Ban Bossy Or Be Bossy And Proud?

April 1, 2014  |  

Is it better to ban a derogatory word or embrace and redefine it until the original meaning has no value?

The African American community, mostly at the behest of white people (who feel excluded from being able to call black people “ni**ers” again, publicly), have been dealing with this very question since Hip Hop became part of national conversation. Yet we are no closer to a definite resolution. And now it seems that women as a whole will be arguing to infinity about the possible dissolution of one one gender specific and volatile word. No the word isn’t “bitch” – because that would be too obvious. It’s another b-word.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book Lean In, has partnered with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Girl Scouts USA on a public service campaign aimed at banning the word “bossy.” According to the website, the Ban Bossy campaign hopes to address the often negative and derogatory language, particularly the word Bossy, which is  used to derail women, who seek out leadership positions.

It plans to do this by giving facts and helpful tips to parents and teachers and even girl kids on how to encourage and be encouraged to lead. The campaign has also produced a PSA featuring such girl power celebs like Jennifer Garner, Condoleezza Rice & Jane Lynch and of course, Beyoncé, who confidently delivers the video’s tagline: “I am not bossy, I’m the boss!”

On the surface, the campaign appears to be hitting all the marks: those of us who care about women empowerment and feminism understand not only the importance of rearing assertive girl children. However, some fem-positive women are saying: no thanks!

Particularly, Kara Baskin of the Boston Globe simply remarks, “I’ll Pass” in her piece about why she will not be banning “bossy” anytime soon. More specifically she writes:

Ban Bossy overlooks boys and men almost completely. The site asks viewers to watch a video and see “what happens when we encourage our girls to raise their hands, sit at the table, and lean in.” Every directive is geared toward females. Why should boys remain asterisks in this agenda? For ideas like Ban Bossy to gain traction, we need buy-in from brothers, dads, and male colleagues.”

At the Huffington Post, Mary Dalton has a list of 5 Reasons I Will Not Ban Bossy including, “I think it’s better to reclaim the word. A student in my media theory seminar told me she’s good at her job as coxswain of her rowing crew because she’s bossy. I thought, “That young woman is going somewhere and not just on the water.”
Elissa Freeman of the website gives a list of 25 other derogatory gender-specific words including “aggressive,” “bully,” “domineering” and “opinionated,” which should have banning precedence over “bossy.” And Cathy Young of Real Clear Politics does a little fact checking about some of the “facts” the website offers in support of the campaign, calling most of it, “the crude synonym for bovine excrement.”

Ouch, I felt that!

However most notable critic of the Ban Bossy campaign is author and feminist social activist bell hooks, who according to Clutch Magazine, took to Twitter to announce a tongue-and-cheek campaign of her own:

In response to Sheryl Sandberg’s call for a “Ban Bossy” movement….

I raise a counter movement called “Be Bossy and proud of it. Change the World.”



The bell hooks campaign

hooks has yet to expand upon her disapproval over the Ban Bossy campaign however this isn’t the first time hooks has taken issue with Sandberg in particular. In a critique of the book Lean In for the the Feminist Wire, hooks, whose own feminist writings focuses on the intersections of race, gender and how capitalism impeded equality through it all, called Sandberg’s brand of girl power, “women’s liberation faux feminism.” More specifically she said:

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

Contrast her definition of feminism with the one I offered more than twenty years ago in Feminist Theory From Margin To Center and then again in Feminism Is For Everybody.  Offering a broader definition of feminism, one that does not conjure up a battle between the sexes (i.e. women against men), I state:“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” No matter their standpoint, anyone who advocates feminist politics needs to understand the work does not end with the fight for equality of opportunity within the existing patriarchal structure. We must understand that challenging and dismantling patriarchy is at the core of contemporary feminist struggle – this is essential and necessary if women and men are to be truly liberated from outmoded sexist thinking and actions.

I don’t want to rag on the campaign too much as I do see its value. Women and particularly girls have been conditioned to steer clear of “bossy ” qualities. And I’ve never heard a man be called “bossy” – ever. That means it is gender specific. And whenever the term is used most times it is meant to suggest that their complaints, opinions and desires are unwarranted or the result of a personality flaw. Girls and yes, even us grown women too, need to affirm and reaffirm that we matter. If anything, the campaign is a nice confidence boost.

I haven’t read Sandberg’s book so I won’t comment on that specifically. However the sentiment expressed by hooks in this essay (as well as the other sentiments about the campaign provided above) really resonate with me. Sure not everyone is super-heavy, worrying about the plight of the poor nomadic mother in some war-torn Afghanistan desert. However, it doesn’t hurt to care a little bit. Because if we did, we might want to question why industry elites (i.e. Sandberg and Rice) are not using their platforms for more fruitful feminist campaigns like: promoting equal pay, better working conditions and more paid family and sick leave for women, or safe, secure and free access to reproduction choices? Or even that desolate mother in Afghanistan or Iraq or New Orleans (ahem, Rice). Basically anything other than banning words, which contextually may or may not be offensive.

I am interested in what folks have to say about this, (outside of the standard “I hate all feminist discussions and feminists in general), so leave your comments about this topic in the comment section.

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