I've been thinking a lot about Sheryl Sandberg's new #BanBossy campaign over the last week or so since it debuted. I've read the thinkpieces both for and against, and even the ones that fell in the middle of the road. And after considering all of the very valid critiques, I've realized why this campaign bugs me so much: it's completely counter-intuitive.
Bear with me as I try to explain this as best as I can because it literally just came to me in the shower this morning. I appreciate what #BanBossy is trying to achieve. The website's downloadable PDF for girls gives tips like "speak up in class," "stop apologizing before you talk" and "challenge yourself" in order to combat the ideas that women and girls cannot or do not want to lead. The fact that the confidence gap starts so early is definitely cause for alarm, and challenging these attitudes is an issue that deserves attention.
But don't all these tips amount to asking girls to be more bossy?
The purpose of this campaign is essentially to make it okay for girls to be bossy while simultaneously asking for us to stop teaching girls that being bossy is bad. Which is fine. Great even. So then why #banbossy at all? It's quite the mixed message when you think about it.
We are asking girls to be more assertive, take on more leadership roles and speak out more. These are all things that bossy people do. The problem here isn't the word bossy, it's the way the word is applied in a gendered context. We WANT girls to be bossier. We WANT them to be assertive and to feel confident and empowered enough to assert their worth. So asking them to shy away from a word that precisely describes this behaviour is more than a little silly when you really examine the semantics involved.
Nicki Minaj's "Bossed Up" rant has been making the rounds as a counterpoint to this campaign, and with good reason. In the video Nicki explains quite well that the problem we have as a society isn't with bossy behaviours but rather with who is doing the "bossing up." When a man does it, we praise him. When a woman does it, we call her a bitch.
But to me, the solution isn't to stop calling people bossy. The solution is to work towards removing that negative and gendered connotation from the word. The solution is reclaiming it. In all the discussions around this campaign, the one idea that kept coming back to me was that bitches get shit done, as do bossy women. Which is why it amuses me so much that "bossy" is being touted as "the other b-word."
I think that the #BanBossy campaign has definitely touched on a key issue in the fight for feminism, but I also think they maybe didn't think this all the way through. We shouldn't be teaching girls to shrink away from a word like bossy. We should be teaching them to accept it, love it, and wear it as a badge of honour. If someone calls you bossy, it's because they see you as a threat to the status quo. They know you're here to shake things up. For many black women for example, "bossy is an anthem, not a pejorative" revealing yet another blind spot in Sandberg's approach. Asking us to ban a word that we wear with pride, is the equivalent of taking away yet another of the tools we use to navigate our different experience as women of colour.
#BanBossy would have been much better served by teaching girls to revel in the glory of their bossiness, and to use it to demand an equal place. So as much as I love you Beyoncé, I'm with bell hooks on this one.