The word bossy is not a bad word as words go. It can even be kinda great. It's when someone is aggressive to get shit done. Anyone can be bossy — go ahead and tell me you've never met a bossy guy without a title in sight. But you don't need a study to tell you this is a word usually reserved for women who give orders, who are more likely to be perceived as out of line or unfeminine when they demand anything. See bossy's bitchy sister, "nag." But there's only one problem with this word: The people who use it incorrectly.
That's right: The problem with bossy is that some people are full of gender bias and uncomfortable with women in leadership roles, and they are dino-fucking-saurs, these people who use it only for women when it should be applied to men and women! Let's ban them instead.
I'm kidding. Well, only sorta. But consider this: "Ban Bossy" is a campaign led by a trio of mad-powerful bosses who very well may have been bossy as children, and that is a good thing: Lean In/Facebook exec/billionaire Sheryl Sandberg, noted formidable political powerhouse Condoleezza Rice (so powerful she has TWO Z's IN HER NAME) and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez. These ladies are a thousand percent correct and smarter than everyone when they say that, yes, there's a reason it's harder for women to climb to the top, and that reason is loads of hot bias, and the result is that women are only five percent of CEOs of Fortune 500's, and that hasn't changed in a decade, and it needs to, pronto. And yes, this is a lifelong problem for women, being told they don't belong at the top with all the $$. From Lindy's first report on the campaign:
"Ban Bossy," which they announced yesterday, is a call for people to strike the "bossy" descriptor from their vocabularies. Sandberg, Rice, and Chávez argue that the word is more pejorative than people realize—especially because it's tacked on to women to snub them, while men are just praised as "bosses."
According to Sandberg, Rice, and Chávez, the problem isn't just that women and young girls' feelings are hurt by the wordage. It's that they're often discouraged enough by it that they don't speak up or assume leadership roles they'd succeed in. And that hurts everyone—men and women alike.
But reading about the backgrounds of Sandberg, Rice, and Chavez, you see a noteworthy lack of effective discouragement. In an interview over at Parade, we learn that when a ninth-grade Sandberg was told she was too aggressive and bossy by a faculty adviser, that, like a straight boss, she ignored it.
Rice, too, had parents who elected her "president of the family" WHEN SHE WAS FOUR YEARS OLD:
I would call meetings where we'd decide things like what color to paint the living room. As I got older, I realized that what my parents were doing was sending messages about leadership potential."
Chavez had a unique upbringing that subverted traditional gender training, too:
"Instead of teaching me how to cook, my mother taught my brothers how to cook, and me how to run a board meeting."
And when I read that, all I think is, EXACTLY. This is how to raise leaders! Screw the words, raise the ladies right! The answer to mitigating discouragement in girls is to raise women to not give a fuck about those words, to not be capable of being tripped up by some mega-tool with a bad vocab. To teach them that hearing words like that is the first sign of gender bias, which ought to signal them to go full steam the fuck ahead away from that person. It's called spite, people, and it is a glorious, marvelous motivator.
The reason that bossy didn't trip these women up is that they clearly saw that such terms didn't really mean anything, didn't really apply to them, that there would be people who would stand in their way, and they would have to look past them. I'm not suggesting this is ideal — I would love it if I never saw another study showing that, for many people, the very concept of leadership is still incompatible with femaleness. But I'm not gonna listen to that shit. And I'm just not sure this is the way to combat it — and that's even accepting both that bossy can be a negative, and that women, perceived as less competent, must sometimes act even more aggressively to get any respect in the first place.
Because ultimately, "Ban Bossy" is censorship with the best intentions, and what I think it disguises is the deeper, more insidious problems about gender in this country that can't be fixed with the nix of a word. Historically, words change when attitudes change. And yes, sometimes we do need our hands held through new language, especially when it comes to uncharted territory, like transgender language. (This is, it should be noted, very different than campaigns which seek to ban hate speech or words which define a disadvantaged group by reducing their entire existence and identity to a perceived handicap, such as "retard" — a taunt I support ending.)
Certainly, regardless of whether you think a ban is useful or pointless, having this conversation about bossy is a good thing, because it forces us to keep acknowledging that words have power, and to examine how we use them, and recognize the impact they can have over a lifetime. It draws attention to the bad rap women get when they attempt to lead. (Alas, I suppose "Retire Bossy" isn't quite so snappy, nor is "Please Use Bossy Correctly and Unilaterally.") But language reflects values and attitudes, and those are what must change here.
Still, Sandberg has friends in high places. Many celebrities are adding credence to the Ban Bossy cause. Like Chelsea Clinton, daughter of noted bossy badass, who gave Sandberg a shout-out at SXSW:
And others, like Jennifer Garner and Jane Lynch and Beyonce have participated in the campaign with videos and support. There's also backlash from men and women who suggest there are worse things to be called than bossy, and then there's this portion of the dreadfully retrograde Anthony and Opie talk radio show, who are in agreement that it sucks that you can't call women other stuff as it is anymore, like twat and cunt, so losing bossy is a mega bummer. Also, upon learning that Beyonce is in on the campaign, they say, "Fuck Beyonce." Good luck getting through three minutes of that.
Which reminds me: There's something else these very powerful ambitious women could do: Reclaim the word. Embrace it. Stand together and say, "We're Bossy — What of it?" Because it's true, and not always a bad thing, and in a sense, that's already happening.
Tina Fey embraced the image of a nagging, bossy woman in charge in her book of essays Bossypants. Kelis celebrated being bossy in her video with Too Short, "Bossy," back in 2006, with lyrics such as, " You don't have to love me/ You don't even have to like me /But you will respect me/You know why?/ Cuz I'm a boss!"
The self-described "bitch you love to hate/chick who raised the stakes" doesn't give a fuck what anyone calls her, because she's self-motivated, she's ambitious, and she's unapologetic. Bossy women get shit done. Amy Poehler once said, " I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day. To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody's passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn't mind leading."
I agree that language shapes consciousness, but again, I would much rather see these women say something even more powerful: "Being called 'bossy' didn't stop me. Don't let it stop you."
I also have a daughter. I want all the things for her that she could want. I'm well aware that encouraging leadership in her could come with negative connotations. But I can't make other people not use the word bossy to describe her. What I can do is tell her it's not her they are talking about, it's them. If you're bossy, be bossy. And let all the dinosaurs shout all the names they like directly into the deafening roar of your trail of dust.
Image by Jim Cooke.