In March 2014, Sheryl Sandberg—the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of “Lean In”—a best selling book which centers on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions by asserting themselves—created a campaign to ban the word “bossy.” According to abc News:
“We call girls bossy on the playground,” Sandberg said. “We call them too aggressive or other B-words in the workplace. They’re bossy as little girls, and then they’re aggressive, political, shrill, too ambitious as women.” The goal of the “Ban Bossy” campaign is to help girls and women feel more confident and comfortable as leaders. “This is a word that is symbolic of systemic discouragement of girls to lead. We are not just talking about getting rid of a word, even though we want to get rid of a word,” she said. “We’re talking about getting rid of the negative messages that hold our daughters back.”
The campaign is supposed to target the systems that tell young girls and women that being assertive is problematic. Big-named figures like Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice have even teamed up with the Ban Bossy campaign, using their names to help get the message out. However, not all women agree with the campaign. In a piece featured on CNN by Peggy Drexler, she states:
But while Sandberg isn’t wrong that “bossy” is disproportionately directed at girls and women, and usually with negative connotations, the problem isn’t the word itself, but how and when the word is used. Ban “bossy” and other words will spring up in its place: “Bitchy,” “cold” and “aggressive” come to mind. Instead, the focus should be on how to reclaim the positive and indispensable nature of “bossiness,” turning it from a word used to describe the domineering and unlikable to one used to describe those very necessary qualities for those who lead.
I agree. While I understand that the systems in place help facilitate men’s leadership in almost all spaces, I find it highly problematic that we have to remove words like bossy rather than reclaim them. We can’t cushion the blow of sexism, or hide sexism. These moments of confrontation, like being called “bossy” as a woman just because you are being assertive, are important moments because it provides evidence that we still have a lot of work to do as a culture. Being called a “bitch” or “cold” as a woman reminds us that we still live in a male-dominated society and rather than pretending like we don’t, we have to find constructive ways to engage mainstream culture in a conversation. Pretending like sexist conditions don’t exist for a cheesy campaign to make women look empowered won’t really do too much. While Sandberg is at least attempting to contribute to the dialogue centering on the sexism women experience in working conditions, she fails to realize how being called “bossy” could actually be a site of necessary feminist activism for young girls.
Recently on the Queen Latifah show, Queen Latifah had a women’s empowerment panel where the women discussed cultural issues and one of these issues was the ban bossy campaign. The panel consisted of Latifah, Melissa Harris-Perry, Arianna Huffington (creator of the Huffington Post), and actress Rita Moreno. While Huffington loved the campaign and even financially helped support it, Harris-Perry had a different take on the issue. She essentially stated that words associated with women’s assertiveness like “bossy” highlights a particular type of necessary work for women to do. Our reclamation of these words, rather than our disposal of them, helps us to reimagine the ways in which women can participate in society. If our presence in leadership positions is threatening, why try to soften that discomfort for sexists? Harris-Perry urged us to ban poverty and sexual harassment, rather than banning bossy.
While I understand Sandberg’s attempt to ban the shame that women and girls can be made to feel when they exhibit leadership traits, I think we should instead tell girls to embrace their bossy ways, or to embrace the words that haters can spew when they are threatened by women’s assertiveness. We can’t cushion the sexism that women are going to experience in this culture. In fact, as Harris-Perry states, the sexism that girls experience can serve as the main impetus or drive for these same girls to engage in political work to dismantle sexism.Veiling the sexism for young girls can also veil the feminist work that has to be done. Rather than banning bossy,we should ban sexism.