How ‘Succession’ Ended the Girlboss
Kendall and Roman have only ever had to prove themselves to their dad, the patriarch. Shiv had to prove herself to the patriarchy itself.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Succession season 4, episode 8.
The Shiv fancams and reels aged poorly this week, with the most pivotal episode of Succession’s final season collapsing the house of cards she lived in — perhaps for good. It was a narrative arc that had been seasons in the making. Power bob and pantsuits notwithstanding, Shiv Roy was the archetypal girlboss who was thwarted, in the end, by her own uncertainty about who she really is. And nothing so far has signalled her downfall more than her leaving a conversation with Greg-‘Disgusting Brother’-Hirsch as the party with less leverage. Yikes.
The problem with Shiv: she thinks, acts, and behaves like a girlboss more than she really embodies one. Girlbosses have become feminism’s nemeses because they’re self-interested and competent enough to shove people — usually other women — out of the way on their ascent to power. Shiv possess the former in abundance. As for the latter: she was already born in the upper echelons, roamed the corridors of power as she fancied, with no real ambition to really acquire the experience required to occupy them. Like the other Roy siblings, she’s all about optics — she speaks the language of corporate bulldogs (frequently participates in verbal dick-measuring contests), struts into rooms with unshakeable confidence, successfully guilts a sexual assault survivor into accepting a payout in exchange for her silence, and is willing to be the woke woman face slapped onto controversies that need to go away.
She tells herself she’s a good person because she worked for in-world Bernie Sanders equivalent, Gil Eavis, and because she doesn’t like the fascist President-elect (for now) Jeryd Mencken. But it’s clear from this episode: she was interested in Mencken losing not for the good of the republic, but to secure her own position within Lukas Matsson’s plan to acquire Waystar and move ATN to the political center, as a profit strategy. She’s no different from Roman, who wants his candidate to win so he can remain CEBro — and having leapfrogged ahead of Kendall in terms of sheer brutishness for the first time in the whole show, he’s succeeded.
None of the siblings are good people. Roman has no pretenses. Kendall, eternally stuck in the “making moves” techbro persona, just wants to seem woke for the sake of public appeal among cooler, non-Nazi people. Shiv lies to herself that she is a better person than her brothers, simply because the candidate she sided with for her own power is the one that most decent people also happen to support. But she messed up: as much as she denies it to herself, everything she does is a “play,” leading Tom to even suspect news of her pregnancy was one.
She’s not a very effective double-agent either because she deluded herself into the belief that she has power and leverage just because she thinks she does. By the end, she has not secured anything from Matsson on the one hand, and she was also outed as a sneak to her brothers on the other. Siobhan Roy is officially on the down and outs. The last shot of her from the latest episode, frantically promising Matsson she can still fix things, seals her fate.
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How did this happen? Succession has always carefully deconstructed the most visible players in hegemonic American culture. Tech bros are bumbling and incompetent, excelling in mumble-speak like Kendall and irony-poisoned cynicism like Roman, until they’re not. They play around in their staggering corporate playpens until they’re called upon to make decisions with unimaginable consequences for the rest of the world — and they do so. In short, Elon Musks are laughable, memeable personalities, but they still have the power to influence major global currents. They go out of their way to assert this influence, because they can.
And herein lies the truth about girlbosses: in a world like this, they don’t stand a chance. No matter how much power and influence they accumulate, girlbosses are palatable figures attached to puppet strings. It’s an aspirational model of power that’s been sold to women, leading to the false impression that with enough acquired influence, women can change the world. No, says the nihilistic Succession writers’ room. The world, as we know it, has always been dictated by megalomaniacs, who are men in boardrooms — no matter how incompetent or insincere. It’s a diagnosis of how the world works that’s hard to swallow.
The neoliberal feminist dream, then, is a myth. By giving Kendall or Roman moral absolution, the writers room would have told a lie: that there can be some inherent good in tech bros trying to hold on to a whale of a family legacy. And similarly, by allowing Shiv to win, the writers would have also lied, because it would imply that it’s possible for the girlboss to actually shape the world’s machinations in significant ways. In reality, that’s exactly the fiction that Succession exposed — Shiv could have never come out on top, and now after the most monumental, democracy-destroying move on the Roys’ part, she never will.
She bought into the myth of the pursuit of power for its own sake being afeminist pursuit, if you’re a woman. She told herself that every self-interested move was justified because of her unjustified sidelining on the basis of gender. And this week, she learnt the hard way that the game was always rigged, and she was just another chess piece moved across the board played by men of all stripes. The incompetent ones, the average ones, the ones with unearned public images, all of whom share god complexes in common.
The men get to do whatever they want. Kendall and Roman have only ever had to prove themselves to their dad, the patriarch. Shiv had a much bigger fight on her hands: she had to prove herself to the patriarchy itself. And she failed, because everyone does in the patriarchy. Even if you’re a double-agent playing on its behalf.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.