As a mother of a daughter, i’ve been interested this week in the new campaign to ban the word ‘bossy’ in relation to girls. Led by Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice and Anna Maria Chávez, and backed by Beyonce and VB, it aims to shun this term and highlight the damage that such labels can have on girls/women in our society. Sandberg is spot on when she says: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’.”
Now, I certainly believe what she said to be true, but I wasn’t sure if there was a smidge of feminist hysteria here. Were they fighting about the wrong word? After all I call up BOTH Freddie, and Sasha, for being ‘bossy’, and have been known to use the word, especially if either one of them walks in clutching a book and shrieking “READ IT!” pre 7am. “Don’t be so bossy, please” is a well-growled phrase at that time in the morning. So certainly at this tender age, it is a term that can, and I believe, is, used correctly with both sexes.
But a quick glance at Google suggests that the term ‘bossy woman’ comes up with a ton more search results than ‘bossy man’, suggesting it IS a gender specific problem as time goes on.
So at what age does this change? When do we stop calling boys ‘bossy’? Boys certainly can, and do, carry on with ‘bossy’ traits in an, at times, unappealing way. So what do we call them instead? Assertive? Testosterone-fuelled? As Sandberg suggests, A Leader? There is obviously a crucial window, even a small one, whereby the transition from ‘bossy’ to positive character traits opens for boys, and subtlety closes for the female of the species.
But it’s not just the word ‘bossy’ that holds back women- the following all have negative connotations too. Can you ever think of a time when you were called, or heard another woman called ‘controlling’, ‘hysterical’, ’emotional’, ‘bubbly’? The first three words all imply that an assertive woman who has feelings is a nutjob not to be taken seriously, and to therefore be dismissive of her voice. Or that an outgoing, friendly, happy, ‘bubbly’ woman, is a bit dim with it. A man with the latter characteristics would be deemed a top bloke.
Young boys don’t escape from a bit of sexism either. ‘Don’t be sensitive’ and ‘Boys don’t cry’ (really?!) are both unhealthy phrases frequently banded about, and suggest that boys shouldn’t have/show emotions. Even worse is the horrible “don’t be a girl”, ingraining in boys of a young age that there is nothing worse than being a woman. Effectively holding back woman and the way they’re perceived in what is supposed to be, in global terms, a ‘forward-thinking’ society. I NEVER want Freddie to think that to be like his sister is a negative thing. Equally I want him to be able to shout how he feels emotionally, should he wish, from the rooftops.
So while this (worthwhile) campaign focuses on just “bossy”, I hope it will get people thinking about other language they use with their children too. As a parent of mixed-sex siblings, who are very close in age, it will be an interesting exercise to watch my language use when interacting with them. I am mindful of the fact that how they are treated today, in terms of expectations of their sex, will affect them profoundly as the adults of tomorrow.