Are We Banning the Wrong B Word?

If you haven’t already heard, Sheryl Sandberg and a few celebrities, well-known politicians (Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé and Jennifer Garner to name a few) and organizations (Girls Scouts) are campaigning to ban the word bossy from our vocabulary. Sandberg, author of the book Lean In, which I’ve blogged about a few times, believes that girls are mislabeled bossy when they assert themselves as leaders. Whereas, boys who demonstrate bossy characteristics are heralded for their assertiveness.  The ban bossy website states that “by middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys — a trend that continues into adulthood.”  Are Sandberg and her supporters right?  Should we ban the usage of the word bossy?

Before I began penning this post, I vacillated on my position to this question. Were girls growing up to become women who hesitate in asserting themselves for fear of reprisal — being called bossy?  Even if that were true, banning the word isn’t the solution. Rather, we need to learn the true definition of the word bossy and teach others to use it in context. Whether you use the term, bossy, pushy, bully, overly aggressive, abrasive, etc., it all means the same thing.  I don’t think Sandberg is prepared to go on a crusade to overhaul Webster’s Dictionary.

Bossy became a word in the late 1800s as a derivation of the word boss. Let’s face it, we all know some bossy bosses who are male and female.  A bossy person is someone who orders others around with very little empathy toward those on the receiving end.  Whereas, a leader is someone who has mastered the fine art of asking others to do things, using a non-forceful or menacing tone.  This, in its simplest terms, is the distinction between being a leader and being bossy.  So what our children really need to learn is this distinction; no one likes a bossy person, irrespective of their gender.  Bossy people may get farther than those with demure personalities. However, an individual with great leadership skills will always get the farthest.  As parents, it is important to not limit your daughter’s assertiveness as long as she is being kind.  Oftentimes that tone is mimicked by what she hears from her parents. Similarly, boys should be scolded, rather than praised, when their tone becomes despotic. Children will understand the subtlety more easily if it is demonstrated by their parents.  The intonation that parents use with one another could eradicate bossy behavior while keeping the word in our lexicon to remind us how not to behave.  In other words, the manner in which we communicate could eradicate bossy behavior in our kids.

There are other derogatory B words that relate to women that Sandberg should consider eliminating.  For instance, we have turned the word “b!tch” on its head. Lil Kim made us all want to be a bad b!tch and a queen b!tch; and Kelis embraced her bossy demeanor by telling us she’s the “b!tch we love to hate,” and Beyoncé, one of the spokeswomen for the Ban Bossy campaign, sings “bow down b!tches.”  Meanwhile the woman who is disliked is referred to as the crazy b!tch.  More important than not being bossy, women don’t want to come across as being b!tchy (in the negative sense of the word).  Unlike the word b!tch, bossy is a well-defined term that hasn’t been turned on its head nor is it vastly embraced.  Even if we teach children the true meaning of the word bossy, the little girl who would have been called bossy in middle school will still be mischaracterized as a b!tch (or b!tchy) either by herself or by her peers when she becomes older.  So the real campaign should be to ban the use of the word b!tch.  There is nothing pleasant about the definition of the word b!tch, yet we (myself included at times) have embraced it, using it as a term of endearment as well as a way of demeaning other women.  So while Sheryl Sandberg is worried about having her leadership style misconstrued as bossy, she’s probably being called a b!tch by people who love and hate her.  This seems more problematic to the struggle for gender equality because the insecurity will continue only masked in a different term.  Although I respect Sandberg’s premise that words are a powerful tool and we should eliminate words that can harm us, banning the word bossy isn’t the approach that women should take if we truly seek to empower ourselves.  I admire her efforts but she chose the wrong B word. 

Feminism: My Paradoxical Struggle

I had a recent conversation with a friend, which turned into me being forced into self-identifying as a walking contradiction. Let me first say that I was born during the end of the second-wave of feminism, and was raised during its third waive.  I bopped my head and twisted my neck as I sang U-N-I-T-Y along with Queen Latifah.  I constantly struggle to seamlessly adhere to society’s characteristics of me as a woman, and my feminist beliefs.  I’m not sure when being a feminist carried with it a negative connotation, but it only takes me saying a few female-empowering statements before I am given looks of fear and disappointment.  This is primarily because feminism has been redefined by extremists.

My definition of feminism is similar to Webster’s version—the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.  However, in some aspects of my life, I adhere to a less literal meaning of the term “equal”.  I guess this paradox makes me a quasi-feminist? My conversation with my friend left me with three puzzling questions: (1) what does it meant to be a quasi-feminist; (2) are my contradictions a bad thing; and (3) when it comes to classifying someone as a feminist, does it have to be all or nothing?

For the purpose of this piece, I  define quasi-feminist as someone who believes men and women should be treated equally in most, but not all, aspects of their lives.  As a quasi-feminist, I find it difficult at times to reconcile my feminist views with my desire to fit into society’s social norms of what my role should be as a woman and a future wife and mother.

Are my contradictions a bad thing as it relates to my role as a woman?  As feminism has evolved over decades, so have my sentiments as to what it is to be defined as a woman. I oftentimes say that chivalry is dead, and receive the response that feminism killed it.  But why can’t chivalry and feminism co-exist?  There are many things that are distinct about a man and a woman that should not be lost on feminism.  Yes, I know how to open a door for myself (and for a man), but it is the sweetest gesture when a gentleman does it for me.  Yes, I could learn to change a flat tire, but if a man offers to do it, even better!  I’m not the only person struggling with this notion.  There have been many recent discussions on whether Beyoncé should classify herself as a feminist as she prances around on stage and in videos in her underwear.

My inconsistencies become more prominent when the conversation changes to the role of men and women in the household.  I become a complete feminist with the expectation that my partner will equally share almost all of the household and child rearing duties.  Like feminism, the roles of men and women in relationships are evolving and the manner in which my partner and I redefine these roles should not cause the feminism gatekeepers to shun or exalt me.  For example, I prefer that my partner take out the garbage, mow the lawn and do more of the backbreaking chores around our home.  But in return, that does not mean he should expect me to cook and clean daily without any assistance.  I am on the fence about whether I would be comfortable with him being a stay-at-home-father even if it made economic sense for our household. Something about me being the sole breadwinner makes me uncomfortable.  And when he wakes up with our child at night he will not be awarded an extra badge of honor for doing so. I can see the jaws dropping as you read those seemingly selfish words.  Will I cook him dinner and wash his clothes?  Yes.  But not because society says it’s my duty as a woman, but because that week, I happen to have more free time than he did.  Would I take out the garbage or mow the lawn? If necessary.  The point is, in my household, no expectation will fall on either my partner or me as it relates to societal mores.  If our primary goal is to keep each other happy, then we will have to nix then it will take a team effort.

Finally, is it all or nothing when it comes to being a part of the feminist movement? Is it possible for a feminist to co-exist in a world where a man’s use of the term b*tch insults her, yet use it loosely amongst her girlfriends? Can she ask for chivalry to stay alive while being unwilling to define her role as a woman in a relationship? Can she ask for equality in her household yet prefer for her partner to take the garbage out and mow the lawn?  Yes she can.  The key to making any relationship work is communication and compromise.  Will I struggle at times in feeling like it is my duty as a mother to rock my child to sleep instead of her father while I’m still in the office? Will it pain me to conclude that my husband knows our children’s favorite foods better than I do?  Yes, because my innate nature and societal influences whisper to me that as a wife and a mother, it is my job and not his to know and do these things.  But despite those feelings, I will not concede to societal beliefs that I have fallen short as a wife and a mother if my partner takes the lead.

Does this make a walking contradiction?  Perhaps.  I am simply a woman with the paradoxical struggle of finding her place in the new wave of feminism—simultaneously trying to sing along to Beyonce’s “Cater 2 U” and “Run the World (Girls)”.

%d bloggers like this: