“Gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss,” the parody of the phrase “live, laugh, love,” has taken social media by storm over the past year. One meme depicts wall art reading, “Gaslight every moment, Gatekeep every day, Girlboss beyond words” in a flourishing Script font and framed by flowers and butterflies. In a TikTok, a user has overlayed “gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss” audio with the Avatar the Last Airbender theme song. And while procrastinating studying for exams, one girl has started photoshopping the word “gaslight” (and other terms) onto Rae Dunn mugs, those cutesy household items that usually say things like “pour” and “tea.” She eventually made them into real mugs and started leaving them in HomeGoods stores.
But the trend is more than just a social media—and housewares—joke. It pokes fun at the toxic aspects of women’s empowerment and white feminism while also laying bare the covert ways those practices uphold the patriarchy. While the wall art and mugs are funny, the impetus behind the meme-worthy content has propelled the systemic barriers that affect women in the workplace to the limelight, allowing us to witness widespread awareness and destigmatization in real time.
Let’s discuss what it means to “gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss” and how the joke can become a source of empowerment.
What it means to ‘gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss’: breaking down the terms
First, let’s cover each individual term of the phrase, how these types of manipulation seep into the workplace, and what the terms mean collectively.
Gatekeeping refers to a dynamic where people in power limit other people’s access to social currency. Megan Peedin, a clinical social worker, describes gatekeeping as a way to solidify social hierarchy for people in privileged positions. “[Only] those who are ‘worthy’ are given the knowledge, tools, and greenlight to pass ‘go’ and enter through those gates. It’s seen in a variety of settings such as health care, academia, and business, and it prevents folks from accessing the next level, the next layer, the upper echelon.”
Like most forms of microaggressions, gatekeeping is most commonly targeted at women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups. Say a woman mentions to her male coworker that she loves football, and he responds with, "Oh yeah? Name four professional teams.” That’s a blatant example of sexist gatekeeping being used as a tool to cast doubt on someone and instill feelings of inferiority. Gatekeeping often reinforces the “lesser” status of members belonging to an already marginalized community.
It’s done by women to other women as well. White women are often gatekeepers at work, centering feminism around their experiences without taking diverse experiences into account. In the girlboss narrative, for instance, women are encouraged to work harder, to hustle, to advance by their own merit. But that tactic really only supports women in positions of privilege, and therefore lands more white women in leadership and management positions—keeping that social hierarchy intact. In an inclusive and intersectional feminist movement, access to paid leave, affordable child care, wage gaps, underpaid care work, misogyny, and more factors are addressed to help women across demographics rise.
Read more: Microaggressions Articles from InHerSight
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that occurs when an individual causes someone else to question their perception, feelings, understanding, or reality. And although it’s often thought of as a dynamic within a close relationship such as between partners, friends, siblings, or parents, gaslighting can most definitely occur in the workplace between coworkers or bosses and their subordinates.
An example of gaslighting might be when an individual is in the middle of an argument and the other person says something like, "You made me do this. You make me get so angry,” or "I never said that. Why are you making things up?” Peedin says it can leave you feeling like you need to apologize or trick you into thinking maybe you did blow something out of proportion. “You begin to second guess and question yourself. It’s a distraction from the other person's problematic behavior,” she says.
The term "girlboss" was popularized by Sophia Amoruso’s book, #Girlboss, and Peedin says the term generally describes women who are CEOs, who own their own companies, who are a part of MLMs (multi-level marketing), or who are rising in the ranks in a traditionally male-dominated space. But the notion of the girlboss is flawed.
Although the term was conceived in the name of feminism and the push for women’s advancement, the suggested philosophy of celebrating all women bosses became problematic when it stripped away accountability—when the symbolism of what a girlboss represented became more important than her real life beliefs and actions. It’s co-opting feminism to turn a profit, and behind the scenes, employees might experience the same kind of toxic work environments as any other company, woman-led or not.
Feminist author and poet Leigh Stein says, “A huge part of the problem is if you make feminism part of your brand, then your customers are going to say, ‘Wait a second. Are you a feminist company behind the scenes? Or is [it] just optics, like optical allyship?’”
Gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss
String all the terms together, and voila, you have a toxic workplace. Businesses like Nasty Gal and Glossier that flaunted themselves as inclusive environments built by girlboss leaders, actually hid and perpetuated gaslighting and gatekeeping behind all of the publicity.
Many of the employees at companies with so-called girlbosses at the helm, particularly women of color employees, have remained overlooked and overshadowed. AKA the very same girlbosses who have made feminism an integral part of their brands, have focused more on their own individual success and failed to address the systemic challenges that their own women employees are facing. In other words, you can be a girlboss at any cost.
“...such focus on women’s individual success allows the institutions within which the girlboss succeeds to avoid accountability as well. A good example of this would be the many companies which have recently started engaging in a strategy of corporate virtue-signaling—placing women in top positions or designing sleek empowerment-themed campaigns—whilst failing to tackle structural issues that affect the women working at lower levels of the corporate ladder,” writes Chloé Meley.
Read more: 8 Incredible Ways Women Impact Your Company
What the workplace stands to gain from ‘gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss’
“Gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss” is funny, no doubt. But the catchphrase represents more than a social media trend. It’s a playful and far-reaching way of educating people on toxic behavior and calling it out.
Memes are quick, memorable, digestible, and uncomplicated—they grab your attention and are an easy way to share a humorous take on some difficult topics, maybe topics you hadn’t been able to verbalize or even recognize in the past. In that way, memes can help promote social media activism. And due to the viral nature of memes, people who might not otherwise be aware of these types of manipulation like gatekeeping and gaslighting are able to see and understand these complex issues in a less pretentious and more relatable way.
Plus, calling out manipulative and toxic behavior is often difficult to do, especially when you feel like you’re alone and not heard. Memes often expose issues that many of us go through, but are too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about publicly because we think we’re the only one. In that sense, they create and foster a sense of community and can help individuals feel more empowered to call out manipulative behavior in and out of the workplace because they feel seen and understood by others going through the same challenges.
“It’s easy to laugh at something that feels outside of ourselves. It becomes a meme—a riff. With that being said, memes are relatable. Terms like ‘gatekeep, gaslight, and girlboss’ raise awareness of manipulative behavior because they become part of mainstream language. We see them [on social media], written in magazines, used in TV shows, and in podcasts. Our parents and children alike begin to understand this terminology,” says Peedin.
Once these terms become part of our mainstream language, it’s easier to understand what they really mean and how they’ve changed from inspirational to ironic over time.
Using ‘gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss’ to destigmatize is good, but here’s how to take that awareness a step further
Sure, memes are hilarious to scroll through and share with your coworkers during your work breaks, but there’s a deeper reason why humor is so instrumental to learning about and understanding complex societal issues. Humor opens our minds to new topics by allowing us to explore, question, laugh, and lean into what we don’t know.
Additionally, there’s usually some truth in humor. The reason why the “gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss” meme is funny is because it strikes a chord of relatability—it reveals the myth of the girlboss and how abusive behaviors like gatekeeping and gaslighting usually go hand in hand with the concept.
However, there are some limitations to using humor as a way to explore serious topics. “Humor can make it easier to approach a subject, though caution should be applied to this approach. Giving folks a chance to identify, acknowledge, and modify their manipulative behavior is one thing, but by solely using humor to challenge manipulation, you may inadvertently be permitting problematic behavior and minimizing its effects,” says Peedin.
Wondering how to actually challenge manipulation and girlbossery? It starts with learning how to stand up for yourself. If you’re a victim of gatekeeping, gaslighting, or girlbossery, keep these tips in mind:
Set goals and personal boundaries. Think about what you want to accomplish at your place of work, and then ask yourself, what type of behavior would prevent you from achieving your target goals? What would make you feel less psychologically safe at work? What would make you feel disrespected? What would contribute to burnout?
Write down specific instances of manipulation. Keep a paper trail of inappropriate behavior in a work journal in case you need to reference examples when standing up for yourself or bringing the issue to HR or the EEOC.
Learn how to say “no” professionally. When you’re being gaslit or excluded from places of power, it’s easy to question your own judgement and abilities. Once you’ve established your own personal boundaries, stick firmly to your instincts and learn to say no without feeling guilty.
And for allies, it’s your responsibility to use this newfound knowledge for good. Anytime you witness manipulation in the workplace, call it out—nothing will change until we actively stand up for injustice. For actionable tips on being an ally, watch Gloria Steinem’s To Future Generations of Women, You Are the Roots of Change TED Talk, where she explores intersectional feminism and explains how to advocate for other women.
About our source
Megan Peedin, MSW, LCSW, LCAS-A (she/her) is an LGBTQIA+ affirming licensed clinical worker and therapist serving folks virtually at Be Bold Psychology & Consulting. Megan specializes in trauma, grief and loss, substance use, life transitions, relationship stressors, anxiety, and depression.