Girl's story no network would buy

Britt Robertson (above) plays Sophia Amoruso in Girlboss.
Britt Robertson (above) plays Sophia Amoruso in Girlboss. PHOTO: NETFLIX
Female entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso (left) co-produced Girlboss with screenwriter Kay Cannon (right) and actress Charlize Theron.
Female entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso (left) co-produced Girlboss with screenwriter Kay Cannon (right) and actress Charlize Theron.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Female entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso co-produced Girlboss with screenwriter Kay Cannon and actress Charlize Theron (above).
Female entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso co-produced Girlboss with screenwriter Kay Cannon and actress Charlize Theron (above).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Producers of Girlboss say the reaction they faced in pitching the series reveals gender bias in the entertainment industry

The newly released Netflix series Girlboss tells the true story of Sophia Amoruso, a penniless 22-year-old who turned her vintage-clothing hobby into an eBay store that became a multi-million-dollar business.

Amoruso, now 32, co-produced the series, along with two of the most successful women in Hollywood: Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron and screenwriter Kay Cannon, who wrote the hit Pitch Perfect films (2012 and 2015).

But Theron and Cannon say Hollywood is still reluctant to tell stories centred on women it deems unlikable misfits.

This was clear from the cool reaction they faced when they pitched the show to all the major networks in the United States - none would buy it.

Cannon, whose writing credits include the sitcoms 30 Rock (20062013) and New Girl (2011-present), remembers one television executive saying, "You can't call it Girlboss - you need to make it more for men", because he believed "things with 'girl' in the title don't seem to do well".

"It was mostly men in the room," recalls Theron, the 41-year-old star of fantasy epic Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and serial-killer biopic Monster (2003), for which she won a Best Actress Oscar.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in New York recently, she says she has witnessed first- hand the entertainment industry's gender bias.

"There's always this worry with characters like this - and I've seen and heard this many times in my career - that people are not going to like her and find her too abrasive, and you have to make sure the audience likes her.

"And I wonder how many times Robert De Niro heard that when he was doing Taxi Driver (1976). How many times did Jack Nicholson hear that when he was doing The Shining (1980)?" she adds.

Theron also identified with Amoruso's less-than-perfect origin story - she was a local-college dropout who was caught shoplifting.

"I built a whole career on flawed and f***ed-up characters, so I have a love affair with that stuff, and this felt so incredibly layered," says the actress, who plays the villain in Fast & Furious 8, which is in cinemas.

Based on Amoruso's best-selling 2014 autobiography #Girlboss, the Netflix series follows Amoruso (played by Tomorrowland's Britt Robertson) as she single-handedly launches her Nasty Gal Vintage eBay store in San Francisco in 2006.

The unlikely entrepreneur managed to use social media to build a large customer base as she sourced, styled and modelled many of the quirky clothing items herself.

Her site was one of the top e- commerce businesses in the US, with US$300 million (S$419 million) in annual revenues by 2015.

In June last year, Forbes magazine put Amoruso on its list of the richest self-made women in the US, with an estimated net worth of US$280 million.

Then, in a surprising turn of events, Nasty Gal announced it was filing for bankruptcy last November.

A British company is buying its assets and Amoruso, who last year filed for divorce from musician husband Joel Jarek Degraff, has resigned as executive chairman.

By that time, Theron had already bought the screen rights to her memoir.

Theron, Cannon and Amoruso did not comment on the bankruptcy, but they say the latter's story is an important one, especially for young women.

Says Theron: "I'm a true believer that the future is female. We are more than half of the population and yet are under-educated and treated as second-class citizens.

"We need more stuff like this out there. There's something so powerful and so unstoppable about young girls, at the right time, being told they can do anything," says the South African model-turned- actress who, as a single parent, has adopted a son, aged five, and a daughter, one.

The show is also about what it takes to succeed and this is something everyone can learn from, regardless of gender, say its creators.

Cannon wanted it to highlight that Amoruso "did not have any money" when she started her business "and to really show that struggle".

Theron adds: "It's about the fact that in success for all of us, male or female, we have to be able to fall on our faces and fail horribly."

Amoruso agrees and hopes her story can inspire others.

"Girlboss is about being the boss of your life. It's about knowing the strengths and gaps you need to fill and getting back up when you get knocked down.

"The story resonates with people, I guess, because there are very few women who are community- college dropouts and have gotten to the point where they have a platform to tell a story.

"They say you can't be what you can't see and it's an important time to tell more stories of girls doing great things."

• Girlboss is streaming on Netflix

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Girl's story no network would buy'. Print Edition | Subscribe