More more more of a guy thing

What about “ban bossy”? I’m not sure it was a great idea to choose the word “ban” as part of a meme or hashtag or campaign. But the idea behind it? Well yes. I see more reason every day to think that the culture is just godawful for girls and women; that it’s just saturated in ragey misogyny, contempt, patronizing ideas about some kind of inborn need to be drowned in pink fluff for the first ten years, fear, loathing, disgust, hostility, and dismissal.

Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chávez talked about it in the WSJ a few days ago.

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. When a little boy takes charge in class or on the playground, nobody is surprised or offended. We expect him to lead. But when a little girl does the same, she is often criticized and disliked.

Because being assertive, confident and opinionated is more of a guy thing. Being talkative, argumentative, active, intellectually involved – more of a guy thing. So what does that mean? That all the opposites are more of a girl thing. Being passive, timid and empty-headed is more of a girl thing. Being silent, compliant, torpid, inert – more of a girl thing.

That is not a good way to raise girls to think they can do all the things.

Social scientists have long studied how language affects society, and they find that even subtle messages can have a big impact on girls’ goals and aspirations. Calling a girl “bossy” not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her. According to data collected by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, parents of seventh-graders place more importance on leadership for their sons than for their daughters. Other studies have determined that teachers interact with and call on boys more frequently and allow them to shout out answers more than girls.

It’s no surprise that by middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys are. Sixth- and seventh-grade girls rate being popular and well-liked as more important than being perceived as competent or independent, while boys are more likely to rate competence and independence as more important, according to a report by the American Association of University Women. A 2008 survey by the Girl Scouts of nearly 4,000 boys and girls found that girls between the ages of 8 and 17 avoid leadership roles for fear that they will be labeled “bossy” or disliked by their peers.

Because there are these rules, these expectations, these stereotypes. And they matter. How can we change them except by changing them? Why shouldn’t we try to change them?

I’m seeing people on Twitter saying things like “well if you tell me not to say it I’ll just say it more” and “some ridiculous people think words matter” and similarly insightful items. Their point? Just…don’t try to change that, because I’m fine with it. Just the usual pissy smart-ass ungenerous shit.



  1. Claire Ramsey says

    I agree that “ban” is not a good word for the action we want speakers to take. It’s far too simple and of course the response will be “nannynannynoo I’m going to say it even more.” I imagine for lots of people actually thinking about what bossy means and the gendered constrictions on its use (e.g. never applied to males) is simply too complicated. Goddamn it.
    The thing is that girls begin their school years a bit ahead of many boys in their communication abilities and their command of language – they are good at “using their words” to get things done, a highly praiseworthy set of behaviors at school. Boys catch up by about 4th grade. (A big oversimplification but stay with me). But girls have a tiny head start. So here is another facet of differential teacher attention to boys in elementary school at least. The behavior of girls – sit in your seat, raise your hand, pay attention to the teacher, be polite to others, regulate your own behavior – is the model of school behavior. Most girls (again an oversimplification) adapt to that model and “behave themselves” according to the unspoken rules of school. Most boys (yes again over simplifying) do not adapt as well. Part of it is developmental. Boys aren’t there yet, they are squirmy, they don’t have much facility at “using their words,” they can’t self-regulate very well yet. So they get a lot of teacher attention – it’s usually negative attention but no matter, it is attention. Later on it is pretty well documented that teachers pay more attention to boys, again some is negative attention. But our good girl adaptation to the rules of school, which we learn exactly as we learn that being bossy is unattractive, and that girls aren’t good at math, and that it’s better to be popular, is the beginning of being crushed so that it’s easy to mash the confidence out of most girls by the time they hit middle school. Speaking as a very crushed girl-spirit here. . .

  2. badgersdaughter says

    Another way to misuse “bossy”: when I was in Girl Scouts in the fourth-grade, the leader’s daughter was an abusive tyrant who played favorites, tortured the shy, told lies to get people in trouble so her “good” friends could get all the privileges, and openly sold patronage for money. Her mother thought the daughter showed admirable leadership skills and never lifted a finger in defense of those she mistreated. Whenever a parent complained, “Oh, Melinda is just a bit bossy to some of the other girls”, she’d say in a voice of indulgent pride.

  3. AsqJames says

    “Ban” certainly wasn’t a great word to use, but “ConsiderTheEffectWordsHaveAndTryNotToTreatBehaviourDifferentlyBasedOnGender” isn’t a very catchy hashtag!

    I have to admit I am guilty of having repeatedly described my daughter and her behaviour as “bossy”, certainly more often than I did her brothers. Now I want to say that’s because she really was more bossy than them, but is that really true or was I just assessing her against a different standard?

    It’s possible (well anything is isn’t it?) that she really was overly assertive by any neutral standard, that we were right to check such behaviour in the same way we were right to teach her basic manners and all the other things parents do to mould a human being. And she’s turning out pretty well I think (more her mother’s doing than mine if I’m honest), so I’m not going to lose much sleep over this…except…maybe I’m still basing my assessments on gendered stereotypes?

    I don’t want anyone to ban me from using that word, but I don’t think I’ll be saying it to her much from now on.

  4. karmacat says

    Just to give people a bit of hope. I am 46 now and had a good experience growing up. A lot of girls I went to school with were focused on going to college and grad school and were ambitious. I do remember one teacher who was a douche and he was leader of the debate club. When I was a little girl some boy told me girls can’t be doctors. My parents reassured me that girls can be doctors and so now I am a doctor.

  5. jenBPhillips says

    I don’t have a huge problem with “ban”–I always appreciate alliteration and I doubt it would have mattered to the shitty people if a gentler or more proactive word had been chosen. Maybe “From Bossy to Boss” or something would have gone down easier.

    Re: reclaiming, does it ever actually work? Has ‘bitch’, for example, been neutralized by reclaiming efforts? I don’t think so.

    To my ear, ‘Bossy’ sounds indistinguishable from ‘Bitch’ most of the time. They are both used describe nearly identical traits that are negative only when girls and women exhibit them. Fuck that. My girl deserves better words. We all do.

  6. John Morales says

    What about “ban bossy”? I’m not sure it was a great idea to choose the word “ban” as part of a meme or hashtag or campaign.

    It’s a particularly ironic juxtaposition, in this case.

  7. says

    As I saw asked elsewhere in a comment:

    What’s the difference between one “b word” and another? Both are used to attack and denigrate women for doing the same things as men, exhibiting the same forcefulness.

  8. hoary puccoon says


    “Reclaiming” words *would* be a good way of eliminating negative stereotypes– if it worked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. All it does is set the would-be reclaimer up for a lot of passive-aggressive sneak attacks. You just get a lot of, “Well, I meant you’re bossy in a *good* way, so you can’t complain when I use the term.” (Overandoverandover again.) The same immature jerks who go, “you say it’s wrong so I’m going to use the term EVEN MORE and you can’t stop me, nyaah nyaah nyaah,” will be the first ones to pile on if you try to reclaim it. Only, if you say you’re trying to reclaim it, it won’t be quite as obvious to everyone else that they’re just being immature jerks.

    The words that really have been reclaimed, like Yankee for an American or Quaker for a member of the Society of Friends, lost their sting only after there weren’t many people around who considered those bad things to be. If society reaches the point where assertive women and girls are widely admired, “bossy” will become a compliment. Until then, it’s better not to use it at all.

  9. johnthedrunkard says

    Anything that can kick back against the crushing weight of gender norms has some value, even if the attempt turns sour and needs to be dropped. This is ‘piecemeal social engineering’ at work.

    All the shopworn, evo-psych, ‘that’s just Human Nature,’ arguments collapse when we realize how early and pervasive the toxic gender stuff comes in. It is intellectually on par with declaring child marriage and FGM to be ‘god’s will.’ There is a whole culture-industry drawing Texas Bullseyes around current norms and reverse engineering ‘Just So Stories’ to rationalize them.

  10. says

    Claire, I think you meant formerly crushed girl-spirit…

    In some cases early crushing can create later tigers.

    It’s a gamble though. Better not to crush; too risky.

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