Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” fame has a new campaign in which she encourages the ban of the word “bossy” on account of the fact that she believes the word discourages young girls from wanting to be leaders. There’s even a fancy video featuring Sandberg, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Garner, Condoleeza Rice and Beyonce to promote it.
The video ends with Beyonce stating “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.” Which is fine. For Beyonce. An adult person who is in fact the boss of some people. However, an eight-year-old kid is specifically not the boss–and I gotta tell you, if she’s going around acting like she’s goddamned Beyonce, then that’s a problem.
I can’t get down with this “ban bossy” thing. First of all, because I think it’s pretty low on the feminism priority list. We’ve got a few other things we need to be worrying about right now that are slightly more important, I’d say. Banning “bossy” right now feels like rearranging the furniture while the house is on fire. Second of all, because I actually do think that the word “bossy” describes a specific type of behavior that is, quite frankly, obnoxious. It is a useful word.
I am not averse to adjusting my language to make people more comfortable. I don’t use slurs, except when I refer to myself as a Shamwop because I made that one up on my own, for my half-Irish half-Italian self, and fuck you, it’s funny. As much as I think it’s a wee bit over the top, I’ve tried to stop saying “crazy” and “insane” and other words like that in order to not be ablelist–which, let me tell you, is really hard for someone who writes about politics and the Tea Party as much as I do. I even spent 20 minutes yesterday trying to figure out if I could still use the word “rational.”
Generally speaking, if someone tells me something is hurtful, even if I don’t 100% “get it” or am very sure that the words have multi-contextual use and don’t just describe one thing that I wouldn’t use them to describe anyway, I try to avoid it. I pride myself on having good manners, and sometimes that means having to realize that a slight inconvenience to me is a big deal for another person.
However, the term “bossy” isn’t a negative term for something otherwise positive or neutral. It’s not a negative term for something someone can’t help. It’s a negative term for a negative personality characteristic. “Bossy” people aren’t “leaders,” they’re brats. When I think of a “bossy” kid, I don’t think of an assertive and confident child with leadership skills, I think of that kid from “The Twilight Zone” who sent people to the cornfields for not doing whatever he told them to do, or, less extremely, the kids who always had to get their own way on the playground. “Bossy” is ordering people around when you don’t have the authority to do so, as in the case of many an annoying younger sibling.
Sure, it’s a negative word in and of itself. It’s not a “nice” thing to say. But I don’t want to live in a world where we can only say nice things about people. That would not be doubleplusgood. Not to mention the fact that trying to ban a word like “bossy” takes the legitimacy away from those who want to avoid slurs that really are offensive and hurtful to people. It just goes a little too far.
As for the bossy gender gap? If there’s a problem, it’s that perhaps “bossy” behavior is less scrutinized in boys than in girls. If you ask me, this type of behavior should be discouraged equally. It’s obnoxious, regardless of who it’s coming from. Not to mention that I don’t think that bossy behavior necessarily translates to success in life. I’ve met both adult men and women who come across as “bossy” and my first thought isn’t that they’re “confident,” “self-possessed” or “great leaders”–by any stretch of the imagination. If you want the truth, they come across as kids whose parents never told them “no,” and spent too much time praising them for being special precious snowflakes.
I feel like maybe it would be better to praise “working together” over “being a leader,” anyway. I think you can be a “leader” by making sure everyone else has their say and feels included, and that assertiveness doesn’t have to translate to telling people what game you’re all going to play at recess.
I think it’s important to think about gender socialization, and how we encourage certain behavior in boys that we discourage in girls. I think it’s important to talk about the fact that girls get called on less in class and that teachers give more attention to boys, and are more likely to not penalize them for speaking out of turn. I think the phrase “boys will be boys” needs to go the fuck away forever. However, I don’t think that encouraging girls to also act like assholes is the way to go on this.