The “girlboss” hits middle age, doesn’t like what she sees (plus a fantastic new podcast)

Photo by Viridiana Ortiz

Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of unhappy people in the world: (1) people who fully understand what aspect of their life is making them unhappy, they genuinely want to change it, but circumstances are standing in their way, and (2) people who want things that make them unhappy. The first presents an opportunity to build or demonstrate character, grit, whatever you want to call it. The second is a bona fide pathology.

I was born on the tail end of Generation X – the cusp of the Millennial generation, if you will. When someone uses the (now derogatory, or ironic) term “girlboss” around me, I know exactly what they mean by it. The “girlboss” was a lifestyle ideal almost every woman I went to college with (and many of the women I went to high school with) adopted without question.

In watching the cohort I attended school with enter middle age, it is abundantly clear to me that there is a happy/unhappy dividing line that passes straight through how much women prioritized their domestic life over the past two decades. The women who have regarded being “busy” and pounding psychotropics as a status symbols are absolutely fucking miserable – even through the Big Pharma haze – and everyone around them notices. Their husbands have become male roommates instead of soulmates. Their children do not like or know their mother and their mother does not like or know them. Literally all they have is a résumé, and they are hitting the age where there is younger, hotter, trendier competition in the workplace. Competition whose biological clock hasn’t started ticking like a time bomb yet (but it will).

The new orthodoxy surrounding women’s issues is to blame all of the above on the “patriarchy” – no matter how much women “have it all,” there is always some mythological societal anchor that prevents them from enjoying it. It is verboten to acknowledge the obvious: the feminist paradigm has been a failure. It is producing a lot of women who are struggling to reframe their identities as they approach the realization that what they have wanted all this time will not ever be fulfilling. But worse than that, the window of opportunity to live another way is simultaneously closing, after which what they have is simply what they have.

This is not a new problem. I mean, really, it’s more or less the theme of every Jane Austen novel – at what point can a woman get over herself already and enjoy the fruits of love? But in the navel-gazing digital era, it seems like it should be a new problem: How can you be a decorated veteran of the corporate rat race and yet still end up a cat lady?

That’s more or less what the girlboss has become… a cat lady. She played the game of life, married the man with acceptable credentials, had the 2.5 children (or didn’t, because of climate change, you know), cashed the check, bought the McMansion. But practically speaking, it’s like she never actually had a family because she spent the prime years of family-building acting like having a family did not matter. Like the husband and kids did not even exist, outside of being items on her daily checklist of busyness. She’s a cat lady with threaded brows and an Audi.

(But at least she’s not a housewife. You know how many drugs 1950s housewives had to do to cancel out the meaningless of their existence? Oh, wait.)

I honestly don’t know what to do with the girlboss trope anymore or the women who still foolishly believe it has any currency. It’s really more of a bless-and-release social media problem to me, and it fades alongside the relevancy of legacy outlets like Facebook and Twitter. You have distant acquaintances who are going to lose their shit over your kid pictures or your thoughts on parenthood because they dumped their kid off on some untouchable at one month old in the name of billable hours, but really, who even cares? It is a pathology and you can’t reason someone into wanting a life well-lived. You aren’t actually friends anymore, so much as suffering through someone’s narcissistic outbursts for no real reason. As a Christian, they should be an object of pity; but as an Aristotelian, you know they are not capable of reciprocal affection. Hopefully their children will break the cycle. It’s somewhat discouraging the degree to which our society has started actively selling pathologies as “progress,” but I think most rational people see through it at this point (and that will be clear in November).

I was surprised, however, to discover a new podcast called “Girlboss, Interrupted” by Helen Roy. I cannot recommend this podcast highly enough. It’s not really about the girlboss trope, exactly, but about what positive worldview women – particularly younger generations only recently entering into motherhood – can build in a post-girlboss world. At the end of every episode, Roy asks the woman she is interviewing what they think it means to live virtuously nowadays. For people who believe strongly in virtue ethics (as I do), the podcast is thrilling to listen to.

It’s an unapologetically conservative podcast, I’d say, but there is a wonderful diversity of perspectives represented – something I did not expect at all. (You’d think this position would be adopted mostly by devout religious women, for example, but she does an interview with an atheist Jew who arrives at the same place. I think it speaks to how much older paradigms prevailed simply because they worked.) And more than a few of the women involved have philosophy degrees behind them, so it’s incredibly thoughtful and well-sourced too. (I have bought several new books after listening to it, and that’s saying a lot because I own thousands of books.) These women are dishing out articulate commentary that you simply do not see in the mainstream media.

This article from The American Conservative is an excellent overview of Roy’s perspective on where we are and the challenges facing women in “reinventing feminism,” if you will.

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