At the height of her powers, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the fraudulent blood-testing start-up Theranos, basked in the kind of adulation typically reserved for cult leaders. In one upcoming episode from Hulu’s The Dropout, which dramatizes her saga, Elizabeth (played by Amanda Seyfried) perches on yet another stage, at yet another event about being a female CEO. Her every word scores cheers from the audience of college students, most of them young women. “There are always moments of doubt,” she says of her work ethic. “But as women, we have to start believing in ourselves … You have to make sure that if you’re out there and you have a new idea, you don’t listen to a single person who tells you that you can’t do it.”
Holmes’s words might as well have been ripped from the girlboss bible, if such a text existed. The ideology that women could storm into spaces traditionally dominated by men by “leaning in” defined the 2010s. Today, however, the term girlboss has become a joke while the notion that women can advance professionally through sheer confidence, determination, and hard work has been revealed to be a toxic one. Of late, Hollywood has released series after series about women who built enviable careers on a myth only to fail and fleece their followers in the process. In The Dropout, Holmes never saves a single life with her “revolutionary” health-care technology. In Netflix’s Inventing Anna, Anna Delvey ultimately hustles for nothing but unflattering court photos. And in AppleTV+’s WeCrashed, Rebekah Neumann, the wife of a WeWork co-founder, develops a so-called school that withers even before she exits the company.
Yet as entertaining as it may be to watch scammers get their comeuppance, these shows present a narrow perspective, focusing on relatively wealthy white women who exploit gender inequity for their own gain. Together they generate a sense that, for those who reach the top, disaster is inevitable, idealism is a trait to be pitied, and preaching empowerment is a path to flaming out. Watching them back-to-back—as I have, given their debuts within weeks of one another—gave me whiplash. Only last year was Disney giving a famous villain a girlboss makeover; five years ago, Netflix was touting a series about the rise of the entrepreneur who coined the term. Must anything about female leaders result in either fervent applause or fierce condemnation? Can a Goldilocks-style medium be achieved without making Goldilocks herself the next pop-feminist hero or source of schadenfreude?
As it turns out, two new half-hour comedies are proving themselves observant where the prestige dramas are not. HBO Max’s Minx, about the founding of a Playgirl-like porn magazine for women, and ABC’s Abbott Elementary, about the staff at an underfunded public school in Philadelphia, depict the trials of being a woman who’s driven, idealistic, and empowered. But these shows also maintain a warmth and sincerity that are missing from the sensational retellings of major scandals. Both emphasize the satisfaction that can come with cooperation and negotiation, not just the thrill of winning over a room of naysayers. Both consider the sexism and misogyny that can sway a woman’s principles, without turning such challenges into the only obstacles their leads face. The two series offer reminders that female leadership isn’t just about having enough conviction to win over skeptics; it’s also about women confronting where their distrust comes from while looking out for one another and for solutions that lead to meaningful change.
Minx, which streams a new episode every Thursday, centers on a young feminist writer and editor named Joyce (played by Ophelia Lovibond) who, if the show weren’t taking place in Los Angeles in the 1970s, would probably have been in the audience at one of Holmes’s talks. Joyce shares her love of idols—if Holmes sought to embody the spirit of Steve Jobs, Joyce daydreams about befriending Gloria Steinem—as well as her self-assurance. She’s certain there’s an audience for a magazine that covers subjects such as birth control but quickly learns that her publication can’t operate in its current form, as a collection of pedantic screeds, if she wants anyone to read it. By the end of the first episode, Joyce does what Elizabeth (and Anna and Rebekah) could not: She agrees to rethink her idea, accepting that her stories have to be sandwiched between spreads of sexy firefighters in order to be published.
The comedy grapples with the difficulties and rewards of such a decision, finding humor in Joyce’s struggle to ensure she’s only compromising, not conceding, her vision. Her feminist beliefs collide with those of the male-run publishing industry, but Minx never reduces her critics to villains hell-bent on questioning her instincts. Her most frequent sparring partner, her publisher Doug (Jake Johnson), is clearly more knowledgeable about the porn business than she is, and the hurdles Joyce faces are more complicated than that of being a woman in a man’s world. In one episode, she must decide whether to woo an advertiser who runs the country club at which her family has a membership. Like Elizabeth and Rebekah, Joyce comes from wealth and has access to a simple solution to the magazine’s financial problems, but unlike the dramas, Minx interrogates the dignity of such a self-serving move. In this week’s episode, she must learn to trust the opinions of her employees and come to terms with how her attitude affects her staff’s morale. Watching Joyce become a manager who can communicate with and fight for her workers may not be as thrilling as watching a con fall apart, but Joyce’s arc helps set her apart from the stereotypical, platitude-spouting figures who sell feminism but fail to do the work required.
On the opposite end of the male-nudity spectrum is the breakout freshman sitcom Abbott Elementary, which returns from its hiatus today and has scored a second season. The show tackles similar questions of how ego and empowerment inform female leadership by following Janine (played by the series creator, Quinta Brunson), a teacher and classic overachiever intent on proving her worth. Janine works overtime for her students and has an unshakable, Leslie Knope–ian enthusiasm for her job. This causes her to clash often with Ava (an excellent Janelle James), the principal, who’s less interested in working hard than she is in working comfortably, but who’s preoccupied all the same with her image as a thriving boss.
As a sitcom airing on a broadcast network, Abbott Elementary follows a traditional storytelling structure that allows it to deliver tidy takeaways about teamwork. But in Janine and Ava’s diametrically opposed takes on their jobs, the show thoughtfully explores how pure nerve and fortitude can manifest in radically different ways. The series never judges Ava for being more of a slacker than Janine, nor does it elevate Janine as an example of the perfect teacher. Abbott Elementary is at its most charming and insightful when they’re forced to work together or be in agreement. One particularly sharp episode finds Ava introducing the staff to new software for reading lessons meant to make the school appear more technologically advanced, and Janine then toils to master the tool for her class. When Ava learns that the program is actually collecting data for a study on the relationship between incarceration and early reading levels, she and Janine are horrified by the implications for their mostly Black student body. Abbott Elementary thus posits that their contrasting work ethics have their own benefits and faults—and that just because one problem is solved by the episode’s end doesn’t mean that either of them has figured out a foolproof strategy for steering the school past every issue.
Shows like The Dropout aren’t wholly focused on examining female leaders, but they do wring tension from the way their real-life subjects bought into a misguided ideology. Minx and Abbott Elementary may follow fictional protagonists, but they’re similarly informed by the girlboss concept’s recent reckoning. While the dramas prioritize sensationalism, the comedies challenge their heroines’ perspective to incisive effect. Success, the two series suggest, doesn’t come from insisting upon one’s ideas and abilities at all costs; collaboration and self-awareness are as valuable as confidence and ambition have been. The recent deluge of shows about scammers come packed with glitzy storytelling and outrageous performances, but they pay far too much attention to the wrongdoers, the ones who broke the glass ceiling by turning to deceit. With Minx and Abbott Elementary, women who hustle without becoming hustlers themselves are getting a chance to redefine what achievement means—even if that work can’t be distilled into an inspirational sound bite.