Feministing Chat: Ban Bossy?

Ban bossy graphic

Maya: Let’s discuss Lean In’s latest project to “ban bossy.” My first thought is that Beyonce is obviously the best part of the whole thing.

Jos: This clearly seems like a highly impactful campaign for a well-funded feminist org to invest in that will make concrete change in people’s lives. I know the word “bossy” is high up on my list of feminist priorities. Because my feminism is all about the optics of women in traditionally capitalist leadership roles.

In all seriousness, I heart the Girl Scouts and am all for encouraging young girls’ leadership, which is part of this campaign. But those are the kinds of tools and resources that can and have been produced by a small, low-resourced groups — some friends and I led workshops for local Girl Scouts as volunteers in college, and I know this is happening all over. I don’t see the value in a large scale, attractive, well-funded publicity campaign to “ban bossy” featuring Beyonce. Not least of all because it’s a laughable demand that, rather than bringing attention to women’s exclusion from leadership, distracts from these realities by making the issue semantic and easily dismissed.

Vero: Yeah, I obvs love Bey but I feel some type of way about this. I guess I subscribe more to the Kelis School of Reclaiming “Bossy” — that song is for real my JAM.


Also I honestly don’t feel like “banning” words like this ever really works, and I actually find it a lot more effective to find power in that word vs. a bland attempt to get rid of it. Just because nobody is calling little girls (or women) bossy doesn’t mean that the set of behaviors associated with that word become instantly valued in them.

Mychal: I was just about say, it’s made me sing Kelis all day, so I guess that’s a win.

Jos: I feel very connected to y’all right now imagining we’re all listening to Kelis at the same time wherever we’re working from. Not to start any intra-feminist beef, but I could get down with #BossyFeminism.

Vero: Bossy feminists everywhere are listening to Kelis right now. I wonder if the YouTube/Spotify stats show a spike in plays–I’m guessing YES. #BossyFeminism

Maya: Yeah, the “banning” framing is unfortunate–if only because, as Jos warned, it’s already inviting people to focus on the futility of actually banning words, instead of thinking about the power those labels have and just, ya know, being aware. Because I do appreciate the goal of starting a conversation about the give negative feedback we give to girls who show leadership qualities and how that particular double-standard has real consequences for how kids are socialized. But I agree, Vero, that I usually like the reclaiming tactic way more. It sounds way more fun, for one thing, to “own the living shit out of bossiness” and it honestly just makes more sense in this case, if the point is that “bossy” can be a good thing. Yes, Beyonce is a boss; she is also most definitely bossy.

On the other hand, the one thing I do appreciate about the “ban bossy” frame as opposed to a “reclaim bossy” frame is that it puts the onus on the culture to stop perpetuating these negative messages, and not on individual girls/women to overcome their socialization all on their own. I mean, let’s be real: if Lean In was just like “Girls, embrace your inner bossiness,” we’d fault them for not giving enough credit to the very real cultural forces that make that hard to do.

Juliana: I agree with that all that, Maya. I think that there can be room for us to be critical of Lean In, and the ways it oversimplifies something that is NOT that simple for most women, yet still find value in it. I was totally one of those little girls who was made to feel bad for being bossy, but I have had a support network along the way that eventually taught me to value leadership skills. Plenty of girls are left to fight social norms alone, so if we can push for a culture that nurtures strength and leadership for women, well I’m willing to work through the trial and error that might take, while being actively thoughtful and critical. All that being said, I agree, that banning bossy, though catchy, doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to actually change anything.

Vero: Also when I was discussing this on my social media, my girl Lenée mentioned that this campaign exists without analysis of how “bossiness” is perceived when women and girls of color are bossy, which I think is a really important point.

Maya: Agreed. Tressie McMillan Cottom had some good tweets to that point, noting that perhaps “ban bossy” feels to some “like a pretty one dimensional response to a multifaceted thing.”

Vero: Yeah, for some reason it feels like Sheryl Sandberg just personally really didn’t like being called bossy, so she leveraged her considerable resources/access to Beyoncé to do this. Though it’s really cool to see Bey embrace feminism and run with it. Now, if only we could get a meeting with her I bet we could get her talking about like, abolishing prisons or ending stigma against young mothers or restoring federal funding to abortion coverage or one million things other than banning “bossy.” Siiighhh.

Juliana: I need a gif of Beyonce saying “I’m not bossy, I am the boss” like, yesterday please.

Dahlia: I got ya.

Maya: Right, and I think the resources/power issue you bring up Vero is coloring my judgement here a lot. Which I think is legit. I had some of the same eye-rolling reaction to this being Lean In’s next big thing as Jos. But while “bossy” is not super high up on my list of feminist concerns, it’s definitely not unimportant. I’m 100% for women having a conversation about how these social pressures have affected them and parents thinking critically about the values they’re imparting. And I try to avoid criticism that just boils down to “prioritize this other problem that that I find more important.” Because we really need to do it all.

But, on the other hand, it feels like a bit of a waste for Lean In specifically to be taking up this project. I mean, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of a company would soon be the 2nd largest nation in the world if it were a country. The politics of “bossy,” stock photos–those are issues that seem amazingly unambitious considering the power–real, actual, mainstream power–Lean In could wield. I just wanna be like, “Sheryl, we got this one. Let the blogosphere cover “bossy” while you go spearhead the campaign to finally bring universal paid parental leave to the US or something.”

Jos: There’s also the larger question of whether the qualities associated with being “bossy” in a capitalist culture are really the ones we want to cultivate in an ideal world. (There’s been some nuanced discussion of this on Twitter too.) This is where my politics are at odds with corporate feminism – Lean In and Sheryl Sandberg don’t want to dismantle or really even disrupt a capitalist system that keeps most of us down. They just want (some) women (the one’s who “lean in” the most, presumably) to succeed in that system that will continue to perpetuate injustice against the majority. In my feminist utopia, there are no female billionaires because there are no billionaires.

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