“Ban Bossy,” then what?

The recent “Ban Bossy” campaign that launched earlier this week, created by the author of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, is no-doubt well executed and well intentioned. (I mean, Beyoncé is on boardt. Who better to exemplify a boss with full control over her career’s trajectory?) The campaign comes with the proverbial hashtag—#BanBossy—of any successful social media movement.

Of course, the word “bossy” doesn’t just mean “a boss.” It has a severely negative connotation. Someone who is called “bossy” is someone who asserts opinions and orders, with confidence and without shame. Someone who is called “bossy” is usually a woman or girl, a self-appointed leader, stubborn, headstrong, critical, a “know-it-all,” and—I would argue—a fledgling manifestation of what it means to be labelled a “bitch.”

Beyond the word “bossy,” the more crucial issue is the degradation of women who have strong opinions, who voice them, and who are not afraid to do so when the opinions are unpopular and critical. This is recognized by Sandberg’s campaign, too.

But is banning the word the only way to empower young girls to be leaders? No, of course, but I think individuals’ decisions not to use the term may be a start.

Some critics of the campaign have suggested reclaiming the word. Margaret Talbot for The New Yorker likens the a potential reclamation of “bossy” to the reclamation of “nerd.” One key difference: nearly all of the publicly celebrated intellectuals, prior to the last 50 years or so, were men. There is not such precedent for women in leadership positions.

But following her logic that each of those words has the potential to disempower, especially in classroom settings, it’s possible to socially redefine what we associate with “bossy” and to even self-identify as such.

That may be possible. But I think the most successful kind of pseudo-reclamation of the word and simultaneous rejection of it comes at the end of the campaign’s video when Beyoncé declares, “I’m not bossy; I’m the boss.” Working to reclaim the word “bossy” doesn’t quite seem worthwhile when there are so many more empowering options. For instance: strong-willed, passionate, detail-oriented, intelligent, decisive, commanding, a capable leader, or a boss.

Talbot also writes:

“It’s also true, of course, that neither banning nor rebranding a single word can accomplish all that much social change. It’s not the usage of the word but the acceptance of the behavior that counts.”

The ban on “bossy” may be a great start, but let’s also think critically about the ways we use “bitch,” both the noun and the verb, and other language used to describe the ways women act. In addition to “leaning in,” let’s think about who can’t because they don’t have access to the table at all. Let’s discuss who is abusing power and how that is connected to a lack of powerful positions held by women. Let’s take the conversation of these topics out of a corporate America context and into an everyday one.

I’m glad this campaign has started important conversations around how opinionated women are labeled as young girls, but more than just giving up a word, how do we actively encourage strong voices to persevere in a society that, more often than not, implies that they should be silenced?

***

I’ve been babysitting the same girl and her younger sister regularly for at least three years. She’s almost six now, and she reads at a level several grades above her peers. Her vocabulary rivals mine (in two languages), and she occasionally corrects my lazy pronunciation of words. She’s incredibly smart, kind, hilarious, resilient, talkative, creative, happy, and she knows how to tell people exactly what she wants and needs. She’s a kid with so much potential that it’s easy to picture her one day running the world. (No pressure.) This campaign made me think of her.

I’m incensed when I think about the hypothetical day when an elementary school classmate calls her “bossy.” What will she say? Will she be incensed, too? What will her defense be? Will she ignore that classmate’s criticisms, recognizing that it’s ridiculous for her to shirk her natural leadership abilities? Will she not know how to respond?

Or, worst of all, will her chosen defense be to not speak quite as loudly? Will she not raise her hand quite as high?

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