The Double-Edged Sword of “Women’s Empowerment”

Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini epitomizes the empty "girlboss" ethos, exemplified by the company's handling of NWHL harassment this week.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here

“A girlboss is feminism but make it capitalism,” as comedian Jamie Loftus puts it in her show “Boss, Whom Is Girl” — a show I think about every time I’m confronted with the sports world’s fixation on the idea that women’s inclusion is inherently positive. The rise of the #girlboss is the logical endpoint of ‘90s-era “girl power” as much as it is a response to the pressures of late capitalism and white women’s feedback loop of white-collar workplace grievances: If a woman does something that women conventionally (meaning, within the cisgender norms of the 200 years or so since the Industrial Revolution) haven’t done, that is worthy of celebrating as a moral victory regardless of what the thing is, and any other detail about that woman or how many people she may have exploited to accomplish it. 

It is coming up-by-your-bootie straps, if you will. A band-aid for the systemic inequality that even cis straight white women still undoubtedly face that hinges on their ability to replicate that inequality, only with them at the top. Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 self-help book Lean In may be the definitive girlboss document, a how-to on embracing the toxic hierarchy of corporate America shrouded in feminist language, insisting that you too can be at the helm of, say, a platform that will be remembered for its singular ability to foster far-right extremism and white supremacy (all while racking up billions in personal profit).

“Empowered” women, through that lens, is a quite literal phrase, translating to those women who have power over others. It’s a kind of capitalistic self-actualization that only women and minorities are required to seek out, creating an ostensibly self-made divide: the empowered and those seeking empowerment; the inspiring and those in need of inspiration; the badass (for some reason, all women who defy expectation are “badass”) and the…regular.

Equality becomes individually aspirational instead of collectively possible. The girlboss model allows brands to sell you a way to end sexism that not only completely ignores that gender is a social construct and that not all non-cis-men’s plights are identical, but somehow only requires you to do any work or spend any money. The corporations, markets, and governing bodies around you are immovable realities to be overcome, not changed. To fully realize your own liberation, you must be extraordinary, and the only proof of that status is in the money you’ve earned attaining it.

To fully realize your own liberation, you must be extraordinary, and the only proof of that status is in the money you’ve earned attaining it.

The sports world has long sold women’s sports as a case study in women’s empowerment; tried to turn its athletes’ real progress in subverting and challenging long entrenched gender norms into an easily scalable line on an ad dek. The result has not been a wholehearted embrace of women in sports, but rather the establishment of the idea that watching women play sports is like eating your vegetables: unpleasant, but necessary for “the next generation,” our growth as a society, the eventual smashing of that ever-higher glass ceiling, etc. 

It also emphasizes what’s transgressive about women playing sports to an extent that’s ahistorical. If women have been playing baseball since it started, maybe none of them are “badass” — maybe they’re just women who play baseball, great athletes who have to overcome disproportionate obstacles to play their sport because, in our eagerness to highlight their singular experiences and strengths, we forget that a woman alone will always be the exception rather than the rule.

Framing women playing sports as “empowering” more than just “fun to watch” or “impressive,” in the way we might with men, suggests that the intrinsic value of their play is secondary to those whom it might inspire or empower or badassify. It also drives home the idea that only badasses need apply, that if you weren’t successful in sports or sports media it was because you were not badass or empowered enough, not because of the numerous systemic hurdles you may have had to overcome to make it. 

This ideology creates a miraculous catch-22 where every Woman is beyond reproach simply for her Womanhood — and as a result, somehow, a woman can be sexist for calling another woman sexist, and on and on. Within it lies a safe space for a particular kind of woman, a woman who might use her gender as a cudgel when it’s convenient and ignore whatever shared experience might tie her to less-enfranchised people when it’s not. The success of Kelly Loeffler and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Amy Coney Barrett is at least partially attributable to the current mythology that women are Actually universally better leaders than men, and the ability to decry any criticism of their systematically harmful behavior as discriminatory. They are women in power in a man’s world, after all.

token ceo podcast art

Few epitomize this perverse logic better than Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini, who has made a whole career — and now, personal brand — out of being the Girl At The Table. Hired essentially as a superficial inoculation against perpetual criticism of the company’s (still abundant) sexism, Nardini has fully embraced its Martyrs For MAGA complex (Barstool’s long history of enabling sexist, racist, homophobic and generally abhorrent behavior is too long to list here; one needs only to Google it). 

Her podcast is literally called Token CEO, presumably because Girl Boss was already taken; its logo is a woman wearing a pink tie. Nardini manufactured news this week by sic’ing her followers on women’s hockey reporters and NWHL staff who expressed untagged concern about NWHL players appearing on said podcast, given Barstool’s general mantra, “It’s Really Hilarious To Be A Bigot.” 

Yes, Nardini, who has 225,000 Twitter followers, went to the trouble to search “barstool” and “nwhl,” screencap tweets from people with substantially smaller followings, and make a video to chronicle them — all for the purposes of Dunking on her Haters. It’s profoundly stupid, and textbook Barstool: punch down by directing your massive following to harass dissenters, and then when you’re called out, claim that you, in fact, are the victim. 

The video and the harassment of longtime women’s hockey writers and supporters that ensued prompted the league to officially denounce it, and Nardini’s alleged desire to buy an NWHL team. That, of course, only fueled Barstool’s fire. Now all of the company’s platforms, including many that would literally never talk about women’s sports, much less women’s hockey, otherwise, have fixated on how Nardini is being unfairly treated — yes, how the fragile women’s hockey league is somehow perpetrating harm on the multimillionaire CEO.

Nevermind that Saroya Tinker, the first player to speak out in support of the reporters and fans who were being harassed by Stoolies and one of the NWHL’s few Black players, has had her name dragged all over the platform — including by founder Dave Portnoy, who said she should be “in jail.” Or that people with little recourse are facing death threats and constant harassment at Nardini’s behest. Or that Barstool has printed several new shirts inspired by the whole fiasco, including one that says “Barstool Women’s Hockey League,” that they are presumably selling for a tidy profit.

All of these threads come together with the most alarming part of the whole situation: the (white, cis) players who have so far chosen to support Barstool, rather than their Black teammate or any of the women reporters whose work has helped grow the league for years. It’s with them that we see the glass ceiling on “women’s empowerment” — that a trait you share with half the population breeds no alliance or unified mission beyond one of convenience. 

These players are paragons of so-called empowerment; they are badasses and girl bosses, playing on a rink men have long fought to keep them off of. Yet here they are, actively working against those who would seek a broader, more inclusive model of solidarity. That myth — the badassery — we’re selling women’s sports with is hollow and patronizing, and not just disconnected from the very real ways in which they can promote positive change but quite tangibly counterproductive, forcing a unified theory of womanhood driven by market value.

Nardini has done what girl bosses do: use their power to turn a systemic problem — in this case, women’s hockey’s fight for survival and acceptance — into fuel for a personal grievance. She is, as Maitreyi Anantharaman described Kelly Loeffler in a recent Defector column, a “businesswoman empowered to believe that making money and chasing self-interest are the work of the feminist cause.” 

What the NWHL has already done in rejecting her, though, is evidence of a new women’s sports world beyond “empowerment” — beyond success at any cost, beyond a cisgendered fixation that inevitably hinges on long outdated assumptions and stereotypes. It’s the seeds of the women’s (and men’s) leagues that could be: ones that prioritize radical inclusivity while centering the sports themselves, rather than the gender of the people playing them.