Sophia Marlowe, the protagonist of the Netflix series Girlboss, is so unlikable. Based on the life of Sophia Amoruso, the founder of online retail site Nasty Gal, Girlboss is a dramatized version of the fashion brand's start in the early 2000s and its main character isn't afraid to step on anyone's feelings to make a name for herself. It's hard not to think that someone is unlikable when that someone eats her boss' sandwich right in front of her, engages in petty theft whenever it suits her, embarrasses her boyfriend at work, and generally puts herself first in all scenarios to the detriment of others. Girlboss really makes no effort to humanize its protagonist until the final few episodes. For 10 episodes, the majority of the season, Sophia is an a**hole, and not the kind you still want to root for. But, here's the thing — you're supposed to hate Sophia in Girlboss. In fact, the actor who plays her, Britt Robertson, practically demands it.
"I think that's sort of the point to the show, to be honest with you. Because she is [unlikable], it's a part of what the story is," Robertson says, sitting in a tall director's chair at Bustle HQ, getting her makeup touched up for her impending '70s glam photo shoot. Her height in the chair is forcing me to ask all my questions while looking up at her, which I can only imagine Sophia Marlowe would relish. "She can't make her way in life because nobody understands her story or gets who she is," Robertson continues. "She's not a traditional female heroine. But, you know, I think it's all fair. You can feel however you want to feel about the character."
That's good news for the people who hate her. On Netflix, the member reviews are largely negative, with most users complaining that they couldn't make it past Episode 1 and several stating that they gave up on Sophia's self-indulgent journey after just 10 minutes. If those drop-off numbers from the reviews hold true, that's down from typical Netflix viewing. In 2014, The Atlantic reported that the average Netflix viewer watches 2.3 episodes before taking a break, according to a survey the company commissioned from Harris Interactive.
Perhaps audiences are reacting negatively because it's extremely hard to connect to Sophia right off the bat. Even with the most villainous of anti-heroes, there's usually something redeeming about the character that allows viewers to root for their journey. It's unusual to see a protagonist so universally and vehemently hated. But it makes sense that audiences feel that way about Sophia — especially since she doesn't seem to care about anyone besides herself. Even her best friend, Annie, carries the weight of Sophia's ego — like when Annie tells Sophia that she wants to be in Sophia's Top 8 on MySpace (the ultimate sign of status in the '00s). The Top 8 means everything to Annie, but Sophia initially insists on filling her best friend's spot with business contacts. In a way, Nasty Gal is Sophia's best friend and only love, and she'll step on anyone and everyone to make it successful.
Or, maybe it was challenging for some to relate to Sophia because of the real-life story behind the fictionalized character. The real Sophia Amoruso is familiar to many both as the founder of Nasty Gal, the author of the bestseller #Girlboss, and the woman whose name has been in the news often. In June of 2015, Jezebel reported that an ex-employee filed a lawsuit claiming that Nasty Gal was “a horrible place to work for professional women who become pregnant" and alleged that the company fired her and three other women because, as Jezebel reported, the company allegedly "systematically and illegally terminates pregnant employees, without offering them the four months of unpaid leave guaranteed for new mothers under California law." At the time, a Nasty Gal spokesperson issued Jezebel the following statement:
The accusations made in the lawsuits are false, defamatory and taken completely out of context. The layoffs in question were part of a larger restructuring of departments we completed over nine months ago. The lawsuits are frivolous and without merit.
The lawsuit was later settled "in private arbitration proceedings," according to Jezebel. Later, more allegations about the company's working environment came out, with Buzzfeed reporting that "multiple sources described the environment as 'toxic,'" and anonymous Glassdoor reviews criticizing the company and its former CEO (Amoruso had stepped down in January 2015). In November 2016, Forbes reported that Nasty Gal was filing for bankruptcy and, in February 2017, BooHoo Group purchased the company. It continues to sell clothing under its original Nasty Gal name.
Bearing this in mind, Robertson's job of portraying a character viewers could understand was hard from the get go, especially for people already familiar with the real, controversial Amoruso. But, even though Sophia Marlowe is a fictionalized version of the Nasty Gal creator, Robertson didn't draw huge distinctions in her dramatized portrayal of an actual person. "I don't know if we ever made a conscious effort to draw a line and make sure that they were different. I think we used the best parts of her, the most accessible parts of the real Sophia ... but then beefed it up for entertainment purposes; so it's a comedy," Robertson says. "But in terms of what we didn't want to use from the real-life Sophia, that wasn't really a conversation that was had."
It's been a rough few years for the real Nasty Gal brand, and, by extension, Amoruso. But Robertson claims she didn't know anything about workplace allegations when she signed on to take the role and seems to be unclear as to what they are during her Bustle interview in late April. After hearing some of the accusations, Robertson maintains that she can't comment without also hearing Amoruso's side. "For me, I don't know enough about any of those stories to comment on it specifically, because I don't even know both sides. [The] most important [thing] is having both sides," she says.
That appears to be the same approach Robertson has taken to portraying her character, and she admires that which makes her Sophia flawed in others' eyes.
"What Sophia's done and accomplished in her life is that she's completely gone rogue. She doesn't really conform to any ideals, and she doesn't really want to take a traditional path," Robertson says, barely moving her lips as powder is applied to set her face. The makeup artist is blocking my view of Robertson, slightly, but there's no mistaking the passion she has when speaking about her misunderstood role. "That leaves her a little guarded and a little angry at the world, but still very passionate. And I think she takes it out on a lot of the people around her when she doesn't really necessarily trust that they have her back and see her vision of the world and want to support her."
It's not until Episode 11, when you meet Sophia's mom, that you start to see why she is this way — her mother left Sophia and her father when Sophia was a child to pursue her own dream of being a stage actor. Sophia's only female role model is someone who rejected all the people in her life to serve herself. Once Episodes 12 and 13 roll around and (SPOILER ALERT) her once-lovable boyfriend Shane turns out to be cheating and unsupportive, it's clear that the pain Sophia has endured has closed her off to people and to outside help. She has to do it on her own, and she's doing it well, but definitely not nicely.
Unfortunately, there aren't any hints at this growth in the first 10 episodes, so viewers who hate Sophia and stopped the series didn't make it that far. For most people, it's not, as Robertson claims "very much a show that I would love to throw on and binge." But, it's absolutely necessary that a viewer does marathon the entire thing to understand Sophia's journey.
Robertson understands the urge to reject who Sophia is and how she behaves — but because she believes that's on the audience, not Sophia. "I think they're just identifying with things that they don't like about themselves necessarily or that they don't like in females maybe. But I really don't think that it's the female-male thing. That would be stupid."
Unfortunately, women are judged unfairly and hated for behavior we may accept in men. And, even though Sophia does invite unlikability upon herself, the audience response to her is much different than I've seen from male antiheroes. When you compare how viewers treated characters like Don Draper from Mad Men or Walter White from Breaking Bad to how characters like Hannah from Girls or Skyler White from Breaking Bad are treated, it becomes abundantly clear that passion for an unlikable character only extends so far. We watch hateable men and talk about how much we love them, but we watch hateable women and talk about how much we hate them. And, when your show is called Girlboss, the gender comparisons build themselves — but Robertson doesn't want to talk about Sophia on those terms.
"That's a good question, I don't know," she says when I ask her if Sophia's character would get so much hate if she were a man. She adds, "I guess no one would really be able to say."
And maybe not. One could certainly guess that some of the roadblocks Sophia faces would have melted away (like her inability to get an office without her father co-signing the loan), but Robertson doesn't want to assume that.
"I hate to be the person that's like, 'Well, if she was a man...' Because I do think it's important that we understand that everyone has roadblocks in the world regardless of age, gender, sexuality, whatever it is," she says. "Everyone's got a roadblock and I think you have to barrel through it."
While I agree that different people face different roadblocks, I want to try to get Robertson to acknowledge how gender does factor into this show. I try again.
"I don't know. It's a good question," she says for the second time when I ask why she thinks characters on the show and viewers at home feel threatened by a woman acting in stereotypically masculine ways in a position of power. "I think in general, when there's a person of power or confidence or there's a force — that person tends to absorb all the energy in the room. And that can be a little threatening to anyone, regardless of gender or age or whatever."
Robertson wants to give Sophia credit for barreling through those challenges and building her empire through just her own determination, not because she was a woman in business. "I just feel like her specific mindset ... she's just the perfect person to become successful in that way," Robertson says. "Regardless of gender, I don't know that anyone else would have been able to [build her business] the way that she had."
Again, maybe that's true. But for all her insistence not to pull gender into the conversation, Robertson thinks that Sophia made her success in a very female-oriented business.
"I think it was a really specific market that was maybe catered to females. Her success through eBay would've probably not have been that of a male at that time, just because it wasn't really made for that. You know, [men aren't] sitting and looking at beautiful garments and trying to recreate them," she pauses, seeming to realize that she committed to something regarding gender so she quickly qualifies it. "Or maybe they are."
For a show that seeks to show that a "girl" can be a "boss," it's surprising that Robertson appears to believe Sophia was successful in fashion largely because she was a woman and not a man — even though there are many male designers and fashion lovers.
All in all, for as much as critics may have treated the show as an exploration in gender roles to critique and dissect, Robertson doesn't see that as the message of the series.
"I think it was meant to sort of give Sophia a platform and this type of person a platform and really uplift people who feel like they don't have their resources to make their dreams come true," the actor says. "She did it with nothing; it really was just her mindset that made her a special case and a special scenario. So, I think if anything, the real point of this show is just to empower people — and women — to lift each other up and to support one another despite differing opinions."
She continues, "It's not like everyone's going out to [set up] an eBay page, you know? It's supposed to inspire things that make you happy and you're passionate about. And if [you're inspired by] treating people with the utmost respect or whatever it may be, then cool. That's your new passion. Go out there and be frickin' nice," she says, and for a moment Sophia Marlowe is in the room with me, seemingly mocking people for their sincerity.
As for her own dramatized character, Robertson hopes that she'll also continue to have growth if Netflix renews the show for a second season. She's likely to get that wish, because Girlboss creator Kay Cannon told Thrillist that there's potential to show not just the wins, but the losses in Sophia Marlowe's career. "I don't know how far I would go in the second season but ... if Netflix were to give me more than two, we would see the fall of her too ... she basically lost her company and she's 32 years old. We're not telling a fairy tale," Cannon told the outlet.
It's that rise and fall that Robertson is really attracted to in the fictional Sophia, and what she's eager for audiences to understand — especially those who maybe didn't give Sophia a chance in Season 1. "She's constantly making up for the crappy mistakes," she says of her character. "She's still, at the core, the same person that you see in the flashback episodes, essentially. But she's learned, and that's kind the point of the character all along is that she's learned, she's growing up, she's figuring it out, she realizes that you can't treat people horribly and get the things that you want."
And, ultimately, Robertson just hopes that people extract the message that fits best for them. "Anyone can do it. They don't have to do what she's done. I wouldn't want to do what she's done. It seems very hard. But I think it's about doing things that make you happy and not feeling like you have to just lay down and take it all the time," she says. "It's the idea that you can change your life at any point. You never have to be stuck in your circumstances. ... It's just about taking ownership of your life and being a real Girlboss."
And if you have to hate Sophia along the way to get to that message, well, Robertson doesn't really care.
Hair: Leonardo Manetti for ION Salon; Makeup: Genevieve for Lancôme; Stylist: Gabrielle Prescod
Bustle Team: Senior Fashion Market Editor: Gabrielle Prescod; Booking/Production Manager: Guillermo Perez; Editorial Design Lead: Bry Crasch; Junior Designer: Brit Phillips; Senior Entertainment Editor: Kelsea Stahler; Associate TV Editor Martha Sorren; Photographer: Ashley Batz