From bossy to boss
I’ve been called bossy all my life. I am the oldest of my siblings, so naturally, I bossed them—and pretty much everyone else—around. Eventually, in my work life, I became a boss. It’s a natural progression, right? From bossy to boss? Or is it? The recent “Ban Bossy” campaign sponsored by LeanIn.org and the Girl Scouts has caused me to pause and ask that basic chicken-and-egg question:
If I hadn’t been called bossy, would I have thought myself capable of being a boss?
After all, the women featured in LeanIn’s campaign, Beyoncé, Barbara Walters, and Sheryl Sandberg, have achieved tremendous success in entertainment, journalism, and corporate America. If they hadn’t been told they were bossy, would they have thought themselves capable of being a boss and rising to the tops of their respective professions?
I’m not denying that “bossy” is pejorative or sexist; it certainly is both. A boy displaying the same leadership skills would have been called a leader. He would have been encouraged to run for student council and maybe political office one day. He would have been tapped for a job in the C suite. He would not have been diminished because he stepped outside culturally acceptable norms of gender dynamics.
Changing gender dynamics to encourage girls to lead is the heart of the “Ban Bossy” campaign. “Ban Bossy” is just the tagline, the slick marketing gimmick designed to get your attention. Remember, this campaign was initiated by the COO of Facebook and co-sponsored by the organization that has you begging for your Thin Mints fix once a year. They understand how to pull you in and keep you engaged.
Yet, for all the fuss over the “Ban” part of the “Ban Bossy” campaign, the true focus of the campaign is not about banning this word or that word, but about giving girls the tools they need to move beyond the words used to describe them, to turn ideas into actions. A Ban Bossy flyer on leadership includes activities that encourage girls to take risks, set goals, and stop apologizing for their opinions. Yes, sometimes, girls are their own worst enemies when it comes to expressing their ideas. The “Ban Bossy” campaign teaches them how to express those ideas and be rewarded, not ridiculed.
From bossy to bitchy
Nevertheless, I am left wondering if modern feminism may be focusing on the wrong word. Most often, it’s men who use bossy to degrade us. However, in banning bossy, we set ourselves in dialectical opposition to men and only reinforce their power over our lives. If women want to empower ourselves, we must focus on words that harm us most; those words we use to describe ourselves. Perhaps, we should focus our efforts, instead, on another word that begins with “B.”
We all know the word I mean.
Few words in the English language are as destructive as the word “bitchy.” Derived from the English word for a female dog, the term quickly became associated with female sexual promiscuity. Originally, a bitch was a woman who acted like a female dog in heat, insatiable in her desires for sexual gratification and irresistible to the males who met her. Eventually, the term came to include more than sexual overtones. Now, the term is used when a woman is assertive, aggressive, or angry; when she stands up for herself and says no; when she is critical or ruthless. No one ever called Steve Jobs bitchy; they might have used a few other unprintable adjectives, but not bitchy. Yet, I am sure Sandberg gets that adjective hurled her way quite often, regardless of her behavior. Unfortunately, other women are most often the culprits hurling those insults.
The word “bitchy” enters female vocabulary during our teenage years. Just as we are starting to blossom into sexual beings, we find ourselves described like a bitch in heat. Other girls teach us this word; other girls use the word to disparage and isolate us. The word sticks with us in a way that “bossy” doesn’t. For adults, “bitchy” becomes the workplace equivalent of bossy, cascading from the classroom into the boardroom.
Pop culture does little to challenge “bitchy” as an epithet. In some cases, entertainers embrace the word in its worst sense.
According to Britney Spears in “Work Bitch,” if you want a Maserati, you better work, bitch.
Even Beyoncé, the star of the “Ban Bossy” campaign, threw the “B” word around in a recent video. Ironically, the song was criticized for being too aggressive, an adjective often associated with bossy women.
Sometimes, an artist embraces the word in an attempt to reclaim it for themselves. In “Bitch,” Meredith Brooks lists “bitch” among the nouns used to describe herself: bitch, lover, mother, sinner, saint, etc. She’s not ashamed to admit it, either.
So, why aren’t we banning “bitchy” instead? Doesn’t it do more harm? Isn’t the word we use to describe ourselves far worse than the words other people fling at us?
Of course, a Girl Scouts initiative called “Ban Bitchy” might not be a big hit with parents and could affect Thin Mint sales. But, just as these girls are bridging to Juniors, they are starting to hear rumblings of bitchy and bitchiness. Why not start a “Ban Bitchy” campaign just as girls are starting to hear the word?
Banning bossy, bitchy, and other ideas
Simple. Because I don’t believe that banning bossy or bitchy is the solution. As a technical editor, I once banned commas from spec tables in a reference guide. I did so because the tables were dense, and the commas cluttered the content. Removing commas could have saved us a half-inch of valuable white space. That decision was met with almost instant outrage and derision. My boss (a woman) thought I had lost my marbles. Suddenly, commas became the most important punctuation on the planet. Banning commas made them more powerful than they were or ever needed to be.
Banning words, books, or ideas often has the same effect. Take the recent decision by Penguin India to settle a lawsuit out of court by pulping The Hindus. The book tells an alternative version of the history of Hinduism from ancient times to the present. Is it worthy of worldwide acclaim and attention? Maybe. Maybe not. Yet, after the settlement was announced, what was the first thing I did? That’s right. I bought the book on my US Amazon account and downloaded it to my Kindle. Was it worth it? Maybe. Maybe not. After all, just as banning a book doesn’t make a book bad, it certainly doesn’t make a bad book any better. Rather than banning a word, maybe we should open the dialogue instead and expose the weak arguments and questionable facts. Let’s not hide behind hatred and fear.
That’s when I asked myself this question:
What would Gloria do (WWGD)?
Gloria Steinem celebrated her 80th birthday last week. One of the foremost leaders of modern feminism, Steinem provides an interesting example for us to follow. Many years ago, in an effort to insult Steinem, a man called her “a slut from East Toledo.” Steinem loved the insult so much that she wants to put the phrase on her tombstone as a reminder that “You can take the sting out of the words.”
She’s right. You can remove the sting. Removal doesn’t make the pain go away. Sometimes, the removal can be just as painful as the sting itself. Nevertheless, after you’ve removed the sting, the wound will heal. The scar that remains is far easier to manage than walking around with a sting in your arm. Isn’t it?
Last week, I attended an event by the US Consulate General Mumbai for Women’s History Month. Hosted at the Tasting Room in Lower Parel, the event featured the American documentary, “Kick Like a Girl” about a girls’ soccer team in Salt Lake City, Utah. After dominating the girls’ league for two straight seasons, the team decided to enroll in the boys’ league. The team’s enrollment challenged traditional gender roles, especially that boys are stronger than girls. When asked if she kicks like a girl, Lizzie replies, “Well, duh, of course, I kick like a girl. I am a girl.” When a boy on an opposing team is asked the same question, he replies, “Thank you.” Having experienced the girls‘ skills first hand, he no longer views kicking like a girl as an insult, but as a compliment. These young feminists, female and male, have removed the sting from the words. Perhaps, we should follow their example.