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Netflix memorializes 2005-era internet culture in Girlboss

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Netflix’s new series Girlboss is loosely based ("real loosely,” the title card reminds us at the start of each episode) on the life of Sophia Amoruso, the founder and former CEO of the women’s clothing retailer Nasty Gal. The 13-episode series is a fine way to kill seven hours, and it would be accurate to call it a coming-of-age story, or a story of female friendship among 20-somethings. Except Girlboss at least vaguely claims to be a story about starting a business. And the reason it got made is the same reason that the show suffers: this is nominally a true story.

Girlboss is the most recent in a line of TV shows and movies that promise to tell the story of a now-successful Silicon Valley darling (or, in Amoruso’s case, fallen darling). In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg takes Facebook from a college hot-or-not app to a massive company. In Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder launches pivotal products that shaped his career, and Apple’s future. But Girlboss ends right before the real success happens; it never actually shows what Amoruso is like as a boss.

This is a problem for the series, because in the real world, Nasty Gal has become a warning sign, a “What Not To Do” guide wrapped in a mermaid-cut tube top. The business started out okay: Amoruso launched Nasty Gal in 2006, and by 2012, her store was selling around $100 million worth of clothing and accessories each year. But soon after, Nasty Gal employees began leaving unfavorable reviews on Glassdoor, claiming Amoruso was condescending and petty, and that the company itself was flailing around with no sense of direction. In 2015, an ex-employee filed a lawsuit claiming that Nasty Gal “systematically and illegally” fires women who become pregnant. Soon after, Amoruso stepped down as CEO. Nasty Gal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.

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Girlboss only really winks at Amoruso’s reputation. The series tends to view caustic selfishness as a laughable side-effect of youth. Tomorrowland’s Britt Robertson plays Sophia (here, her last name is Marlowe) with a kind of unapologetic swagger that by now has become a trademark of hustling tech bros of any gender. Sophia snaps at shop owners, pouts at landlords, tosses her friends aside when they ask too much of her, and still has time to get involved in squabbles on vintage-clothing forums. And her character never gets much more complex than that. She says things like “conformity is prison,” and tosses out celebratory “what what”s and “boom chicka yeah”s like a 1990s Urban Dictionary robot. She’s a fictionalized amalgamation of early-2000s 20-somethings who, for the first time in history, could live lives shaped by an inclination for shit-stirring and widely available internet access.

Because Amoruso started Nasty Gal as an eBay shop, the show has to deal with the issue of representing the internet as part of the real world. In many cases, this means over-the-shoulder shots of Sophia’s colorful iBook as she scrolls through comments from adoring MySpace friends and angry customers. Sometimes Girlboss’ writers opt to make the internet an actual setting in Sophia’s world — an enjoyable reprieve from a manically sunny San Francisco. An internet forum thread is represented by a handful of people sitting around a table in a dark room; when they speak (or post), a spotlight hits their chair. During a heated AIM conversation, Sophia and her best friend Annie (Ellie Reed) sit face-to-face in a bright white room. The sound effects give clues into the platform they’re using: a door creaking as people enter the chat, a door closing as they leave, the nostalgic sighing bloop of a sent message. Other than constant MySpace references, the stylized depiction of online life is the show’s best, but most obvious trick to remind us what 2005-era internet was like.

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And yet Girlboss might be more compelling if it could move beyond 2005, where it stagnates for most of its run. Netflix hasn’t mentioned a second season, so for now, the show ends without exploring the most intriguing part of the Nasty Gal business — its quick expansion into an empire, and its even quicker decline. The series opens with Sophia losing her job at a shoe store, desperately in need of health insurance thanks to a hernia in her abdomen. She picks up a job checking IDs at an art school, but quickly realizes she can flip vintage clothing on eBay for a lot more money. Most of the show’s conflict comes from the strain her early success puts on her relationship with her boyfriend and her best friend, but all of the business stuff goes relatively smoothly, aside from a feud with other eBay sellers. I imagined the show would be like a more sinister adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, it’s more like The Princess Diaries without the royalty plotline.

Girlboss (created by Pitch Perfect screenwriter Kay Cannon) is still an interesting memorial to an era when a well-timed eBay shop could launch a college dropout to millionaire status in five years. But the story is tainted by the pervading sense that Amoruso is meddling in the story. She worked as an executive producer on the show, which may explain why every time Robertson’s Sophia acts bratty or entitled, she’s always allowed a redemption story.

Near the end of the season, the show spends an entire episode explaining why Sophia is the way she is, i.e., narcissistic, cruel, clever, and childish. In large part, it has to do with a flighty, self-absorbed mother who left when Sophia was 12 years old. Following a scene that attempts to pass for closure with her mother, Sophia goes on a kind of apology tour, asking for forgiveness from people she’s wronged. This tour feels like a highlights-only version of Girlboss itself: “Sorry for the way I acted, but wasn’t it kind of cool anyway?”

Girlboss arrives on Netflix April 21st.