I was kind of bossy when I was younger. I’m sometimes kind of bossy now. One day, if I’m lucky, I’ll be a boss. Until then -- and probably after -- I’ll still be occasionally bossy. Heck, it was kind of bossy just now to make you read a whole paragraph about me being bossy.
It’s also kind of bossy for a bunch of powerful and famous people (Beyonce!) to insist that we ban the word "bossy." But that’s exactly what a new public-service campaign led by Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org and Girl Scouts of the USA is attempting to do.
The irony of it has not been lost. Slate’s Katy Waldman concluded a piece on the effort: “So, while I admire the sheer bossiness of a massive campaign designed to expunge the word bossy from our vocabularies, I don’t intend to stop using it, even if the feminist super-team tells me to. They’re not the boss of me.”
Encouraging young women to lead, breaking down gender roadblocks, minimizing threats to female empowerment beginning at a young age -- these are all praiseworthy endeavors. Keeping the momentum of Sandberg's Lean In movement going and giving the news media another reason to write about it (guilty as charged) are the signs of a shrewd businesswoman trying to be an ambassador for change. Some of the content of the campaign -- and the debate it has sparked -- seems relevant, nuanced and potentially useful. “This is not just about a single word. The stereotypes behind the word ‘bossy’ are deep rooted and discouraging,” Sandberg and Rachel Thomas, president and co-founder of LeanIn.Org, wrote on LinkedIn.
But it is a lot of fuss over a single word -- or two. The effort really does come down to the phrase “ban bossy.” To advance female empowerment, shouldn’t we be leaning in to something positive, rather than leaning out from something negative?
How could Sandberg & Co. have better framed the conversation? One solution would be to use the word as a lesson. Sandberg mentions that a teacher once called her bossy, instructing a friend to ditch her: "I wish instead of telling people not to say 'bossy,' she would tell us what she did next," the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri wrote. "How did she get past this to become the chief operating officer of Facebook?” Indeed, perhaps the most powerful phrase of the whole campaign is Beyonce's "I'm not bossy. I'm the boss."
Even Beyonce's comeback doesn't fully acknowledge the collateral damage from the word. “'Bossy' doesn’t just hurt the confident girls; the quiet girls in the classroom hear it, too, and they learn not to speak up for themselves,” the Guardian's Jill Filipovic wrote. Getting to the peak of power will always take a thick skin, for both men and women. I bet Condoleezza Rice has been called a lot worse than bossy. It’s not the ambitious Condis and Beyonces we need to worry about, though; it's the girls who, fearing a negative label, shrink from confrontation or, worse, watch safely from the sidelines.
Perhaps instead we should champion bossy, both the word and the behavior, pushing it toward a positive definition instead of attempting to stamp it out of existence. Slate's Waldman says bossy “seems like a great candidate for rehabilitation” and notes that Tina Fey “started off the recovery process by naming her book Bossypants.” At CNN.com, Peggy Drexler pointed to Sandberg’s bossiness as a likely contributor to her success: “So, how about an initiative to reclaim bossiness as a point of pride?”
Words evolve. Just look at what Dick Gregory (and a later cohort of rappers) did to redeploy the N-word. "Bossy" carries much less historical and cultural weight. But it has some value. As someone with an occasional tendency to boss, the word’s negative valence performs guard duty on the porous border between empowered and domineering. Besides, a lot of those little boys calling girls "bossy" on the playground are actually harboring giant crushes.
Our problem is not that we need to vanquish the negative connotations of "bossy." It's that we don’t have a good everyday word for the word's positive side. Let’s not ban, but create. So, herewith…
Bossiful, adj., full of qualities inherent in a good boss; empowered. Ex.: Insisting that you not say a word is bossy. Providing a new and better one is bossiful.
(Zara Kessler is an editor with Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter at @ZaraKessler.)
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