Slaying the GirlbossNew Books Explore the Underbelly of Corporate Feminism

The Herd by Andrea Bartz and Self Care by Leigh Stein (Photo credit: Ballantine Books and Penguin)

In 2016, Bitch Media’s cofounder Andi Zeisler published We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl, the Buying & Selling of a Political Movement, a book about the way that feminism has been twisted into a marketing term, with brands using the language of feminism to drive advertisements. In the years since, we’ve seen the way that feminism and feminist concepts such as self-care have been Goop-ified and co-opted in the name of sales. One such appropriation resulted in all-women coworking spaces, most notably The Wing, which came increasingly under fire this year as an “empire built on trauma, racism, and neglect.” CEO Audrey Gelman stepped down earlier this month, and the described “growing community of women across the country and globe, gathering together to work, connect, and thrive” remains surrounded by a haze of uncertainty as onlookers wonder: Given all we know now, what’s next for these so-called feminist coworking spaces?

Recently, several authors have offered their own reimaginings of these spaces, from their origins to their horrifying potentials. In March, Andrea Bartz released The Herd, a gory tale of four women’s experiences in a coworking space called the Herd (the HER in purple, as its signature) and Leigh Stein’s Self Care (out this month) explores the female cofounders of a wellness start-up called Richual, “the most inclusive online community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self-care and change the world by changing ourselves.” Against differing backdrops, Bartz and Stein both offer a look into the dark underbelly of these easily marketable spaces, the promise that a room full of women equals safety, and the egos and violence that sadly so often exist within them.

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The Herd sounds like a dream of a workspace: Many accomplished women (and some secret celebrity clients) working together in a largely open-concept room that newcomer Katie describes as making her feel as if she’s “inside Athena’s vagina.” Founded by Eleanor, a neat and tidy wealthy white woman, alongside best friends Mikki, an artsy white woman from North Carolina, and Hana, Katie’s older, adopted sister, and the only woman of color in the friend group, the Herd, much like The Wing, is a successful franchise with locations popping up across the country. But it has a dark side, which we’re introduced to swiftly. Eleanor asks her team to organize an event so that she can announce a major, exciting, sparkly upcoming change to the company, but on the night of the event she vanishes without a trace. Her phone, laptop, and purse are missing, her husband hasn’t seen her all day, and her best friends find themselves scrambling to figure out what could’ve led to her terrifying disappearance.

And they’re right to be terrified, because there’s a slew of people who hate Eleanor. While the Herd may push itself as a beacon of inclusivity, it’s actually just another opportunity for rich, largely white New Yorkers to network with one another and enrich themselves at others expense. “Look at the Herd,” Bartz writes. “Women begging for the opportunity to spend three hundred dollars a month on a membership to a female-only space where you’re still expected to dress up and put on makeup and smile and mingle, and you have to slit your wrists if you smear your lipstick or say the wrong thing or fart in the bathroom.” On the flip side, though, others hate it for more sinister reasons. One man in particular rages against the idea of a women-only club: “What she did was illegal. Barring a demographic from a public space—that’s some ‘whites-only’ shit…. She’s such a smug little bitch. Her blog, her companies—her whole brand is basically: No Boys Allowed.”

Women can cause harm, too. And both Self Care and The Herd satirically critique the idea that we ever really didn’t know this. It has just been easier to pretend. 

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In one standout moment in Self Care, Maren shares with Devin that she’s depressed, noting that her cofounder doesn’t seem to struggle the way that she does with reality beyond the curated platform they’ve created. Explaining her pain, Maren says, “Every other day another racist cop shoots an unarmed black man or refugees drown in the ocean or a mother of four is murdered by her husband because she wants to leave.” Devin cuts her off: “Babe, I know. Believe me. I get the Times alerts on my phone too. But I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I got emotional about everything. And then what would happen to Richual? It would stop helping so many women, right? This is why we make such a good team.” Their feminist start-up and its mission becomes an excuse to sidestep privilege and avoid making any real change.

“We’re leading the revolution by helping women take care of themselves,” Devin explains. “This is your moment to lead by example, like Gandhi.” Here, Stein smartly calls out a common occurrence across these start-ups: The language of self-care is weaponized, mashing together the insecurities and struggles of wealthy women who can turn to a platform like Richual for a sense of community with those who are truly marginalized, and therefore left in impossible situations that result in death and violence. Devin doesn’t struggle with self-care, because a massive part of her job is taking care of herself (to a fault). But for her and many Richual customers, self-care is the perfect excuse for ignoring things that hurt: white privilege, class awareness, and any sort of realization that would require that they reflect and begin to understand that the experience they’re offering women would benefit much more from an inward look.

Eventually, everything comes to a head, as it must. In The Herd, this means blood, detectives, and hospital rooms. In Self Care, this means betrayal, secrets, and a Slack message gone rogue. In each story, though, powerful women steal the experiences and ideas of the women they’ve offered to “save,” and we see the way that this comes back to haunt them. As Stein writes in Self Care, “The only thing I could think of to describe my wound was women.” It’s a brave statement in a world where too often the only answer to misogyny and sexism has become “just make it for women, and sell it really well.” Women can cause harm, too. And both of these novels satirically critique the idea that we ever really didn’t know this. It has just been easier to pretend.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.