Netflix is known for creating amazing original programming — but not everything the streaming service puts out finds success. Girlboss, a new series based on the bestselling book by Sophia Amoruso, launched its first season this past spring — and was officially canceled this summer.
The series (and the book) chart Amoruso’s journey from floundering young woman to successful business owner and fashion icon, and the book was hugely successful, becoming a New York Times Bestseller. The #NastyGal story is inspirational, funny and smart, and shows how someone without any experience was able to build an empire by following her passion, which is what makes it such perfect fodder for a Netflix series.
So what happened? The show garnered a measly 32 percent on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, negative reviews and low viewer numbers. Although Amoruso herself isn’t too concerned about the less than wonderful reactions, many fans are left wondering how #Netflix failed to make #Girlboss a success.
All The Right Ingredients: Why It Should Have Worked
On paper, this was a brilliant concept; the show included many of the same elements that are key parts of other Netflix success stories. It starts with Sophia at a low point: losing her job, struggling to make money, and being forced to figure out what she wants to do. It should have been a perfect underdog story to inspire viewers.
In fact, there are various ingredients in this mix that should’ve equaled in a hit:
- It’s beautiful: This is a show about fashion, so it comes with a stunning wardrobe, bright colors and a unique style — all set against the backdrop of sunny San Francisco. The show is gorgeous, plain and simple.
- It’s female-fronted: Female leads are increasingly popular (not to mention rare), and studios are finally waking up to the fact that women want to watch complicated, powerful women. Sophia created a business from scratch. Her interactions with other women are the core of the show, and she’s creating a business by women, for women.
- It’s got a fanbase: One of the reasons that literary adaptations are usually such a good move for studios is that they come with a ready made fanbase. Everyone who loved the book, who shops at Nasty Gal — they’re a pre-existing audience, and that usually means higher ratings right off the bat.
- And a pre-existing plot: Another benefit to adapting a book is that there is no need to create a new story from scratch. The plot already exists and it’s proven to work. It only needs to be translated for the screen.
- It’s a classic underdog story: Everybody loves an underdog, right? The story of creating a business from scratch, of rising to the top through sheer pluck — that’s a classic formula for success.
- It appeals to the core Netflix demographic: Finally, the story of someone in their early 20s searching for their bliss is something that should appeal perfectly to Netflix’s core demographic, the majority of whom are trendsetting types in their early to mid twenties. If it had existed at the time, Sophia would have watched a lot of Netflix.
The Problem With Sophia
Sophia may be the perfect lead for the Netflix demographic in theory, but in practice she was deeply problematic. The series starts with Sophia losing her job, which should have garnered sympathy for the character, except that frankly she deserved to be fired long before the opening episode. And this isn’t the only time that the audience fails to feel empathy for the character. Sophia is, at her core, just not a nice person in this series.
She wants to go to a job and get paid but doesn’t want to do any work. She spends all her time at work online and taking personal calls. She’s rude to her friends. She’s rude to service staff at stores. She’s horrible to her father, who seems to be trying his hardest to be patient with his entitled cow of a daughter. She’s also a thief and steals something in almost every early episode for no apparent reason. At one point, she jacks a carpet from a store. A carpet. And then swears at the person working there, before wandering off to the park. She’s selfish, late, and a godawful friend to bestie Annie.
All of these factors could still be salvageable, if Sophia had any redeeming qualities whatsoever, but she doesn’t. Netflix has found success with other unlikeable female leads in shows such as Love, Orange is the New Black, Jessica Jones — but these leads have something that Sophia doesn’t: The ability to inspire empathy. We feel for Love‘s Mickey and Jessica as they struggle with addiction and trauma. We pity OitNB‘s Piper as she becomes institutionalized and harsh. All these characters are flawed but trying their hardest, and aren’t trying to hurt the people around them. Sophia misses that mark, and instead comes across as someone who thinks that they are simply better than everyone else.
Binge-Watching And Getting Bored
Thankfully, Sophia does eventually manage to redeem herself somewhat. By the series midpoint, she has started to put effort into her life and stopped being such an almighty bitch to everyone around her. She also stops randomly thieving from everyone in sight, and we start to see the better side of her as her business begins to grow. She’s still unlikeable, but she becomes more intriguing than abrasive.
The first season is 13 episodes long, but Sophia doesn’t become a truly watchable character until around the halfway point, and few people are willing to watch six or seven episodes of a show that they aren’t enjoying. On a streaming service with thousands of other options available at a click, viewers usually make a decision to stick with a show somewhere between Episode 2 and 5 (with a few notable exceptions). If the show isn’t appealing within the first few episodes, then, chances are viewers are simply going to switch off. With Girlboss, this meant that by the time the series really found its feet, it had already lost its audience.
Learning From Girlboss
Luckily, Netflix is nothing if not adaptable, and while this is the end for Girlboss, there are plenty of lessons to be learned.
For one thing, while flawed and unlikeable female characters are a big draw for the streaming service, viewers still need a reason to root for them, or relate to them. At the very least, there needs to be a desire to respect them, to understand why they are like that, or to see them cast down. Female characters don’t have to be nice, but they have to be appealing, and an underdog story doesn’t work if everybody hates the underdog.
Thankfully, Netflix’s latest female-fronted offering is already proving that Girlboss was a blip, not a trend. GLOW, a comedy about women’s wrestling, is another underdog story with a largely unlikeable central character (a miserable and somewhat self-destructive actress who sleeps with her best friend’s husband). However, this is an unlikeable woman that inspires empathy, whose low points are inspired by anger at a sexist industry and by low self-esteem, and who screws up with (mostly) good intentions. Audiences don’t necessarily want to watch her succeed, but they do want to watch her, and that’s the point, after all.