Ban Bossy: When Good Liberals Go Bad

I understand that our culture still has residual messaging that favors boys in leadership roles. I don’t worry about this so much in surface cultural productions, which overcompensate to the point that every action movie must have the requisite 110-pound female who destroys linebacker males in hand-to-hand combat. But it’s still in the cultural unconscious, in the brainstem, in the fairy tales and playground games that persist for centuries below the radar of surface cultural changes.

Liberals do well to focus attention on cultural formations that should encourage girls and boys alike to leadership roles. The “Ban Bossy” campaign led by Sheryl Sandberg and others, however, seems the wrong way to go about it. My experience is that bossiness is evenly distributed, and equally undesirable, in both genders. An effort to provide more narrative and real-life models of female leadership (and I don’t mean the female action roles cited above) would be a liberal agenda that makes sense. Banning the word “bossy” in application to girls, less so. It merely suggests that since women are underrepresented in positions of power, we should hereby allow girls (and not boys) to be bossy with impunity.

The tack of granting special linguistic privileges to a protected class of people, albeit well received by those listeners already in the choir, is not going to win new friends for liberalism. It’s in a way similar (although I don’t claim the analogy holds in every respect) to the common liberal position that one race (black), due to historical conditions, should be allowed to use elements of the language, or make fashion choices, that are off limits to other races (e.g., white). I understand the historical reasons that certain language is particularly offensive coming from certain races, but you always lose more than you gain when you put regulatory language walls between people based on race or gender (not to mention it’s anathema to my anarchist tendencies, which push the margin of error toward freedom of expression rather than toward restricted expression). You’re basically throwing in the towel, saying that our shared humanness is trumped by our demographic differences and so we may as well lock in those differences by linguistic fiat. In the case of black and white, you are probably reifying racial differences between two groups whereas in reality race is a continuum, if not entirely a social construct. A better case could be made for two genders (or at least two primary sexes), but still, banning the adjective “bossy” as a descriptor for women will appear to many potential allies as promotion of a double standard based on gender, and smacks a little too much of the “separate but equal” strategy used by segregationists in the Civil Rights era.

Again, I’m not saying that the problem doesn’t exist. I think Sandberg rightly spotlights the dearth of women in leadership roles. From what I’ve heard of the Lean In movement she has championed, I support many of the same goals. I believe that our culture, at least deep down in its brainstem if not in its current best practices, does encourage leadership in boys more than in girls. But if we’re going to come at the formations of leadership through the access point of “bossiness,” I’d prefer that we teach both genders the difference between bossiness and real leadership. This might save the next generation – male and female alike – a lot of grief that my generation had to put up with from boorish faux leaders in hierarchical places.

14 thoughts on “Ban Bossy: When Good Liberals Go Bad

  1. As a corollary to what you have written you may be aware that the NFL is supposedly considering making use of the “N” word a penalty in football. This has prompted lots of discussions about who can use the word and who cannot. Those who are opposed and who are black say that blacks can use the word as a term of endearment but whites cannot use the word. There are also black commentators who say no-one should use the word. Last year a white player—Riley Cooper—was videotaped using the word at a concert, was ordered to seek counseling and had to apologize to the team. The Miami Dolphin fiasco included lots of use of the word by at least one white player (Richie Incognito) but among the offensive lineman (with the exception of Jonathan Martin who complained) the other black players thought his use was fine. Tony Gonzales (Hispanic player) who is retiring pointed out recently that the word is used constantly as a taunt during games (by black players against other black players) but so is honkie to white players.
    The distinction that is sought to be made—that it is a currently a term of endearment between blacks—makes no sense to me considering the history of the word and its current use in rap music (clearly not as a term of endearment). Still I don’t see how one can outlaw the word or any other word. Is Tom Sawyer banned as a result? What I think we see here in these efforts is how shallow we have become. Instead of teaching larger ideas—civility, respect, —we choose to try to regulate symptoms: “you can’t use that word.”


    • The conclusion you draw is well put. Per Twain, I think less of Tom Sawyer and more of Huck Finn, which has been subjected to bans for racist language. Huck Finn, possibly the greatest anti-racist novel ever written, makes its point by showing us what it’s like to be a good kid trapped in a bad (racist) language. I’ll take Twain over the censors any day as a way of pushing the cultural dialectic forward.


  2. Very well put. Banning the word “bossy” for one gender would be insidiously dangerous, putting anyone (male or female) being bullied by a female line manager at risk, because what could follow from such a ban? No one should be allowed to act with impunity, least of all those with power.


    • Thanks, yes, another case of “good intentions, bad strategy.” (Or, as a “Fan of Dickens” might say, “We’re trying to give Sissy Jupe a fair shake, but this strategy gives cover for every Mrs. Joe.”)


  3. Love it! But then I did have Great Expectations after reading your blogs. Going off at a tangent, I was wondering about the title you have chosen, “Shake my head hollow”? Is it a reference to something or is it your own phrase? I was curious because I do feel the need to shake off thoughts that wander into my head before starting to read what you have written; your blogs require concentration!


  4. Pingback: Next: Aquarian Anarchy | shakemyheadhollow

  5. Pingback: Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics | shakemyheadhollow

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