Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, along with a few celebrities like Beyoncé and Jennifer Garner have joined a well-intentioned campaign to ban the word “bossy.” The idea is that when women are leaders they’re called “bossy,” but when men are leaders they’re simply “the boss.” This isn’t far from the truth at all and it’s why women have been reclaiming the word “bossy” to reposition themselves as what they really are: ambitious leaders, no different from their male counterparts. We can look to Kelis’ song “Bossy” or Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” for examples of women using the word for empowerment and subversion rather than to denigrate each other.
My issue with the campaign is that banning words really just doesn’t work. Now, I don’t think the campaign is unsuccessful because look, we’re talking about the word “bossy” and what it means to be “bossy” which is probably the real goal of the mission rather than having a trivial word be omitted from the dictionary. There are far worse words that women can be called (depending on the source of the volition) like bitchy, cunt, slut or whore. But let’s face facts, there are plenty of women who use these words as terms of endearment for themselves and one another.
So what’s even the point of banning the word “bossy”? We want women to stop being attacked for giving instructions to others. We want women to walk into a business meeting without having to put on a smile and be warm and bubbly when male bosses would never do that. We want the perception of a woman in charge to appear to be less threatening and a mere matter of fact; some bosses are men, some bosses are women, all bosses are different in their approach and there is no way a female boss should behave versus a male boss, although there are certain techniques all bosses should practice. Most of all, we don’t want little girls to be afraid of being the boss because of how they might be perceived.
I mean, just look at Anna Wintour, she has turned Vogue into an iconic success and sustained that success after the publishing bubble burst when most print magazines went digital or ceased to exist. This is a tremendous feat but Anna is still known for being a cold relentless bitch. Maybe she is a not nice person, but so are many, many, male CEOs and leaders, yet articles, books, and movies don’t get written about them because their Machiavellian behavior is praised or accepted. Our culture loves angry, cruel men, just look at TV. Which shows are the hits? Breaking Bad, True Detective, The Sopranos, The Shield, House of Cards, Scandal—evil men leaders galore and the female characters on these shows are often perceived as annoying for trying to stop their male counterparts from being total dicks. Good or evil, women can’t win. Yes, this needs to change but banning words is totally missing the point.
Here’s my issue: either you are sexist or you aren’t. I’m not saying that people don’t change their views, many do, I have. (I used to be one of those girls who said she wasn’t a feminist!) Nevertheless, telling a co-worker or anyone really to “stop saying the word bossy” isn’t going to provide them with the enlightenment necessary to understand why their views are biased along gender lines or inherently sexist. If they think you’re an asshole, they’ll just use another word to articulate it. The word “bossy” doesn’t really get to the core of why women leaders are received negatively. Which is sexism plain and simple. By insinuating positive attributes in males are negative in females, we create a world where women can’t win–the goal of a sexist culture. Banning a word that’s mean to women is a bandaid not a solution. A medication for the symptoms but not a cure for the affliction.
And you know what? Some people are bossy (in the bad way), some men are and some women are. Some people need to stop telling you what to do when it’s not their place, we call these people bossy. Unless, someone is your boss or leader or has just cause, they shouldn’t be instructing you and are thus, bossy.
Some people are bossy in the good way. They take charge, they have vision, they get people to believe in them. Do I want to hang out with Mark Zuckerberg? Hell, no, but he is a boss. He has done incredible things. He has had impact. I don’t care if he’s nice or charming as long as he isn’t hurting people (I believe he is the most charitable donator in America.). Anna Wintour, Marrissa Mayer, Condoleezza Rice whose views I don’t agree with at all, Oprah, Martha Stewart, Janet Yellen— they are women leaders who decisions probably hurt people sometimes because they have to make tough decisions, difficult calls, they decide who or what gets sacrificed. That is a reason many people generally hate women bosses, but that’s why they get to be the boss because they can do those things, just like the many, many men who have came before them who are perceived as heroes, met with praise and revered. We don’t need to ban the word bossy, we need to question who is saying it and why. We need to question how it is used to elevate men and degrade women.
There is nothing inherently sexist in the word “bossy” so much as we live in an inherently sexist culture that needs to change.
Nicki Minaj said it best. “Every time I stand up for myself and put my foot down people are like ‘We’ve heard of Nicki Minaj’ …Is that wrong? Wanting more for myself? Wanting people to treat me with respect? … When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive he’s a boss.”
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