By Chloé Meley
Cheer, the Netflix documentary released in January which follows a Texan cheerleading team for a whole year as it prepares for the biggest cheerleading competition in the United States, touches on a lot of different topics beyond the gravity-defying exploits of the athletes it features. It posits discipline and solidarity as chief values, explores the physical and emotional limits of the cheerleaders, and places great emphasis on how the fleeting glory of a performance, when repeated, can lead to enduring legacy. It puts in the spotlight lovable characters and weaves together compelling storylines. It is an addictive watch, and I, like many others, held my breath as I anxiously observed the team perform the two minute and fifteen-second routine they had spent the whole year perfecting.
The star of the documentary is undeniably Monica Aldama, the ruthless 40-something cheer coach who is equally feared and adored by her athletes, as she refuses to settle for anything less than perfection – even if that means that most of the cheerleaders we are introduced to get badly injured at some point over the course of the six-episode documentary. After the release of Cheer, many saw in Monica Aldama the ultimate girlboss, the epitome of the strong independent woman. She was deemed inspiring in her determination, her integrity, and her leadership style that merged together her demanding and her caring nature. She was profiled by The Cut, praised by Reese Witherspoon, and made the subject of many laudatory tweets.
Others, however, criticised this characterisation of Aldama. Amanda Mull of the Atlantic notably pointed out the incredible physical strain that Aldama put her athletes under, which she was able to do because of the limitless devotion they have to her as the godlike figure who rescued them from broken homes and bleak futures and gave them a purpose. But I’m not here to debate whether Monica Aldama is a good person or not, or even to discuss the complicated, sometimes manipulative dynamics that can emerge between a coach and an athlete in search of a parental role-model. Rather, I want to circle back to that notion of the girlboss, an abstract qualifier I have seen pop up a lot in online conversations about feminism. Monica Aldama is not the first and won’t be the last woman elevated to girlboss status, a label which operates from the premise that individual success is inherently feminist when it has been pursued and consequently attained by a woman. An inspiring feminist hero simply by virtue of being a woman at the top of her field, the girlboss is everywhere. She’s a CEO, a prominent politician, the editor-in-chief of a national publication, a cheer coach, etc. – what she does does not truly matter, as long as she does it whilst being a woman.
Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing women succeed against all odds as much as the next feminist. But the boss being a woman, no matter how inspirational her success story is, has never been and will never be an undeniable mark of progress. The Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook being a woman does not make that company any less dangerous to democracy. The editor-in-chief of The Sun being a woman does not make that publication any less racist and inflammatory. The fact that Monica Aldama is a woman does not change the fact that she’s a merciless coach who’s willing to use her athletes’ love for her to convince them to push way past their limits. All of these impressive, eminent figures being women does not mean their success should be blindly celebrated as evidence of a more progressive society. It is a simplistic shortcut to make, and one that ignores two important things.
First of all, hailed as a feminist role-model on the basis of being a successful woman rather than on the basis of what she believes in and works towards, the girlboss is able to evade accountability. Because what she represents is enough in and of itself, the girlboss’ convictions and beliefs are rarely probed extensively, what she stands for rendered irrelevant as the focus shifts to what she symbolises. Her lack of substantial commitment to feminist causes is obscured by the simple fact she’s a woman navigating a male-dominated sphere, the sound of her conforming to and perpetuating oppressive structures drowned out by cries of Yaaas girl. Even more importantly, such focus on women’s individual success allows the institutions within which the girlboss succeeds to avoid accountability as well. A good example of this would be the many companies which have recently started engaging in a strategy of corporate virtue-signaling – placing women in top positions or designing sleek empowerment-themed campaigns – whilst failing to tackle structural issues that affect the women working at lower levels of the corporate ladder.
Secondly, and relatedly, women are not a monolith, and the success of one can never be emblematic of the success of all. Indeed, the women who do not encounter much resistance in their ascent up the power hierarchy are often women who tend to benefit from the privilege that other parts of their identity afford them, such as their whiteness or heterosexuality. The fact that one girlboss has maneuvered her way to the top in a male-dominated field therefore does not mean this field is being structurally overhauled for the benefit of all women. It just means that one of them was allowed in as a token of diversity, a small gesture to appease and therefore silence demands of substantial, transformative, and inclusive gender equality measures.
Moreover, the prominence of the girlboss and our willingness to celebrate her success as intrinsically desirable turns women’s individual triumph into the be all and end all of feminism. Feminism is consequently reformulated as an individual endeavour and circumscribed to surface-level aims of professional success, financial prosperity and status attainment. There is something insidious about stripping feminism of its collective character in such a way, re-articulating its ultimate goal as one woman’s rise to power rather than as every woman’s liberation. The movement is therefore emptied out, made more palatable, less threatening to the status quo and more fit for the mainstream. Having shed its radical identity, feminism is rebranded as a collection of inspirational success stories, which simply amounts to patriarchy repainted in pink hues.
The girlboss is the emblem of such hollowed-out feminism, in which women’s individual success is deemed inherently progressive as well as a feminist end in itself. But the extent to which an individual’s personal accomplishment can be truly significant for the whole – as well as the willingness and ability of one powerful woman to meaningfully empower others – should not be overstated.
Chloé Meley is final year International Politics student at the University of Surrey. She writes here in a personal capacity and not as Editor in Chief of Incite.