Britt Robertson, the Netflix version of Sophia is an anti-establishment 20-something, who, at first, is barely scraping by in San Francisco. She’s all ripped jeans and irrepressible sass, a pseudo-riot grrrl who does everything her way, man. She’s crafty, and she’s supposed to be just our type. The problem is she’s also kind of a jerk. But nearly every breezy installment, all of which begin streaming Friday, keeps trying to convince us that, despite her flaws, she’s so charming that you have to root for her. Dammit, you have to.
“I just need to figure out a way to grow up without becoming a boring adult,” says Sophia in the first episode to a woman sitting next to her on a San Francisco park bench.
“It’s hard to believe you’re the future. Thank God I’ll be dead,” the woman, played by Louise Fletcher, tells her. It’s probably not a good sign when, just a few minutes into a new show, you’re thinking: “Nurse Ratched might have a point.”
The fact that she has a point is confirmed a few minutes later, when Sophia shows up really late to her job at a shoe store, talks back to her supervisor, takes personal calls instead of helping customers, then eats her supervisor’s sandwich for lunch without asking. She gets fired, then flips out and says she’s actually quitting, storming out of the store as though she has every right to feel outraged for being held accountable for her behavior. While talking on the phone with her best friend, Annie (Ellie Reed), about what just transpired, she has a sudden moment of regret. “Why am I such an asshole?” she asks, her eyes filling with tears.
The fact that she asks such a thing reflects self-awareness, on the part of the character and the show. But Sophia quickly blinks away the tears and, for much though not all of its 13 episodes, Girlboss does the same thing with regard to that question. The series may not quite celebrate Sophia’s bad attitude, but there are times when it definitely throws it a party. Her increasingly lucrative career — which involves buying old clothes, then astutely marketing them on eBay at a much higher price point — is painted as a savvy act, and even though Sophia herself is clearly not an organized businesswoman, numerous moments practically command viewers to salute her confidence. “I have good instincts and common sense coming out of my dumper,” she says brashly to a consignment-store owner, played by Jim Rash. #Feminism, I guess?
As unfair as it is to compare Girlboss to Girls — I cannot stress enough that these are very different shows — it feels relevant to bring up the HBO series because it was so often slammed for depicting narcissistic, selfish young women. To its credit, though, Girls waded into that millennial minefield in a way that slyly criticized generational obliviousness while still honoring the humanity of its principal characters. Girlboss can’t pull off that kind of balance and doesn’t really try. Most of the time, it just wants to have fun while centering that fun around a confused, often unprincipled protagonist. A proper tone never fully clicks into place.
That’s disappointing given the caliber of people involved in making it. Kay Cannon, who co-produced 30 Rock and wrote the Pitch Perfect films, is Girlboss’s creator, and Charlize Theron is one of the executive producers, and both of them have certainly established a reputation for depicting strong, idiosyncratic women. Its cast also features several great supporting actors — among them RuPaul as Sophia’s neighbor, Dean Norris as her disapproving father, and Melanie Lynskey as a vintage-clothes collector and seller who resents Sophia’s online practices — who bring realism to a narrative that tends toward the superficial.
The main problem with Girlboss circles back to Sophia. Robertson brings plenty of energy and charisma to the role, but her performance is ultimately just that: a performance. That may be an intentional choice. Sophia is fixated on appearances and sheathed in her cool-girl coat of armor in what, not surprisingly, appears to be a defense mechanism. There are times when Roberts breaks through that façade and shows Sophia’s more fragile side, especially in the final couple of episodes. But most of the time, she’s flippant and forced and, honestly, kind of annoying.
Amoruso really did go from near-destitution to serving as CEO of a multi-million-dollar company. That’s a fascinating story, even if the shadow of what eventually transpired — she stepped down as CEO in 2015, and late last year, Nasty Gal filed Chapter 11 — casts a slight pall on the rags-to-riches triumph of it all. Delving into that narrative via a scripted series should be an opportunity to explore the challenges of kickstarting a company while female and to debunk the notion that women’s fashion is silly and unserious. A couple of episodes briefly touch on these themes, but most of the time, Girlboss skates across the surface of things, spending time on customer-service antics, fashion-acquisition mishaps, Sophia’s relationship with her drummer boyfriend (Johnny Simmons), her bond with Annie, and her parental issues.
Sophia starts to gain some perspective on what it takes to be your own boss, and to be a decent human. But before she does, you may get so frustrated with her manic-pixie-jackass routine that you just give up and decide to invest your binge-watching business elsewhere.