As soon as Beyoncé told us to “Ban Bossy,” we had to take note. In the official YouTube video for the campaign, she states, “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.” According to banbossy.com, the official website of the campaign, the movement is about encouraging girls to lead. The idea is that little boys are praised when they speak their minds and take control, whereas girls are labeled “bossy.” It’s the classic gender disparity scenario we’ve heard about time and time again—the supposed reason for the glass ceiling in the career world and for the smaller number of girls and young women in leadership positions. At its root, the campaign is pushing a familiar and positive idea: we need to keep bridging the gap in gender inequality.
The first known usage of the word “bossy” dates to 1882. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word means “inclined to domineer.” Going off of this definition, being “bossy” is indeed an undesirable trait. I don’t know about you, but in my preschool years, I was never happy with the kid who ordered me to give them my red crayon when I was in the middle of using it to color in my firetruck. So yes, let’s absolutely “ban bossy!”
Now cue flaw number one in the plan: the red-crayon-demanding-five-year-old in question was not always a girl. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and a founder of the campaign, has stated that boys who assert themselves are called “leaders,” while assertive girls are criticized for the displaying the same qualities. The general idea behind the sentiment is certainly valid to my feminist-leaning eyes, but it’s far too broad of a claim. I can think of countless occasions on which little boys were deemed “bossy,” and I really don’t think the words “leader” and “bossy” can ever be alternative, gender-specific labels for the same behavior. Nevertheless, because being “bossy” is undesirable in both boys and girls, we should still support completely knocking it out of our vocabulary, right? But the real question is, how exactly do we go about doing this?
“Ban Bossy” portrays itself as a social media campaign. It wants you to raise awareness by changing your Facebook status, tweeting about the movement, or whatever else you can think of to get people talking about the cause. In that sense, it’s similar to cancer awareness movements that pop up on Facebook every couple of months—first, one of your friends puts a purple filter on her profile picture, leaving you utterly confused. Then, within minutes, half your friends have done the same, with the goal of showing support for cancer research and survival. Personally, I’m always touched by the number of participants, but I’m also left with the same question: what good does this do besides showing that, at least on social media, people are willing to let you know that they care?
The potential result of Sandberg’s social media campaign can, perhaps, be found in past movements to try to “ban” words. According to Time Magazine, other attempts to ban words have targeted “lesbian,” “tornado,” “selfie,” and “housewife.” The March 10 article, “Banning ‘Bossy’ and 10 Other Notable Attempts At Word Banishment,” asserts that such attempts are centuries old and essentially ineffective. If the “Ban Bossy” campaign does, in fact, do more than just get us talking about the underlying idea, it might very well be the first of its kind to do so.
Maybe the best thing to do is to face reality and own it instead of trying to do away with a word that people do use and will most likely continue to use. Look at Tina Fey’s 2011 memoir “Bossypants.” She’s owning it. She’s acknowledging the same gender disparities that “Ban Bossy” focuses on, but she doesn’t try to eradicate them. Ironically, Beyoncé’s big line in the campaign video does the same thing: she states “I am the boss.” Sure, maybe the word “bossy” isn’t technically in there, but the root of it is. At the end of the day, is it more important to be preoccupied with how people label you, or to make sure to act in a certain manner? As always, I’m just going to stick to what Beyoncé tells me, and according to her, “I’m the boss.”