Modern language has carefully evolved over time, shaped directly by the predispositions and whims of our society. Our language identifies our biases, our hopes, and our sensibilities. Although we can use words to temper the true nature of our intentions, it is difficult if not impossible to remove the sheen of our culture from the words we speak, hear, and print.
We created yet another cultural ripple through the dictionary just a few weeks ago. We decided to ban the word "Bossy".
The "Ban Bossy" Campaign
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook recently launched a campaign to promote girls in leadership. This campaign is called "Ban #Bossy" and features many female celebrities, tech icons and powerful politicians, all advocating for us to remove the word "Bossy" from our vocabulary, especially when it comes to using it around younger girls. The campaign is created to fight against the stigma that girls can face when they begin to take on leadership roles, a stigma that can discourage them or hurt them. When girls hear the word "Bossy" they see it as a label, a role they are condemned to play if they indulge themselves or assert themselves again.
Even a label this subtle can have monumental effects on the future shape of a society of working women. If women are trigger shy about making their opinion known, they risk being seen as passive participants. If women try to coat their opinions in mellower vocabulary, they risk being perceived as meek. If women are afraid to act dominant and powerful, they risk being interpreted as rejecting the limelight. These seemingly trivial fears can be extremely pervasive, and are reflected in employee evaluations, salaries, sense of personal competency, opportunities, and promotions.
However, is the word "Bossy" to blame?
I don't argue that the word "Bossy" has a negative connotation. I myself was faced with the reality of this label when I was younger. I wanted to lead, and I was very quick to assert myself when I was younger, and when I tried, I was told I was being "rude" or "impolite". These words I ignored because clearly I couldn't be rude if a boy doing the same thing wasn't considered impolite. But "Bossy" was a word never used on the boys, so I didn't have anything to compare it to. "Bossy" was a girl's burden, and it meant that there was a blight upon your character as a woman. I wanted to help and I wanted to stand my ground, but I didn't want to be - hated being called - bossy.
But I do not believe that removing "Bossy" from the reality of young girls is the answer to this issue.
The Power of a Word
Words themselves have no power. They are just a garble of alphabets put in a particular order. What gives words power is the meaning we assign to them. And meaning is not a static thing, it is ever changing, constantly morphing, and extremely dynamic. We invent words according to our needs, our expression, and our culture and sometimes those words are gibberish even to those in our own generation.
The point I am making is this: if we remove the word "Bossy" from the vocabulary from our children, it doesn't mean that some other word with the same connotation and aim will not replace it. In fact, I am firmly convinced that it will.
Children can be mean, and in the complex and confusing time of growing up, forming an identity and making sense of the world, both positive and negative motions are aroused. If today, my daughter gets called out for being bossy in class, her daughter might be called out as something else entirely, but both would accomplish the same deed: our girls will be made to feel small, insulted, and worried.
Banning a the word "Bossy" is certainly good PR, and is bringing needed attention to the issue of children's sensitivity to labels and its long term effects. However, will it accomplish what it has set out to do, and remove or reduce the problem of labeling girls in school?
There will likely be some other way my daughter is made to feel small. There will likely be another kid who will come up with a new creative way to tell her that she is not worthy of leadership. Someone else will inadvertently cause her to doubt her ability to stand up for herself. Even if "Bossy" dsiappears from the planet.
What we need to do is teach our girls that labels, any labels, don't define who you are and should be fought and criticized. We should tell our daughters that there is no excuse to being made to feel small. We should teach them to be resilient, no matter the words used against them. We should tell them to be patient, be polite, and never cause harm or hurt to anyone else, boy or girl. We should teach them that it is important to be who you want to be, and not what someone else wants you to be.
We should show them that words are just words, and that they can change them, dismiss them, break them, and make them disappear.
What we need to do it teach our boys as well, that there is no plight to womanhood. We should teach them to admire girls, look up to them, and realize that there is no difference in their potential and their own. We should teach them to be good leaders, and good followers of both women and men. We should teach them honor and respect, and that there is no pride nor insult to being beaten at something by a girl. We need to teach them that there is something to be learned from people different from us, and that no one has the right to use those differences in hurtful ways.
We don't need to teach our children what to speak by banning "Bossy".
We need to teach our children what to see.