Unpacking what it means to 'gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss'

What can we learn from these three buzzwords fall from grace?

by James Greig
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12 July 2021, 7:00am

In 2021, sincere discourse online becomes subverted very quickly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rise of "gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss" memes. A parody of everyone's least favourite motivational adage, "live, laugh, love", it began with a Tumblr post in January (followed in tow by its lesser known counterpart "manipulate, mansplain, malewife"). But what does it actually mean?

Vox piece published earlier this year suggested that the meme represents a cultural rebuttal of the girlboss archetype, with the latter two phrases being used more or less in earnest -- in other words, that gaslighting and gatekeeping are inextricable parts of being a girlboss. A Refinery29 article, meanwhile, argued that the phrase represents "a counter-meme against the overwhelming pressure to forge ahead, to progress at all costs, to be a cog in a wheel that refuses to stop spinning — as if that greed for constant growth and 'progress' didn't land us here in the first place."

I'm not entirely convinced by either explanation. In general, memes tend to be more absurdist than didactic and rarely articulate a singular, coherent point. More than anything, "gaslight, girlboss, gatekeep" is a series of buzzwords strung together at random -- that's why it's funny. Suppose it conveys a weariness with the term girlboss, this also applies to gatekeep and gaslight -- two actually useful concepts which have been reduced to the realm of nonsense by the discourse machine that is the internet (as the Vox piece acknowledged, "Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss functions as more of an ironic 'yeesh' at how embarrassingly enthusiastic we all were to jump on the buzzword bandwagon.") Let us consider, then, how the internet changes language over time, as told through the history of three annoying buzzwords.

Girlboss

Girlboss was coined in 2014 by Nasty Gal founder Sophie Amuroso (her eventual memoir was titled #Girlboss; the same name she gave to her media company) and quickly grew to become a cultural phenomenon. People really did take it seriously for a while, but it's been a long time since the term has been used in an earnest or aspirational way. It's been renounced by just about all of its former adherents, which makes sense when you understand that being plugged into the zeitgeist and an early adopter of cultural trends is a necessary component of being a girlboss in the first place. For the most part, it's now used in mockery, although some erstwhile girlbosses have already begun the hard task of reclaiming the title in a self-deprecating way. In that sense, it could end up being the new "basic": a term with negative connotations which people nonetheless use about themselves with a nudge and a wink (if you look at the #girlboss on Instagram, there is still a fair amount of sincere usage, but this is normie-led and therefore beyond the scope of this article.)

The term girlboss died in large part because all such trends inevitably do, but the animosity it inspired speaks to a growing boredom with representational politics: more and more women became sceptical of the idea that individual success has anything to do with emancipation on a larger scale. A string of high profile controversies among women-led companies, from Nasty Gal to women-only private member's club The Wing (both accused of perpetuating toxic work environments), only confirmed the suspicion that woman capitalists could be just as exploitative and ruthless as their male counterparts. The girlboss became entwined with "white feminism" or "liberal feminism", typified by shallow representational politics and a focus on individual empowerment. This increasingly unfashionable school of feminism has been subject to a number of high-profile critiques over the last five years, as well as being diminished by one too many stocking filler books with titles like Obnoxious Broads and Insufferable Dames.

Liberal feminism might be more or less as popular as it always has been, but it's certainly unusual to hear the term used in a positive sense. For the people who subscribe to it, it's just "feminism." Despite the marked decline of the girlboss, the corporate ideology from which she sprang is still very much alive today. Consider this viral post about a CEO who arranges her app folders as positive affirmations like "I am productive", "I am educated", and "I am rich". She might as well have added "I girlboss", "I gatekeep", "I gaslight".

Gaslight

Next, we move onto gaslighting. Unlike girlboss, this began as something more than a buzzword. Named after a 1938 Patrick Hamilton play, Gas Light, in which a man attempts to drive his wife insane by altering her perception of reality, it has been in common usage for decades as a term describing a specific type of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is, I think, a real thing, and it's worth having a word to pinpoint this pattern of behaviour -- but it has been afflicted by "concept creep", through which its meaning has expanded to include any number of behaviours. Today it has largely become a fancy way of saying "lying". It has moved from the interpersonal to the public sphere. One of the most famous examples of this tendency was a wildly viral Teen Vogue article headlined "Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America". But was he? Or was he simply lying?

It's true that the falsehoods of politicians are sometimes so egregious that gaslighting might feel like a fitting descriptor, but, for the most part, politicians are just guilty of plain old dishonesty. This is a bad enough trait for a public servant to embody; we don't need an inflated term with which to describe it. This process of inflation also makes the word less effective at describing the behaviour to which it originally referred. Certainly, if I were to experience genuine gaslighting in a personal relationship now, I'd be wary of describing it in those terms. Now, it just sounds a bit silly. It's reached the point of no return, and I suspect there's no going back. RIP gaslighting: killed by a thousand overreaching think pieces.

Gatekeep

Gatekeeping is perhaps the least ubiquitous of the three terms in question, but as with gaslighting it refers to something important, or rather a series of important things. In the UK, it's a term that relates to housing and the practice of local authorities refusing to house homeless people when they have a duty to do so. For trans people, medical gatekeeping means the inability to access the healthcare you need without going through a potentially unsympathetic and obstructive third party. It is a serious form of oppression and one which is mirrored in some forms of medical fatphobia. Less seriously, it's used in relation to an annoying type of behaviour in which people attempt to police who else likes the things they like, with the assumption being that other people's interests are an affectation. The classic example would be storming up to someone in a Nirvana T-shirt and asking them to name three songs, but my personal favourite is when Jeremy Corbyn said he liked Ulysses and someone challenged him to a competitive close reading session.

But like gaslighting, gatekeeping has also fallen victim to concept creep and can now be used to describe any kind of disparaging opinion whatsoever. Expressing any view not stridently in favour of mass culture, for example, risks seeing you branded a gatekeeper. Take the backlash levelled at poor old Martin Scorsese when he (not inaccurately) compared Marvel films to theme park rides. The director was accused of gatekeeping what is and isn't real cinema, even though it excluded no one. In effect, gaslighting and gatekeeping are both now regularly used to mean "someone saying something I don't like". Language changes and this isn't necessarily a problem, but in this instance, it does risk diminishing the utility of two concepts that once had value. Maybe, in the face of this, we'll have to invent new words to talk about what gatekeeping and gaslighting used to mean before social media got its grubby little hands on them.

As linguist Gretchen McCulloch writes in her book Because InternetUnderstanding the New Rules of Language, "creating, sharing, or laughing at a meme is staking a claim to being an insider: I am a member of internet culture, it says, and if you don't get this, then you aren't." Creating memes out of the stuff of sincere discourse is a way of signposting that we are aware of when trends become passé, even if there remains a sizeable contingent of normies who haven't got the memo. Being the first to recognise when something has become a cliche is its own form of cultural capital. But something risks being lost when all forms of language are liable to be reduced to gibberish so quickly. All popular phrases, however valuable or trivial they were to begin with, meet with the same fate: chewed up and spat out by the relentless, devouring, and ultimately quite tedious maw of the internet.

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