Can we talk about this #banbossy business for a second? Because it’s irking me.
Quick primer: Sheryl Sandberg, of “Lean In” fame, now has a (surprise!) slick, heavily marketed non-profit campaign aimed at combatting the confidence and “will to lead” gap among girls. A little boy asserts himself and he’s called a “leader” (a compliment). A little girl asserts herself and she’s called “bossy” (a criticism). Girls get many such subtle, yet powerful social messages that they shouldn’t assert themselves or aspire to leadership roles. As early as middle school, the confidence and leadership gender gap is markedly steep.
Applauding a young boy’s assertiveness while shaming a young girl’s is, of course, some sexist bullshit, so on the one hand, yes, Sheryl Sandberg! Yes! A thousand times yes! Let’s knock that off. Let’s not subconsciously discourage a generation of potential future leaders out of striving for leadership roles based solely on their genitalia.
I can’t hate on the overarching idea behind “banning bossy.”
That being said, let’s take a step back from this piece of glossy, uncomplicated pop culture feminism for a minute…
My first reaction as a parent – a feminist parent, mind you – was, “Dammit, there’s another commonplace word I’m supposed to ban from my vocabulary? Jesus. Fucking. Christ. This self censorship business is tricky, especially when I feel so tired and fragmented from all the #leaningin I’m busy pushing myself to do.”
Upon further consideration, I think my sources of irritation with #banbossy are threefold:
1. I don’t often ask for on-the-ground parenting advice, but when I do it’s not from billionaires who have an entire staff on hand to help them with child rearing.
2. There’s systematic bullying language used by society at large, and then there’s loving discipline doled out by a supportive parent. Actually, do you know what all this reminds me of? Those articles about how you’re supposed to limit the number of times you say “no” to your toddler because too many “no’s” inhibit their ability to develop self discipline. So you can say, “NO!” when your kid is about to toddle into traffic, but you should find a more positive way to say “no” when your kid is doing something less immediately life threatening, like shoveling handfuls of cat litter into their mouths. If it’s a cat litter munching situation you should say something like, “That’s dirty and could make you sick!” and then take your child to the park to redirect them.
On the one hand, yes. I get it. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” all day long isn’t super-constructive interaction, parks are awesome, and there’s nothing wrong with a little redirection.
On the other hand, *seriously?* It’s completely unrealistic to expect me to be a hybrid of a thesaurus and an earth mother when I’m a sleep deprived, overextended, tiny human supervisor. So, litter box kid? NO. Step away from the cat feces receptacle. Because JUST NO. And kid ordering their playmate around like they’re a scullery maid? Treat your friend with respect and stop bossing them around.
I trust that my overall behavior towards the children in my life will compensate for my lapses in language policing. Words are powerful, but they don’t exist in a vacuum.
3. We can tackle complex problems one small step at a time and we can multi-task, sure, but is *this* really what we’re choosing to make into a marketing behemoth? As I’ve said, I don’t find any of what “ban bossy” is saying to be wrongheaded or objectionable, yet it irks me. (Here’s the organization’s “tips for parents” PDF, if you’re interested.) I don’t find positive discipline to be problematic either. Or encouraging realistic portrayal of women in the media. Or limiting screen time in favor of constructive play. Or any of the other gazillion things the set of parents in the “Lean In” demographic are routinely encouraged to do to further benefit our already privileged offspring.
I try my best to do almost all of them. But none of them are Very Important Issues That Will Solve Everything; they’re drops of water in a very big bucket. So whenever any particular one of the droplets brings Beyonce on board and starts to hashtag things, I cringe and wonder if we’re losing the forest for the trees.
We live in a culture where poverty is systematically feminized and violence is systematically masculinized. Rape culture is a thing. Domestic violence is a thing. Lack of access to basic women’s health care is a thing. Many, many women are denied control of their own fertility, let alone access to the fiscal and social capital necessary to attend college. Being called bossy is not the biggest roadblock to their business leadership potential.
So let’s add “ban bossy” to the ever growing list of things we can and should do to be a better society. I’m down with that. But let’s not #banbossy. Let’s not make it a Generation Defining Social Movement. Surely part of leaning in is knowing how to prioritize.