Rumors of the #GIRLBOSS’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. But after two years of headlines circling like vultures, summer 2022 seems to be the final chapter of a decade in corporate feminism thanks to high-profile departures by Meta’s Sheryl Sandberg and Glossier’s Emily Weiss. The cause of death remains unknown: the pandemic, America’s racial reckoning, and the maturation of Gen Z likely all played a part. But it’s clear this strain of commoditized feminism which sought to transform assertiveness in the workplace into a virtue has given way to a new era of gender politics in corporate America.
What follows this trend remains unclear. But as we trudge ahead, it’s useful to re-evaluate culture that cut against the grain of its time, like Nancy Meyers’ The Intern. While the workplace comedy received a largely pleasant reception from critics and audiences in 2015, commentary and chatter around the film that prioritized ideological interpretation over aesthetic analysis tarnished its reputation. When viewed as a reaction against its time rather than a product of it, the merits of Meyers’ work emerge as a wise warning against the era’s naïve optimism.
Many have credited Nancy Meyers as the most accomplished female filmmaker in Hollywood. As a female writer and director making films about women whose concerns rarely receive consideration in the frame, she’s carved out a rare auteur status within the studio comedy. But while many point to her success as evidence of a male-dominated industry ready for gender equity, she understands her position more correctly as an exception that proves the rule.
Listen or read an interview with Meyers, and she will inevitably throw cold water on a triumphalist reading of increased visibility of female directors leading to real change. “I can’t say I’m here to say it’s a different world, it’s way easier … is it?” she asked a group of USC students in 2020. “I think it’s probably a little easier, but it should be by now way easier.” This is not kneejerk pessimism, but a view rooted in decades of facing heightened obstacles. For example, she had a clause written into her contract on Private Benjamin that she was not allowed to be on set without one of her two male producer counterparts present to “supervise” despite them receiving equal billing.
A career full of experiences like this informs her perspective throughout The Intern as filtered through the triumphs and tribulations of Anne Hathaway’s Jules Ostin, founder and CEO of e-commerce startup About the Fit. She and her company are right out of #GIRLBOSS central casting, with a direct-to-consumer selling model that provided a mirage of triumphing over capitalistic gatekeepers when it simply went around them. The film’s conflict largely derives from the fact that, to put it coarsely, Jules can’t capitalism good. She knows how to start a business, but her board lacks confidence that she can scale it. Much to the chagrin of an inveterate control freak, she must entertain offloading her role as CEO to a more seasoned professional – the same fate that befell Weiss at Glossier.
It’s clear what Meyers thinks about the idea of Jules “having it all” long before the film’s climax arrives: she believes it’s both impossible and impractical. The glossy #GIRLBOSS fantasy does not pass muster in her reality check. While Jules leads from her heart and always receives the benefit of the doubt, the film does not hold back from showing the damage caused by thinking her willpower and vision alone can hold everything together. She’s unplugged from her company culture, oblivious to the exploits of her philandering husband, and kept at an increasing distance from the user experience-based work that made her online store an overnight success. Individualism might provide the spark to start Jules’ business, but it’s not enough to save her in the end.
Meyers throws out any number of recognizable gripes about gendered messaging in the corporate world, with Jules and other characters quick to call out the double standards for women. But underneath those familiar critiques lies a more nuanced structural critique, stemming from Meyers’ decades of experience striving for recognition inside a system that elevated mediocre men while requiring exceptionalism from women. Meyers calls BS on the #GIRLBOSS guiding ethos, recognizing an individualistic solution cannot remedy a systemic problem. It’s telling that Jules looks to blame herself as the root of all her woes rather than critique a system that wants her to ape male aggressive expansion to continue growing her business.
In the film’s final act, Jules settles on a new CEO only to backtrack at the last minute following an emotional plea from her husband to reconsider. He roots his appeal entirely in personal terms: Jules will never be happy in work, marriage, or life if she feels forced to execute someone else’s vision. Her moment of empowerment to presumably keep control (Meyers never actually makes Jules’ decision explicit) hardly feels like a rousing victory, because the film declines to make an implied correlation between sentimental and structural triumph. One woman’s personal victory is not a rising tide lifting all boats. Jules’ rediscovered confidence will not necessarily inspire the faith of her board or even the faithfulness of her partner. The dissonance of the moment rings with the hollowness Meyers locates in a corporate climate that expects the world of women and provides scant infrastructure to support them in return.
The Intern assumes the bittersweet tenor of Meyers’ screenwriting idol, Billy Wilder, who often undercut his endings with ironic twists that complicated an easily moralistic read. There’s a vaguely expressed hope that things can change with little expectation that they will. Such ambiguity did not make it through to many writers at the time, who made it clear they expected a storybook ending to this story of women in business from a woman who herself had made it. Virtually all contemporaneous thinkpieces made a point to praise Meyers’ career before eventually landing on a note of personal betrayal best expressed by Vogue: “What should have been a movie I really identified with ended up just pissing me off.”
Writers did not hesitate to view it through the prevailing paradigm of its release; look no further than headlines in Bitch Media and Flavorwire, both of which tied The Intern to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” a foundational text of the #GIRLBOSS movement. “She can make an incredibly feminist statement and then just wipe it out in her next breath,” wrote Women in Hollywood, as if such paradoxes were a bug rather than a feature of The Intern. Many writers expected wish-fulfillment or a manifesto and evaluated it as such, ignoring that Meyers made a movie meant to explore issues rather than resolve them. The thinkpiece era, which conflated the moral dimension of art with its storytelling success, was uniquely ill-suited to grapple with the contradictory and counterintuitive commentary of the film.
The Intern does not pretend to contain the answers to creating true gender parity in corporate America. However, Meyers was wise enough to recognize at the zenith of the #GIRLBOSS moment that girl-power and grit alone were not some kind of salve. A generation of burnt-out millennials is finding out the hard way, just like she did, that a system built on the skepticism of women cannot serve as a vehicle for their liberation. It’s time audiences started engaging with the ideas in Nancy Meyers’ work as fervently as they do her costumes and décor. Her weariness of self-congratulatory representational feminism pinpointed a key flaw of the Obama-era cultural mindset: a mistaking of superficial change for structural change.
“The Intern” is available for rental or purchase.